|Dennis P. Callahan|
My First Story
My first complete story came to me around the age of four. I don’t recall the title of the story but clearly recall its plot: a black mustang saves a herd of purple mustangs from an evil cowboy bent on turning them into dog food. Today, the obsessive perfectionist of a writer in me wonders: Why wasn’t the hero of the story distinctly purple, rather than the commonplace herd? I suspect the answer to this perplexing question had much more to do with my love of the color at the time than it did some specific craft choice. At that early age I did not yet understand the study of craft. Instead, I wrote in that happily enviable state of young writers, oblivious to the dangers of it, believing instead that what I was doing was inherently good.
“Horses can’t be purple,” said my older brother Philip, peering over my shoulder.
Undeterred, I worked on. Today, I like to think that even at such a young age I inherently understood that I was, after all, writing fiction and could make my horses whatever color I chose. I also like to believe I was building a defense against criticism, intuiting that this would be a valuable skill for a young writer to cultivate.
When I was finished, I dictated while my older sister Jennifer filled in captions for each page. I recall us sitting on the floor of the family room, Jennifer cooing encouragingly and uncharacteristically. Within a few short years she’d begin locking me out of her bedroom, but on that day she was the closest a four-year-old could come to an arts patron. In fact, when she was finished writing, she held up the book and suggested that it be published.
“Yes,” she said, agreeing with herself. “I think we should send this off to some publishing houses immediately.” She turned around. “Don’t you think, Mom?”
Our mother was seated on the couch behind us, reading Good Housekeeping. My passion for books comes directly from this woman who to this day still reads voraciously. But imagining a four-year-old, really any four-year-old, as a serious writer worthy of public attention and accolades is difficult for even the most imaginative of mothers, not to mention my own.
“May-be,” my mother said in that vague, noncommittal tone she has mastered over the years, the one that suggests an open door but is really nothing more than an aversion from having to give her honest answer. Or maybe she understood the hardships of serious writing, the inconceivable odds of my ever getting published, no matter how good my writing might happen to be, and was just being a mother, trying to protect me.
“We can talk about it later,” she said, “once your father gets home.”
But at the dinner table that night, my story wasn’t mentioned. Even Jennifer seemed to have forgotten her role in its potential rise, talking instead about a summer camp she’d hoped my parents would consider. Forlorn, I mixed my peas with my mashed potatoes and shoveled the concoction into my mouth, trying to assuage my disappointment.
At four my mind was oddly like a goldfish’s: I quickly forgot about the publication fantasies my sister had planted, though I continued to write. There would be other stories—a mystery about a lost teddy bear, a family picnic to Lake Erie; more horse stories (all writers have our preoccupations). I wrote consistently, daily, for hours at a time, with a concentration and focus that today my adult self wishes I could muster. I filled notebooks and piled them up like widgets, evidence of my hard labor.
Recently, when cleaning out their house, my parents sent me some of those notebooks. I had told them to just throw the damn things away, to not waste the postage, but when I received the package of two cloth-bound journals, I felt overwhelming relief they had not obeyed my orders. Flipping through those pages, I was reminded of something I heard in a radio interview with a well-known poet. When asked why she chose writing, the poet responded: “I didn’t choose it so much as it chose me.”
I cannot think of better proof that writing chose me than my first story, and all the many stories that followed. On that day, writing about the black mustang and his purple herd, I followed an impulse that dogged me throughout my adolescent and teen years, on into adulthood, an impulse that dogs me still. Now, whenever I feel self-doubt about my vocation (which, as a writer, happens most days), I remind myself of this time when even at an early age I was compelled to put the stories in my head mysteriously to paper. It is this thought that provides comfort in my darkest moments, that encourages me to get up and write the next morning, and the next, and the next.