Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Perils of Vocabulary

While speaking at the Dogwood Writing Conference yesterday, I recalled the first story I ever wrote (or the first I finished; I’m sure there were several earlier attempts).

I was in sixth grade, and when I was given the assignment, I set pencil to paper and wrote a story about a bullied sixth-grader who responded by developing destructive telekinetic powers (and this was in the 1960s, long before Stephen King’s Carrie).

The lined notebook paper with my story has long been lost, but I remember that in
his rage and fear, the boy destroyed the school, killing the staff and the students. Had a kid written that story today he would probably be hauled off to a shrink and put on a Homeland Security watch list.

Instead, my teacher accused me of plagiarizing the story or of having someone else write it for me.

She said the writing was too advanced for my age, and she was particularly troubled by my use of the word “visage” to describe the bullied boy’s face.

To say I was devastated would be a massive understatement. Like a lot of kids, I craved the approval of the authority figures in my life, especially my parents and teachers. Now I had not only failed to please my teacher, she was accusing me of

Even now, I remember my frustration and, yes, my fear. I imagined being punished or even kicked out of school. Even worse, the incident could follow me around forever as part of that eternal threat from the forces of education, my Permanent Record.

I tried to explain to her that I had come across “visage” dozens of time in books and, especially, the Marvel comics written by Stan Lee. She wasn’t buying it.

Here comes the part that separates true stories from fiction: I don’t remember how it ended.

I think my parents got involved. If so, they would have told my teacher about my voracious reading habit. And my father would have certainly lost his temper. It was something he did very well.

Ultimately, life went on and my permanent record was unscathed. I got an early lesson in handling rejection. Sometimes I think it would be cool if Dad was still around to yell at publishers for me.

Thanks to the Dogwood Writing Conference for the invitation to speak. The audience asked some great questions and bought several of my books. Being around
like-minded people for a little while is always a good experience.

The location was the lodge at Greenbo Lake State Resort Park, a gorgeous setting. Here’s a pic of the lodge, likely taken a few years ago:

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