While serious fiction writing began for me later in life, my love of words has roots in early childhood. My father, who was a young adult during the Great Depression, was both frugal and articulate. Conversations with him were liberally sprinkled with four dollar words, for none of which he ever paid more than a buck ninety eight. His epistles (a word he would definitely have favored) to his children and grandchildren have become treasured remembrances of him and his distinctive way of communicating.
A couple of exceptionally talented creative writing teachers in high school made writing fun, Dr. Campbell in the 10th grade and Miss (not Ms!) Busse in the 11th. (We were never privy to our teachers’ given names, even in yearbooks.) Early in the year, Dr. Campbell asked us to rewrite a fairy tale in the style of a favorite author. Here is what I wrote:
As it may have been told by Robert Penn Warren
After my fight with Eve Stevens, I went fishing. I drove home and got my permit and gathered my tackle and tossed my rod and reel into the trunk and sped off. For fishing is where you go when you’ve assassinated the President or stolen a candy bar or fought with Eve Stevens. You go to fish for bass or trout or pickerel. It’s where you go to catch a perch. It’s where you go to catch a boot or a cold. And sometimes, you pull up the line, and there, all shriveled up in the hot sun, tiny and pathetic, curled into a little ball, lies a truth. You don’t see it at first. But then, there it is with the point of the glittering stainless steel hook sticking out the top. I went fishing.
I caught a truth.
For it was at the Cambridge Reservoir that I first learned the truth about Pinocchio. You can be just sitting there fishing. You’re waiting for a tug on the line and suddenly you look up and there above you is a tree. I looked up and saw a tree. And you think, “That’s an oak tree. Pinocchio was once an oak tree. Maybe that’s Pinocchio.” It’s a warm, secure feeling to be alone and suddenly realize that you have company and that company is a tree and that tree is like a person and it is not a person. And then the tree is Pinocchio, not the flesh and blood Pinocchio, not even Pinocchio the living puppet, but the essence of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet, the real Pinocchio. The living Pinocchios were not the real Pinocchios. They were something else. They were but corruptions of the Carven Switch. The second Pinocchio, the wooden boy, the living puppet, was not the same as the oaken figure. It told a lie and its nose grew. But the nose grew from the lie and the lie from Pinocchio. And each piece of nose was but the incarnation of a lie and became an outgrowth of the Big Switch. The lie became the nose and the nose took root in the body and circulated its poisons throughout the fibers and the puppet became the lie and was no longer Pinocchio, no longer just a Carven Switch.
Take a puppet and give it life and make it into a living lie. Then give it flesh and a heart and a pair of kidneys and you have even a bigger lie. Give it life so the skin sweats and the eyes weep and the gall bladder secretes its resinous fluids. You know that all you have is still just a lie incarnate. The Kindly Old Toymaker thought he’d created himself a son. You want to tell him that this is not a son, but only a lie incarnate evolved from a Big Switch. Then you stop. You, too, are just flesh and blood. No more real, less real perhaps, than Pinocchio, for he was once a Big Switch and you, from the day of your birth, are a lie incarnate. You can no longer point to anything and say, “That is a lie.”
So you look up at the tree and now you know the truth about Pinocchio and about the Kindly Old Toymaker and about the Big Switch. And you feel secure in the knowledge. And you look around and see all those people who are really just lies incarnate. And you pity them because they don’t know about Pinocchio.
I knew. I had gone fishing.