1971: Creative Writing

Sometimes my mind works like one of those video slot machines, with several rows and columns of images that go spinning when I push a button or pull an arm. Bang, bang, bang, certain identical images line up and I realize I’m looking at a specific season in a specific year.

When I was putting together the home movie video for my post about Diamondqueen and the ’70s, at one point my spinning mind focused on spring of 1971. There was a lot of really bad stuff going on–family problems, Grandma Martha almost died from an attack of appendicitis, I spent a few days in the hospital because of severe stomach pains which ultimately were chalked up to “nerves,” I was meditating a lot on the notion of whether it was worthwhile to keep living (something I’d forgotten until I perused my journal while writing this post).

There were many joys as well, especially with Diamondqueen one year old and a total riot. Two things that stand out are “Jesus Christ, Superstar” (which I’ll talk about later in another post) and creative writing class.

I’d first gotten the notion of becoming a writer in 1966 after reading Harriet the Spy. I wonder how many female writers of my generation were similarly inspired? I started a journal that fall (which became an ongoing series of notebooks over the decades) and wrote reams of typical adolescent dredge before I attempted anything formal or structured, not counting essays and the like for schoolwork. By 1969 I was thinking about stories and novels and wrote some tentative, unwieldy free verse memory pieces. I think I even entered a poem in the Writer’s Digest annual contest, a horrid, cliched rhymed piece copying the mannerisms of the 18th and 19th century poetry I saw in my English books.

I had not yet taken a class, though; and junior year at Marian High School provided my first opportunity to concentrate on writing. We changed courses quarterly that year, at least in English, and my creative writing class was scheduled for the final quarter of the 1970-71 scholastic year. Anticipation had kept me going through some rocky times.

In the tiny six-ring black notebook I used as a journal, my April 2 entry states, “Creative Writing also starts Monday…And this course is one I have been waiting to take for the past 2-3/4 years. I hope it doesn’t depress me.”

On April 6 I wrote, “Creative Writing is a challenge, if nothing else. He says an ‘honest effort’–okay, I will make an honest effort on the things that I don’t know too much about or I am not too interested in. But on the things I am really interested in I’m going to do an outstanding job!”

“He” was Mr. Steve Magocsi, our instructor. I’d never had a class with him before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. And I was intimidated. But immediately Mr. Magocsi’s class opened up writing for me in exciting new ways. I experienced my first writing exercises, such as choosing blindly from a stack of magazine illustrations and letting that picture inspire a timed writing. (I think the term “timed writing” wasn’t common until Natalie Goldberg and Writing Down the Bones, but basically that’s what we were doing.) We guided each other blindfolded around the school patio grounds and wrote about it. We each brought in music for the class to listen to and wrote about what we heard. Mr. Magocsi led us around the neighborhood to observe unusual settings and describe them.

We saw cutting-edge movies about creativity, including the Academy Award-winning “Why Man Creates.” (If you’ve never seen it, the video is linked above. If you can’t spare the entire 24+ minutes of viewing time, at least watch the opening sequence called “The Edifice.”) The images and outlooks presented in that film stayed with me over the years.

We also received assignments to write in different genres, so I attempted things I never would have at that point in my development. These included not only poetry but a children’s story book and a science fiction short story.

I tackled every assignment with more than an “honest effort.” My current project was on my mind constantly. On April 9 I wrote, “I sure hope that this idea for Creative Writing works out. It could mean a great deal to me and my future.”

We also were asked to review and criticize our fellow students’ writing. Mr. Magocsi must have said something in class about some critiques being too harsh, and of course I took it personally, assuming he’d identified me as one of the guilty ones. The following complete April 21 journal passage foreshadows lifelong struggles with overwork and trying to do too much (and resisting the urge to be too critical, both about others’ writing and my own):

I’ve just got a knack for it is all. He said to criticize everything honestly–so when you do, he makes it sound like you’re the most cynical person to come his way since Don Rickles. Upon reflection I must admit maybe I did overdue it a little on two parts, but even those should be justified according to his idea of criticism. If somebody tells me to criticize, I criticize! Of course they always get mad. I know I always do.

I think one of my problems is that I’m all pooped out–too much writing lately. Since we don’t have regular classes tomorrow, I think I will work on my [embroidered] wall hanging instead. Last night wore me out, and I’m not sure I am even going to use the idea. Maybe I will try to finish the short story at that, then work on the wall hanging a little and leave the science fiction story to rest until this weekend. Or maybe I will write the picture essay. I am going to have to be handing something in pretty soon. But I could rest a little easier if I could get that short story done. I think things like this go wrong more easy when I get overworked.

On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t even know I criticized it.

 By April 26, though, things were looking up: “My ego and my faith in myself received a big boost today. In Creative Writing we had to write a bunch of feelings down like what would be contained in poetry; then Mr. Magocsi read them anonymously. When he came to mine he seemed stunned–after he read it he used words like ‘fantastic,’ and ‘excellent,’ etc. That is just what I need. Also, he seemed surprised at the volume of my work when I handed in my short story and two poems. I hope he likes my ideas for the [children’s] booklet.”

Mr. Magocsi gave glowing approval to every project I submitted; then he topped everything off at year’s end by telling me the school wanted me to be the editor of a new school paper. I was dumbstruck and elated at the same time, and I fed off that feeling of accomplishment all summer. The paper wound up lasting only two issues and wasn’t very good, but that’s another story for another blog post. What mattered was my confidence in my writing had been undeniably verified, and I’ll always be grateful to Mr. Magocsi for what he taught me and what he encouraged me to do.

And some of my work in that first creative writing class bore fruit. I submitted the science fiction story to the short story category of the Writer’s Digest annual writing competition. When I received a letter in August telling me I’d won 76th place out of 100, my joy knew no bounds. (Back then, Writer’s Digest ranked all 100 winners in every category and gave prizes right through 100th place. My prize was the choice of three different books on writing from the Writer’s Digest catalog.)

The lines inspired by the exercise with the magazine illustration (it showed a man and a woman gazing in opposite directions above a shadowed house) became a poem, which I revised and submitted to Seven Hills Review, a literary journal for and by local high school students sponsored by The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. “Inward Compass” became my first published poem when it appeared in the Autumn 1971 issue. I still cringe when I read the pretentious, overloaded opening lines, but I continue to like the ending:

Yet it matters little how emotion touches,
             whether in head-on collisions
or backward groping;
the significance lies in the movement of hands:
              the clenching of fists and the clasping of fingers.

 

Not bad for a seventeen-year-old who hadn’t dared believe she could write–until a teacher and a class showed her what she could do.

 

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