Thursday, October 14, 2004


In Which I Miss My Friends...

Like a lot of writers, I was a very early reader (for me, it was a Spider-Man comic that my Uncle Frank bought for me and my brother. I still read comics today -- hey, they're magazines too!). And while my family influenced me as a reader, it was my friends who always made me believe I was a good writer.

The very first piece of writing I can remember putting any effort into was a 2nd grade exercise, in which our teacher asked us to write one page about Easter (it was a Catholic school, obviously). It was one of the very earliest pieces of real homework I remember getting: we had to take it home, work on it, bring it back the next day.

While my classmates scribbled monosyllablic sentences about Easter and what it means, I felt into gear in my head. I had always known about the Easter bunny, of course, and because of my recent schooling, I was only just beginning to understand the religious implications of the holiday. What I couldn't figure out was, how did this anthropomorphic rabbit (carrying a basket of eggs, no less) fit in which the Death and Resurrection of Jesus?

Thinking back, there was only one instance I knew for sure where Jesus interacted with animals at all, and that was in the stable at Christmas (religious scholars, resist the urge to correct me, if there's some Parable of the Goat or something that I'm unaware of. I was 6 or 7, okay?), so I started there. I wrote and wrote and wrote. My teacher even let me stay in the room during recess. She saw what I was doing and just left me alone. I took the story home and worked on it til bed time, then took my pen light and pad under the covers and kept writing.

By first bell the next morning, I had it: "The Secret Origin of The Easter Bunny" (comic book readers know words like "secret origin" from the age of 4, okay?). It was six densely printed pages and in it I had reconciled the two stories, at least as well as a 6 year old can, but 30 years have not dimmed my admiration for the effort I made. Hey, I never said I was modest.

See, here was the story: the Easter Bunny's mom couldn't have kids, but when she hopped into the stable and had a look at Baby Jesus, a miracle happened and she suddenly found herself having a baby. But not a normal bunny: instead, she laid a colored egg, and out of it hatched the Easter Bunny. According to legend, all the animals in the stable gained the power of speech on Christmas, but because the EB was conceived in the stable, he had the power of speech for life.

Eventually, he grew up and started hiding colored eggs around people's houses in memory of his own miraculous birth, and in memory of Jesus, of course, who made him the man, er, bunny, he is today.

I didn't write it like I just did above, but you get the gist.

We all had to read our stories, which was usually a quick thing -- 15 kids each reading a page -- so when we got to my six-page opus, there was a built-in pause and when I finished reading, and I got a reaction I didn't expect: my classmates were all abuzz, asking where I heard that story, did I really make it up, I DIDN'T, did I, murmuring and nodding as though I had explained a lot of things for them. They didn't burst into spontaneous applause or anything, but our teacher did hold a little contest to vote for best story. Mine was the unanimous choice, so I won a massive chocolate egg. My first writing award.

Not too much later, my parents gave me a book of blank pages for Christmas, and I started writing stories regularly. I was probably in 5th or 6th grade by then, and I carried the book with me everywhere, always working on short mystery or adventure stories in which I and my friends starred. When I finished a new story, the book would get passed around the class and my friends would take turns reading the stories, mostly to see what crazy thing I had them do (we were always doing grown-up stuff, like driving cars or landing airplanes, so it was very exciting for them. Even then, I was pandering to the reader.

By freshman year of high school, I was a practicing journalist, not just for the school paper, but also for the local papers. I also got about as serious as I think I'll ever get about fiction, writing a series of unpublished books that, although still starring all my friends and are quite unreadable today, was nevertheless an honest effort that made a distinct impression on those around me. Again, it was my friends who made enough of a fuss about my work that, by the time it was time to start thinking about college and the proverbial Rest of My Life, there was really now choice for me. I was going to write.

By some accident of lax school regs in the states where I grew up, I ended up starting school VERY early, and never stayed back a year or two to make up the difference. As a result, I spent most of my college career as a teenager, a pretty arrogant one about my writing, I have to say. So it was lucky that I should go to the college I did, which was absolutely packed with self-centered, TRULY arrogant, opinionated, willful, stubborn, snooty, crazy people, some of whom became my very best friends, and did me the great service of putting me squarely in my place, often on an hourly basis. I gave up fiction pretty much for good (except for a brief and wonderful foray writing a comic strip, which remains for me--even nearly two decades on--one of the lasting lights of my days) and finally began to get serious about writing magazine-style journalism, thanks in large part to the notice of my own personal example of the One Great Teacher, whose wisdom and guidance in making me the man I am today is second only to that provided by my parents. And my friends.

After school, I got really single-minded about my ambition in magazines (despite a complete failure to succeed at same for the first year and change out of school), so single-minded that the lines of contact I had always taken great care to maintain with my friends--from college, high school and even grammar school--began slowly, silently to slip from my grasp. The addition of a wife and family these past 10 years only furthered the drift, and it's the one great regret of my life.

So today's lesson is, the making of friends is really a continuous process, even with friends you made years ago, and you need to keep them, especially if you're a remotely creative person. Real creativity is a function of perspective and experience and your friends are unmatched resources in this regard, because they have a way of helping you tap that perspective and experience in ways that will positively astound you, if you let it. We think that because we choose these people to be in our lives (unlike our family), that somehow that choice remains in effect and doesn't need to be renewed. Well, it ain't true. Family sticks, and every once in a great while you make a friend or two who become so much a part of your life that they transcend the bounds of friendship and BECOME your family. But as for the rest of your friends, you better work to keep em. For my part, I forgot an important thing about my friends. They were my first readers and I wouldn't be anywhere on any masthead without them.

This month, as the world turns toward closure and the endings of things, I've made a conscious decision towards spring and the rebirth of some things in my life I thought were done gone. Remaking friends I thought I'd lost (and discovering in the process, at least in one case so far, that there are some friends you never lose; they're just better than you and can wait until you finally get your head out of your ass) is just part of it, but a big part. So I suppose, even 30 years later, I'm still in an Easter frame of mind, trying like crazy to reconcile my notions of Resurrection and Redemption with the hope that I can still recover the great and colorful people who I so enjoyed finding, like Easter eggs, hidden throughout my life.

Okay, that's enough out of me. I have some calls to make, some letters to write. See you next week, after you've called some friends too.

From Somewhere On the Masthead

How well timed my reading of this feels with Easter only days away. I'd always wondered what the Easter bunny had to do with Easter. Thanks to you, now I know. :)
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