(This column of mine was originally published in 2005 by Absolutewrite.com)
I believe that most authors have had a pivotal moment in their lives when it became clear there was no other choice than to be a writer.
My moment came in seventh grade, September 1969. Renate Allen. She didn’t spell it “Renee,” or “René,” it was “Renate” with a silent t. I believe it stood for “tall.” More correctly, it meant I was short, like most other seventh grade boys.
I knew her from Sunday school and our mothers were good friends. I both loved and hated Sundays—I never knew what to say or what to do with my hands—but I got to sit across the room from her and try to pretend I wasn’t gawking.
Sixth grade had not been a problem, but over the summer something happened. Her cooties fell off. She became tall and beautiful, somehow bypassing the normal seventh-grade awkwardness. Suddenly the lights came on. Suddenly everything was crystal clear. Suddenly I was a complete bonehead.
I went to great lengths to make her aware of me—I figured out her whole schedule by taking alternate routes between every one of my classes until I was able to pass her in the halls five or six times per day. If she said “hi,” I was floating on air for the whole day, filled with hope. If she didn’t notice me, I just knew she hated my guts, and was probably telling her friends what a total dork I was.
If she happened to be talking to a guy, I was, of course, consumed with jealous rage. I made a voodoo doll collection representing every guy in the school who was taller than me and/or had muscles and/or a personality.
Renate Allen filled my life with purpose. What that purpose was, I was not sure, except that more than anything I wanted to be tall enough to kiss her. But what could I do? I was not a jock; I was a nerdy crew-cut third cornet player who wore white socks with green pinstriped high-water flares.
I decided that the pen was mightier than the mouth. I would write her…a NOTE. Notes could be any length, actually—some would argue that they actually were “letters” if they exceeded more than one page—but the true definition of “note” was in the way you folded it. Girls usually folded notes into rectangles with wrap-around points that tucked into each other. That was way too sissy—not to mention complex—for a guy. We preferred the “triangular paper football” fold, which was less conspicuous because all of us carried paper footballs around for those tabletop matches during homeroom and lunch. No one would have guessed that it contained the summation of my desires, except that it was about an inch and a half thicker than the ordinary football. I mentally rehearsed my delivery—pull it from left jacket pocket, flash smug James Bond smile, slide it into her notebook as I passed. She would read it and be swept off of her feet by my brilliant, witty prose.
It had to be a masterpiece—this was, after all, Renate Allen, sans cooties, the most beautiful creature in the seventh grade. It couldn’t be ordinary, couldn’t be “hi, I like you.” It had to have the same impact on her that her mere existence had had on me. But it couldn’t be too mushy—it had to be cool, it had to be funny, it had to be the greatest thing she’d ever read in her life. I made up jokes, I wrote silly poems, and I even drew cartoons. She had to know that underneath that crew cut was a mind for which she could and should love me, and maybe she would be patient enough for my body to catch up in a few years.
In the corner by my bed I kept a tall plastic kitchen wastebasket. By April it was overflowing with wadded-up pieces of notebook paper. Every day I carried a new note, painstakingly scrawled in a marathon of creativity the night before, and every day I chickened out. I’d come home disgusted, read the note I’d written, decide it was stupid, crumple it up one page at a time (I averaged about nine pages per note), throw it in the corner, and start over, racking my brain for the magic words that would make her love me.
I chickened out one hundred sixty-three times that year. The pile in the corner grew until my bed disappeared and Mom quarantined my room.
Renate never received a single note from me (although I did finally get to kiss her at a spin-the-bottle party in ninth grade), but through those nightly exercises I eventually became a writer, which above all other endeavors requires the persistence of Don Quixote.
Twenty-something years later, I met Lesli. Due to logistical difficulties, a large part of our courtship was conducted via the U.S. Postal Service. Suddenly I was an infatuated seventh-grader again, curled up every night on the floor next to my bed with a spiral notebook and colored pens. Whatever came into my head at the moment seemed like a wonderful thing to share with her, and the more ridiculous, the better. I found myself recycling much of the drivel I had trashed in my youth. She fell for it and married me.