The best friends I ever had were the imaginary ones, the make-believe ones. Those with strange names – Phileas Fogg, Sherlock Holmes. The beastly ones – Cthulhu and every manner of Wild Thing. For me, as a child, imagination superseded the actual, and thus words, as the vessel of make-believe, acquired a holy radiance.
The defining moment arrived at ten, with the writing of my debut novel, a sprawling adventure yarn, massive in scope to my young mind, titled STRANDED. Handwritten on wide-ruled notebook paper, my grandmother’s cutting board a makeshift lap desk, the finished manuscript totaled to nearly a hundred pages, then later, when hammered on my mom’s typewriter, a pithy but riveting twenty-two. The plot, freely cribbed from a half-dozen favorite works, centered on a pair of treasure hunters and their search for a fabled African diamond deposit. It was KING SOLOMON’S MINE, plus a dash of THE HARDY BOYS and a pinch THE ODD COUPLE.
I completed a first printing just in time for Christmas. The last page featured a handy cutout order form for use in reserving an advance copy of – what else? – STRANDED 2. I promptly distributed copies to family and friends. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Flavin, read hers aloud to the entire class, then afterward enshrined it on the classroom bookshelf, where generations of fourth-graders might find it nearby for easy perusal.
Then I braced myself for a deluge of requests for the follow-up installment. And though I waited, none trickled in. My mom, brother, and grandmother apparently found the whole endeavor cute, precocious even, but not enough so to clip out their order form and hand it across the dinner table. Weeks turned to months. My joy withered. Work on the sequel stalled completely.
But the following autumn an envelope appeared in the mail, addressed to me. Folded inside, crumpled but intact, was a single order form, firmly but politely requesting a copy of STRANDED 2. Jimmy Sheldon, a boy in the grade below mine, had surreptitiously removed it from Mrs. Flavin’s classroom copy. The mailing hit like an asteroid from heaven. The moment was glorious, dazzling. Suddenly I had a counterpart in my musings, however anonymous.
Sixteen years later and two years into the writing of a second, more substantial novel, I still treasure Jimmy Sheldon’s lone missive of support. It somehow makes the endless rejection of a semi-professional writing career more palatable. For even now it is that spark which drives me, that moment of zapping connection in which two people come together in the shared, and very human, experience of storytelling.
Scholars suggest that we swap tales in order to reveal something of life’s purpose. But I believe that storytelling is itself one of life’s purposes. Together between the dog-eared pages of a beloved paperback, in the hushed darkness of a movie theater, you and I embark on that innately human task: the mythologizing of ourselves and others. In turn, we lend structure to seeming chaos. We create a catalogue of joy and sorrow and accumulated wisdom, then pass it on.
And so Jimmy Sheldon, wherever you are, don’t expect your copy of STRANDED 2 anytime soon. It remains an unfinished masterpiece. Instead accept my apologies, and my thanks. Without you, I may have passed a lifetime without again sharing my appetite for wonder.
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