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Once a Fictionist . . .


It's occurred to me that, when I was young and inclined to write, I usually wrote fiction. Literature textbooks collected short stories and poetry and college creative writing courses were usually devoted to fiction and poetry—drama was the province of the theater department, except for Shakespeare. Nonfiction writing was not considered a literary field then, though we studied essayists in composition classes; even decades later, when I taught creative nonfiction to college students, the courses were categorized as composition and rhetoric. Because fiction and poetry were the main literary genres and drama regarded as the third genre, when Mike Steinberg and I published the first edition of our creative nonfiction anthology, we called it The Fourth Genre. He started the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction soon after. Most of my literary writing has been in this fourth genre, including posts on this blog.


In terms of "creative writing" I wrote fiction for a very long time, beginning with superhero and horse paragraphs in childhood. I eventually composed a short novel in my gap years after high school and crafted short stories for writing classes throughout undergraduate college. I continued writing fiction as a high school teacher, spent a short time focused on it in graduate school, and picked it up again at the start of my college teaching career, until the need to seem scholarly for employment purposes ended that habit. Some manuscripts I accumulated eventually succumbed to basement flooding and mold, but I still have file boxes filled with partial or complete drafts of short stories, as well as the various creative and academic and journalistic and pedagogical writing I've also done. Somewhere, too, are copies of the one literary journal that published my fiction. Lately I've been leafing through those file boxes, curious to see what still survives after all these years.


Narrative may be the most common way we communicate. We're exposed to storytelling early in life, beginning as toddlers with picture books and the stories read to us exposed us to adventure and excitement and fun and silliness. It's always story—fiction or narrative—never drama or essay—and story is part of the poetry and songs we hear; Sesame Street's characters usually perform their interactions. Often our games are make-believe stories, imitating what we've read or heard. I remember the kids in my neighborhood all dressing up like cowboys and costumed heroes of comic books and tv shows and movie serials to track down invisible imaginary villains. We didn't have to write our stories down because we had the liberty to act them out.


Eventually, my friends became less interested in that kind of play and I became more absorbed in books and films and radio shows and television series. My favorite films were The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and, most influential on me later, Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean. Both were about outsiders and I identified with both, most especially with Jim Stark in Rebel. I read Evan Hunter's novel The Blackboard Jungle and his short story collection The Jungle Kids. I spent a lot of time alone, often skipping school to read two or three books a day. I thought a lot about the cliques I would never be a part of and the relationships I wished I could be involved in. Eventually I wrote a 97-page novel, David Gable, alluding circumspectly to my sexual growth and romantic imagination. It had a teenaged hero confused by his connections to two school mates, one a good girl, one a troubled girl. I'd read many books in which heroes were challenged by such conflicting desires but usually ended up with a good girl. I doubt whether such confusions were deeply explored in my teenage fiction.


In college I started to take myself more seriously as a writer. I'm uncertain about how much of my youthful fiction I still have—I wrote a satirical column and short stories as an undergraduate and wrote short fiction as a high school teacher, as an MFA candidate (briefly) at the University of Iowa, and (also briefly) as a college professor. It may be possible to find some of that writing stored somewhere in all those boxes in our garage. I wonder what my manuscripts can tell me about who I thought I was when I did that writing, what was on my mind that I felt the need to share, what I thought the world would be like for someone like me. "Once a writer of fiction . . .": his manuscripts likely suggest something about his identity when he composed them; they may reveal something about his outlook on life then and, perhaps, something about who he is now.



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