My mother telephoned one day in 2001, said she had been clearing her attic and found a large box of mine filled with items from my teenager years, and asked if I wanted it. Curious about its contents, I said I did and drove to her house. Inside the old cardboard box that once contained a grocery store order of Cheerios were photographs, high school report cards, my baseball spikes and fielder’s glove, a few baseball cards of the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, newspapers with articles about Pittsburgh’s World Series victory over Baltimore, several pencil drawings and black and white gouache and tempera paintings from four years of high school art classes, some 45 rpm records, and a 3-ring binder with a discolored blue cover and bulging with paperwork that I assumed was an accumulation of classroom notes left over from my school days.
Clouded memories came attached to each item I took from the box, and some of the crude portrait paintings, I recalled, were of fictional people from stories I wrote. The paperwork inside my old binder contained many of those stories. The grammar and structure was childishly composed, of course, but the words time-travelled me into a past I had forgotten.
At 13 I fell in love with creating make-believe worlds. And being a creative eighth grader who didn’t know the rules of storytelling meant my stories were unconventional. I rarely wrote endings; not because endings are hard to write, but because my stories were episodes spent with my characters, in sequence from day to day, month to month, and year to year. I grew with my characters and they grew with me through good and bad times and everything between. My fictional world, which I named Ridgewood, existed on the same plane as my own world. If it was September 1, 1970, 5:00 PM where I lived, so it was at Ridgewood. Time—and oftentimes the weather, too—existed equally in both worlds.
When I wrote myself into the stories and interacted with the characters I created, every story turned into an enchanted trip to a mystical place, and it made story writing the next best thing to reading, which I did voraciously.
I had teachers along the way who tried guiding me toward conventional storytelling. For the most part, I resisted. But I did employ rules that kept my stories interesting. I wasn’t afraid to throw obstacles at my characters to challenge them and see how well they dealt with situations. I always tried to give me a reason to root for them, which I believe was the nucleus of my friendship with my characters. And friendship was always the heart of every story I wrote, even when my characters’ opinions clashed with mine.
When I graduated high school in 1975, I put away my stories and concentrated on a career as a visual artist. But when I opened that notebook in 2001 and read again those once-upon-a-time tales, I knew I wanted to share them. So began a slow process of transferring those one thousand pages to my personal computer and then editing them for improvement.
Follow me now to the 1970s, Ridgewood and the friends I made there.