First and Lasts


First grade.  In Language Arts, we each write a story on newspaper-slippery paper. We’re practicing our nascent cursive letters and our ability to write complete sentences. I have no memory of what my story is about, but I remember that, like everyone else’s, it was bound up into a tiny hardback book. A year later, after my family has moved from New York to Missouri, I bring the book in for show and tell, and our teacher asks me to recite the story aloud. My first public reading.


Third grade, maybe fourth. I’m bored, and the only thing on my desk is a blank piece of paper and my pencil. I slap my hand down on the page and follow the outline of my palm and fingers, as if I’m making one of those slapdash Thanksgiving turkeys. Instead of a gobbling bit of poultry, I turn the hand into a gargantuan head, adding a stick-figure body. I give it eyes and a mouth—I’ve never been, and never will be, any good at drawing noses—and arm it with a baseball glove. I name him Timmy Hand.  For the next year or two, I create more members of the Hand community: his parents, sister, friends. They each have their own hobbies and stories.  My first serialized tale.


The hallway between the kindergarten classroom and the gym has been transformed into Scholastic book fair. The books are set out on claptrap tiers, some of them balanced on cardboard risers atop folding tables, others in wire racks that spin about. I’m drawn to a series of books, five of them, each with a different teenager on the cover slowly transforming into an animal: a lizard, a cat, hawk, dolphin, gorilla.  I don’t register that there’s an order here, so I randomly buy books three and four and devour them in two days. Only then do I realize I haven’t started at the beginning. From ages eleven to sixteen I read every book in the Animorphs series: fifty-four regular series novels, four Megamorphs, four Chronicles books about side characters and villains. My first reading obsession.


 In 1999, my father buys a new computer for his home office. The old one, armed with Windows ’93, takes about ten minutes to boot up. It sits on my desk and is equipped with Microsoft Word.  I spend too many hours banging away at an epic fantasy novel I will never share with anyone and probably couldn’t extract from that old hunk of motherboards anyway, the file too old for a newer machine to handle. The story is sprawling, and there are some things that thirty-five-year-old me will credit fourteen-year-old me for coming up with, clever plot twists and unique magical powers locations and descriptions I still remember. My first go at a novel.


Until high school, I want to be an eye doctor. Writing bubbles on the side but doesn’t occupy the center of my mind.  But as a freshman, my English teacher, Mr. Kelly, gives me my first A+ on a paper, and the first one awarded to anyone in the class, he announces. He doesn’t say my name, but everyone knows. When I’m a junior, he tells my parents to buy me a copy of Writer’s Market. 

I read, all the time, about writers who can remember the moment when they knew what they wanted to do.  They describe revelation, transformation, solidification. I don’t have that singularity, but I do have these five things, moments that took my firsts and made sure that they weren’t lasts.