There’s no fairy tale here. I grew up in rural Ohio, a middle child in a big family, with more older brothers than I probably needed—if you know what I mean (no offense). We lived so far out in the middle of nowhere that we used to stand outside on foggy days and hope we couldn’t see the neighbors’ houses. If the fog was thin enough to see them, we knew the school bus would be on time. Otherwise, we’d get an extra hour or two before we had to walk down the big gravel hill of our driveway—look, this is Ohio, any hill feels big —and wait for the bus to screech down the highway.
We didn’t have a proper address. We had a rural route number. When people asked me, “John, where do you live?” I would say, “Rural Route 2, box 325.” “What the heck does that mean?” they’d say. But I didn’t know. Kids don’t know anything unless you ask them the right kinds of questions.
Like most rural kids whose families aren’t rich, I had no idea how poor we were. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to put five cans of water in the frozen orange juice. I didn’t realize quarter-size cookies were on the small side. And I didn’t know you were supposed to get more than one chocolate chip. So I was happy. I didn’t even mind the hand-me-down clothes. I especially liked it when the bell-bottom jeans finally reached me, a couple of years too late for fashion.
What I really liked back then was running around in the big open fields and climbing the maple tree in our front yard. My parents were renting this big house in the middle of nowhere. It used to be a farmhouse. In one of the barns, we found a combine or something—I wasn’t a farmer, nobody told me what it was called. There was a tiny little barn-house we liked, until my dad told us to stop playing in the chicken coop.
When we first moved there, we shared the pasture with cows—not our own. The farmer who owned all that land but didn’t live there had some cows. I remember the big salt lick and the big “cow patties” as we called them. Soft and steaming when they were fresh, and hard as an old cake when they weren’t. It’s amazing what you’ll play with when you’re a child and your parents aren’t watching. Dried cow patties, for instance, can be thrown like Frisbees.
I’m old enough, or my parents were, that we were allowed to run around outside unattended. There was plenty of land. But we also went to the neighbors once or twice to ride their horses. I remember falling off: one minute you’re way up there, and the next you’re on the ground thinking, “What just happened?” We went on epic bike rides, sometimes carrying our fishing tackle. Or we walked the highway picking up aluminum cans to cash in at the recycle station.
I used to run through the field and pretend I was an “Indian” (this was long before I learned not to use that word). I was very fast, in my own mind, and the heads of the grass stalks would rush past my hands and whip at me while I ran. I somehow managed to watch a couple of old westerns—I don’t know how, we hardly ever owned a television, and when we did we only had an hour a day with it. It was all in black-and-white, too. But that set my mind a-fire.
On rainy days and winters, I would read what I could find. We sometimes went to the library, but not as often as I would have liked. So I raided bookshelves in the big, ambling house. In third or fourth grade I tackled the first couple chapters of a Latin primer. But I was undisciplined and quit. Once I found the biography of Mary Todd Lincoln and, for some reason, read the whole thing. Though a boy, I somehow survived the “lessons for girls.” Better was the library fare, things like Dr. Seuss, or Charles M. Schultz. I dipped into Readers Digest, too. We had little around to entice the imagination, except each other, nature, and the Bible.
Around the time I went to junior high, we moved to a city. I literally had to put my cowboy boots away and grow up. Our house was so close to one neighbor they could have heard me learning to play trumpet. On the other side was an alley, gravel instead of pavement. We would walk to school now, no bus, about a mile both ways–but not uphill, this was Ohio.
The good news was the library. Here I discovered Jack London, Robinson Crusoe (unabridged, mind you), The Mouse and the Motorcycle.
Junior high was strange, because I was this hybrid of athlete and geek. A sixth-grade teacher noticed I was fast on my feet and encouraged me to run long distance. I joined the cross-country team (an older brother was already doing this, so I was, as usual, not an original). I did well, unlike in basketball, where I lacked aggression. I ran track, experienced two-a-days, the humiliation of lifting weights, public showering, the “letter jacket,” the pins for “lettering.” But meanwhile I was acing schoolwork, and my closest non-running friends had no athletic inclinations. This was around the time the nerds avenged themselves on film. We were milder. But I wasn’t exactly a nerd. Tall, slight, lean, with well-toned runner legs and that all-American corn-fed white-boy face. Splitting my time between running and playing in the band, when playing in the band was definitely not cool, my chances with the fair young ladies in my school were poor. The odds held.
We weren’t as poor as dirt, but my five-outfit wardrobe wasn’t earning me a lot of points. That I wrote science-fiction stories during study hall didn’t help either. Not that anybody, but just one girl as nerdy as myself, ever noticed. (I wonder what happened to her. I hardly noticed her.) She saw me in study hall writing away (think pen and notebook paper) and asked , “How do you find so much to write?” I thought it was a strange question. She explained: “I write a few words and then I can’t think of anything.” I just shrugged. I was thinking, The story. You write the story. How can you write the story if you only just write a few words? First this happens, then that. You write it down as it goes. But I just shrugged. I didn’t understand her question, either.
Such was my life into and through high school. Looking back, I had some of the goods of a more popular kid, maybe. I picked up guitar and learned some decent blues and rock riffs, I had that square-faced American boy look that might have earned me some romantic attention, I did all right (just above mediocre) in track and cross country, and I worked insanely late hours at a pizza shop trying to earn money. I even got a car—a 1978 Toyota, orange.
I asked a couple of girls out. It didn’t go well. In the quiet, lonely bedroom—my brothers were all off at college by now—I wrote song lyrics, and managed to fill two notebooks with a novel. I knew only as much about literature as I’d picked up from English classes in school and my own reading. I decided—God knows why—to try a first-person, present-tense, experimental stream-of-consciousness approach. Well, heck, you’re seventeen or eighteen. You want to live dangerously. Somehow I managed to finish the novella and simultaneously realize that it was a disaster. To this day, no one has ever read that—not even me.
For college I left Ohio—shook the dust, as the saying goes—ready for something bigger and better. I wound up in Rochester, New York, where I lost and found my way a hundred times. I liked the hills, I remember that. Around that area there are hills, at least from an Ohio-centric point of view. I enjoyed some of that long-delayed popularity and respect from peers, kissed a girl and all that (you know, yadayada, heartbreak), explored jazz and classical guitar, wrote some small fiction in my spare time, tinkered with poetry. Not much of great note there, except finding my sweetheart and marrying her—I was young, a mere 22, in the year of our wedding.
From there, off to the North Shore nigh on Boston, Massachusetts, a place with some hills but, more importantly, ocean. And history. A place not altogether suited to an Ohio boy from nowhere. Deep down, I’m still that boy, you see, even when there’s no maple tree to climb or field to run through, whooping.
And to make a long story a little shorter, I spent a lot of time reading good fiction, reading widely for enjoyment, learning what I like, and also writing. I tried my hand at another “literary” novel—better, but still atrocious. I wrote some sci-fi/fantasy novellas. I worked on existential themes, tried to find my voice, tried to learn my craft, wrote a full-length young adult fantasy, started seeking publication—it was too early. And because it was too early, only one story went through to publication (rightly, I would say). And because I couldn’t get most of my stuff published, I lost heart and stopped writing, when I hadn’t ever been writing to get published in the beginning. It had just been something I did in study halls and in my spare hours in my bedroom, and when an idea got hold of me.
So now I’m back at the craft, a little older and hopefully a bit wiser. I’ve learned what I like to read, and that’s what I write. I still like Dr. Suess, and he reputedly didn’t care in the least whether people loved or hated his work. I think that’s a great way to tackle your art.