I’ve been writing since I was a high school kid. All the way through elementary school I was the kid who peered out the window and daydreamed about everything but the lesson plan of the day, unless it was reading or writing, which kept me in trouble with the nuns who taught me. I had conversations with myself and friends only I knew. When all the other kids were holed up in their rooms at night reading comic books, I was plowing through a set of junior encyclopedias my mama bought for us. Before I was in high school, I was in the major leagues, reading the upper level and adult encyclopedias. I sometimes wrote poetry. Okay, really bad poetry, but poetry nevertheless. My crowning achievement in poetry came one day when the nun who taught us in fourth grade, a sweet-natured one whose name I can’t recall, told us to write a poem about spring. When the other kids were writing the usual “Spring has sprung and fall has fell,” stuff, I used my overly fertile imagination and embarked on a stream of consciousness opus. When the sweet-natured nun read it, she said I couldn’t have possibly made it up myself and basically accused me of plagiarism. Wounded, I stopped writing until I reached high school.
I was in my junior year at Waycross High School in southeast Georgia when I took an English literature class taught by a tall, blonde, drop dead beautiful teacher named Elaine Thomas. I don’t think she’d been out of college more than a couple of years when she came to our school to teach. Like most of the other boys in her class, I was gobsmacked by her elegant beauty and poise, but, most importantly, the passion for teaching she bought to classroom. She was also a huge Peanuts fan and almost always had a poster of Snoopy on the wall. I was shy and introverted growing up so I tried to avoid getting called upon for lesson questions. But Miss Thomas, as we all called her, lit a fire in me with regard to literature. When I went to the school to pick my classes just before the commencement of my senior year, I saw that Miss Thomas was offering a creative writing class. I think I cut into the line to sign up for it.
Once again, still with no crack in my armor of shyness, I sat in the back of the room and tried to be invisible. The first day was just the usual introductory stuff – the lesson plan, reading lists, etc. But the second day changed my life forever. When everyone had taken their seats and the usual hubbub had died down, Miss Thomas told us to take out a sheet of notebook paper and write a one page story about anything we wanted to write about. I really wish I could recall now what mine was but it got Miss Thomas’ attention. The following day when she returned our graded papers, mine had an big underlined A on it. When the class dismissal bell rang, Miss Thomas told me to remain in the room for a few minutes. I’d been chewing gum during class that day and thought I’d been discovered and was about to be privately reprimanded. But Miss Thomas came to my desk and asked me to stand up. When I did, she lit up in a smile and her pretty blue eyes practically danced. “Joe,” she said, “you have a gift. Use it. Don’t ever let it go.” And I didn’t. I’ve been writing ever since, even spending several years during college and after college as a newspaper reporter where I honed my chops. Nearly fifteen years ago, the local newspaper editor here asked me to start writing a guest column about anything of my choosing. My column, Cup of Joe, ran for ten years. It was folksy and full of stories, some real, most of them embellished with figments of my still overactive imagination. I developed a large and enthusiastic following and it wasn’t long before readers started urging me to push the envelope and write a novel or collection of my stories. I opted for the novel.
I wrote my first one in a manic, burn the midnight oil blaze, period of six months about ten years ago. Friends read it and liked it but I didn’t. It just didn’t turn me on. I stuck it in a box in my office where it sits until this day. Five years ago, on a punishingly hot afternoon, I was laying up a stubborn patch of fiberglass on an antique sailboat my wife and I had acquired, when a song by recording artist Mark Knopfler wrote called In The Sky popped up on my play list. It’s about an old man who builds his own sailboat and sails all the over the world, bravely facing storms and raging seas but sticking to it for the beauty of the other days and places. When the song was over, I thought to myself, wow, what a great story that would make. And here we are, that story, eventually called A Mariner’s Tale, will be published in October, fulfilling a lifelong dream to become an author, write a novel and see it published. I had a pretty miserable childhood that left me with some nasty scars. I wear my heart on my sleeve. My literary idol, Pat Conroy, whom, sadly, I never met, taught me that it was okay to spill those emotions, feelings and memories onto the page in the form of prose. And that’s what I’ve done. A cynical and tragically afflicted old sailor building his own boat crosses paths with a tragically afflicted teenage boy and becomes his mentor as the two of them figure out how to be happy again. And so, here we are.
Writing a novel isn’t all that hard if you possess the tools to do it, the imagination to conjure up a story and the passion and discipline to see it through. Every time I sat down at my desk to write, I recalled Miss Thomas’ words to a shy teenage boy in the fall of 1971. “You have a gift. Use it. Don’t ever let it go.” Several years ago, I reconnected with Miss Thomas, who’s now Mrs. Stephens. I thanked her profusely for what she did for me. She demurred and said she didn’t do it, I did. But you woke the muse, I told her. You woke the muse. I drove up to Waycross, where she teaches creative writing at the community college, a few years ago and took her and her husband out to dinner. We keep in touch regularly. She’s invited me to come up and talk to her classes when this Covid-19 mess is over. I feel honored beyond words. I’ve taken to calling her Sensei, the word with which someone in the martial arts honors their teacher. And she is. My Sensei of words. She woke the muse that set me on the path to writing a novel. My dream. I can’t wait to hold it in my hands. And my advice to all young, or old, aspiring authors out there comes down to just a few words: Do it. Don’t wait. It isn’t really all that hard. If you have a good story to tell, the rest will come easy.
Thank you, Sensei. You get the first signed copy.