My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Cinthia Ritchie, author of the new novel Dolls Behaving Badly. An Alaska resident, she is a former journalist with the Anchorage Daily News and a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work can be found at New York Times Magazine, Sport Literate, Water-Stone Review, Under the Sun, Memoir, damselfly press, Slow Trains, 42opus, Evening Street Review and more than 45 other literary magazines. Click here to visit her website. Don't forget to enter this week's Friday Freebie contest for your chance to win a copy of Dolls Behaving Badly (along with A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash).
My First Writing Assignment
I always wanted to be a writer, always knew I was a writer from the moment I opened a book at age four and letters veered and jumped and magically arranged themselves into words.
However, I grew up in a working class farming community where few went to college and even fewer bothered to study, myself included. There were no literary or intellectual communities at that time, no appreciation of the arts, no book clubs or poetry circles. There wasn’t time, not when crops had to be harvested, cows milked, factory jobs worked. It was assumed that I would graduate from high school, work as a secretary and marry. It was what a girl did back in those days.
Then I walked inside Mr. Blakeslee’s sophomore English class, and my life changed.
Clair Blakeslee was a tall bearded man who wore rumpled shirts and walked through the hallways reading books, so that he was forever bumping into walls and drinking fountains. Students teased him, but he didn’t seem to mind. He didn’t seem to hear. He walked around so immersed in books that nothing else existed.
Once I leaned down and tried to read the title of his book as he passed, but the type was immense and heavy and printed with old, dull type. The book was old, too, the binding ripped, the pages yellow and thin. I had no idea why anyone would choose to read such a shabby-looking text when there were new books, shiny and smelling of sharp, dark ink, in the upstairs library.
I didn’t expect much from this class. I didn’t expect much from life, really. I was moody and sixteen years old. I didn’t fit in. I wrote poetry in cheap notebooks and stole a copy of The Bell Jar from the library and dreamed of lying dead in a rowboat covered with flowers, like a poem I had read the year before in my older sister’s college textbook.
So there I was, slumped at my desk, depressed and wearing too much blue eye shadow, because I thought blue was the color of rebels (I hadn’t yet heard of the beat poets and their black turtlenecks and black auras and black humor or, if I had heard, I hadn’t cared).
Suddenly, Mr. Blakeslee’s voice rang out: “You will write!”
My head snapped and I stared at him, at this man who seemed so old, though I realize now that he was only in his early thirties. I stared as if at a revelation, an apparition, like those people who see the Virgin Mary in Pop Tarts.
I don’t remember much of what I wrote for Mr. Blakeslee’s class--probably it was depressing and had to do with birds dying and flower petals moist (moist!) with dew--but I do remember the moment that changed my life, the moment when I knew, without a doubt, that I would grow up to become a writer.
It was spring and the air smelled of freshly-cut grass and everyone was restless. Mr. Blakeslee talked on and on about a science fiction story we had supposedly read. He talked excitedly, waving his arms and jumping up and down. Behind me, someone yawned, and I doodled poems in the margin of my notebook.
And then Mr. Blakeslee spit, so caught up in his story discussion that he forgot to swallow.
A wad of saliva flew across the room and landed on the top of my head.
There was a stunned silence, but Mr. Blakeslee didn’t miss a beat.
“Now you will write,” he yelled, as if an order. Then he turned back to his book and continued.
I sat there, his spit slowly dripping down my hair, and I didn’t feel disgusted or gross or even slighted. I felt blessed, as if this odd man, the only person I knew who dared become excited over books, had singled me out, given me a gift, not of saliva or spit but of courage, the tenacity to be yourself, to follow your dreams.
Later that week I submitted my first poem. It was about what horses talked of when locked in the barn at night, and it was appallingly bad, though I didn’t realize this at the time. I carefully printed it, in ink (which smeared over my wrist), signed my name and mailed it off to Reader’s Digest.
A rejection letter immediately came back, so I sent it off to Ladies Home Journal and McCalls.
I wish I still had those rejection letters. They were kind, in their way; it was no doubt evident that I was a child. And sometimes, when I submit poems and essays to magazines, I still think of Mr. Blakeslee waving his arms and spitting, and maybe it sounds crazy but I feel a connection to him, a kinship, the way we often feel connected to those rare individuals we meet who seemingly love books more than they may love themselves.