When I was a little kid, if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said, " a flying teddy bear." That was just because people told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I took them at their word. When I found out later they really didn't mean I could be WHATEVER I wanted to be, I toned my expectations down a little and said "a writer." I don't know who or what put this idea into my head, for all the good it's done me I probably should have stuck with the goal of being a flying teddy bear. Once you're out of school you don't get to make up for part of your missing work with a stunning essay. You can't pay your rent in Iambic Pentameter.
Speaking of which, writing poetry was my first real draw to the life of writing. As soon as I could competently write a paragraph, I was writing poetry. These were no Shakespearean Sonnets, mind you, they were simple little verses from my young mind, but they made me feel electric to write them and read them back to myself. Literally electric, with the tiny hairs on my neck standing up and goosebumps on my arms. To me they did feel like Shakespearean Sonnets and when my teachers asked me if I might have "borrowed" them from a book or an adult writer, I was overjoyed. never offended. Now in all fairness I will have to include one of these poems that I wrote in the first grade for you to see what I mean. Please keep in mind that I was six years old.
The roses on the garden wall
Just sitting there so proud
I'll pick one for my mother
And I'll pick one for my dad
I'll pick one for sister
And one for brother too
I'll pick some pretty ones,
Just made for me and you.
So you can see why I called myself a lesser prodigy. It's not mind blowing but its pretty good for such a young child. By age nine I was tackling such subjects as death and fuel prices in my poetry. (Not in the same poem, usually.) If you had asked me what I wanted to be around this time, I probably would have said, "a poet." And someone like my dad probably would have said "but poets are poor." So I probably would have told someone like my Grandmother, (his mother) and she would have told me something like, "just say you want to be a writer if someone asks." That works until you're about eighteen but then people come back with "well, what have you written?" Which really means, what have you had published, or what have you been paid to write? Being published now in the days of the internet is much easier than it used to be when work was submitted by agent or over the transom, when you had to make a hard copy of every submission and then wait long weeks for the whole thing to come back.
I was first paid for one of my poems at the hardboiled age of eight. It was in the form of a contest through the bank I used in Little Rock, Arkansas, "The Squirrel's Club." Members of the Squirrel's Club could submit a second stanza to a poem about hiding their acorns away and the prizes were fifteen, ten, five, two and one dollars. I submitted my stanza and forgot about it so I was totally overjoyed a month later when I received notice that I had won the first prize of ten dollars. That was a huge amount for me, a second grader in the early seventies. I was all about the money. I just couldn't stop the little niggling resentment of whoever had won the grand prize of fifteen dollars. No one under the age of ten could have written a better stanza than mine. Nobody. But I let that go and held on to the secret as I returned to school, feeling that bubbling electricity inside me. I was determined not to tell anyone so they couldn't ruin it. Finally I saw Windy Burch, I girl I didn't like too much, going by the tables in the cafeteria. I wouldn't care if she got jealous of my incoming fortune.
"Guess what, Wendy," I said, "I won ten dollars in the Squirrel's Club poetry contest, first prize."
"So what," she replied, "I won the grand prize. I'm getting fifteen bucks."
My stomach dropped to the ground. Wendy Burch did not have the soul of a poet. She did not have the pinky fingernail of a poet. I suddenly remembered her big sister in sixth grade did though. Her big sister in sixth grade had just won a poetry competition.
"Tell me your stanza." I suddenly demanded. "Recite your stanza for me."
"I can't remember it right now," Wendy Burch said, irritated, "I'm going to get my lunch."
It was all the proof I needed. Any poet could recite a stanza of such recent poetry. I was defrauded of grand prize and five dollars. And I already knew it. I slunk back down to my seat in the cafeteria. Who knew that being a poet was such a brutal , bloodthirsty business.