In high school, I was on the school newspaper. I was a writer, and later an editor, of The Camel Tracks at Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming. We later changed the name to The Humphrey Herald, and as far as I know, its still called that to this day. I was a hard hitting journalist – publishing such awe inspiring pieces as Valentine’s Day: The Darker Meaning and The Great Simpson Debate Continues. Oh, 1995, I miss you in a lot of weird ways.
I’ve always loved writing fiction. In ninth grade, I spent an entire year in math class writing a romance novel in a black and white composition book. It was pretty slutty for a ninth grade girl afraid of boys. It was full of supernatural elements, damsel-in-distress-like situations, an impossibly sexy overbearing man and the one woman that could change him. Every month, I would go to the book store and buy those monthly Harlequin serial romances. I would devour them. It really sort of messed me up on a very basic fundamental level. My husband would agree.
I wrote a story in my tenth grade English class called ‘Cancer of the Soul’. I was very proud of this piece – so proud that I pushed for it to be published in my journalism class, despite the fact that it was:
- completely inappropriate.
Here is the basic breakdown of the story: Narrator, told in the first person, is sexually abused by her father. Narrator is terrified, believes nothing could be worse than the nightly visits of her deviant father. Until that one fateful night when her father bypasses her door and moves down the hall. To her little sister’s bedroom. EPIC REVEAL! So heartbreaking! And poignant!
Good stuff, right? A little dark for a tenth grade English class, maybe. A little dark for a school newspaper. But, I was good. I was ready. It was published. We spent the requisite time developing the layouts of the pages on our old Macintosh desktops in Journalism class – white space was a real problem back then. We sent it off to the printers. It came back and was distributed to the student body. Not one single person ever said anything to me about my story. In hindsight, I see that we neglected to tell the reader that it was fiction. I certainly hope that was obvious. My father probably hoped that, as well.
I brought an issue home and gave it to my parents, completely oblivious to how it might make them feel. My father is a quiet Midwestern Guy – spends a lot of time in his garage. I remember him calling me out to that garage to talk after he read my story. I didn’t recognize that he was confused. I didn’t see that he could be hurt.
Let me clarify: my father is wonderful. He was a little scary when I was younger – in that way that all great fathers are. He was good and kind and always thought the best of us. Even when we didn’t deserve it. So, for him to read this story must have come as a real shock. Also, I don’t have a little sister. (My mom does have a brand new puppy that she treats like a child, but that is the closest I’ve gotten.)
As he worked at his bench in the garage, he asked me about my story.
“Where did you come up with that?” he asked me, never once looking up at me.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “What do you think?”
“Things are ok with you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I responded. Why wasn’t he telling me how great he thought my story was?
“Ok, go help your Mom with dishes.”
It happens in quiet ways – writers start to pull from real life experiences and oftentimes, our loved ones are the victims. And, sometimes, fiction is just fiction. It gets messy though. People get hurt. But, as a writer, no one in your life is safe. I didn’t learn that until I was older, when I could look back and see what my writing could do to my loved ones. Its a lesson I still violate to this day. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I will probably never stop doing it. I don’t know how else to do this.
People read fiction and they want to read into it – if I write a story about a woman killing her husband, I’m dissatisfied with my marriage. If I write a story about an alcoholic, I have a drinking problem. Not true. Look for the smaller moments. The quiet moments. That’s where I am. You might be there, too.
- How innapropriate was the comic beneath my story!? I had nothing to do with that one!
- The picture of Bailey, my mother’s favored daughter-dog, was taken by my mother: Nancy J. Downing
Wow! This is amazing. Love the camel photo. It reminds me of the story I wrote for the journal of my private Manhattan all-girl’s school. It was about how some people have money, and some don’t (me), and how that makes things hard. The headline they gave it was, “Money Causes Inequality” with a photograph of a dollar bill and some change. Uuugh high school!
My OJ Simpson story was basically just chastising the press for giving a murderer so much attention while neglecting to report on the new surgeon general, Henry Foster and the nuclear tests and arms control. I was 15. But, even then, my journalistic integrity was pretty high.
“In hindsight, I see that we neglected to tell the reader that it was fiction.” Oh, man, high school awesomeness. Dying.
Well, like I’ve said, my journalistic integrity was super high. The execution left a little to be desired.