It’s 1990 and I’m a loser. Becoming a novelist hasn’t crossed my mind. I’m a high-school junior who’s shown some aptitude in art, and by aptitude I mean I’m better than classmates who don’t try at all. My art teacher is just happy I do the assignments instead of throwing Exact-o knives into the ceiling.
I had a creative impulse throughout my early life, fueled by supportive parents, Legos, and the original Star Wars trilogy. Relatives raved about my drawings. I got a spaceship illustration printed in the local paper during grade school. And I didn’t really want to be Luke or Han. I wanted to be George Lucas and create something awesome.
But I couldn’t be bothered to develop any skills. Mötley Crüe was big in my life, as were the Commodore 64 video games my friends and I swapped along our paper routes. I had bad hair, just shy of a bowl cut. Major cysts instead of zits. A soft, pale, jean-jacketed body. I’d never had a serious girlfriend because girls have standards, and because I kept thinking my luck might change, which is the best way to ensure it never, ever does.
I’d done so poorly in English that they demoted me to a lower-level class, where I had to read The Catcher in the Rye and The Scarlet Letter all over again. I was lazy. I was also a smart aleck. My solution to zero self-confidence was making jokes in class, and in the halls, and during lunch, trying to ensure that the friends I had continued to like me, even if everyone else found me obnoxious.
In the pecking order of high-school society, I ranked somewhere in the middle, neither bullied nor celebrated. I wished for more—a girlfriend, a goal—and if I had kept along that wishing path, I would have become a sad, feckless bachelor and stayed that way until my unremarkable death.
I don’t know what triggered a change in my junior year, except maybe a growing awareness of mediocrity in every sphere of my life. A good job that gave me a work ethic, an exercise regimen, and different friends factored into my gradual redirection, but there’s a movie—not a book—that turned me into a writer.
If you happened to see Dead Poets Society at the right point of adolescence, you know the knockout power it possesses. I’ve watched that movie in my adult years and continue to admire it, but its romanticism is clearly aimed at the kind of yearning, timid teenager I was when I first popped it into the VCR.
Lessons learned from Dead Poets Society:
1. “Carpe Diem”, of course. Quit waiting for life to happen and do something about it.
2. Learning is cool, even manly. I watched those characters grow up over the course of two hours, seeing my current self at the beginning and my wished-for self toward the end. Life didn’t turn out so well for one of the characters, but since I didn’t have icy parents demanding I become a doctor, the door to Shakespeare and exuberant behavior was open. I even started meeting with a few friends in Dead Poetic fashion so we could listen to music, share our writing, and talk like real sophisticates.
3. Good literature is both entertaining and instructive, allowing you to read anything from The Brothers Karamazov to Robert Frost as self-help guides that offer all manner of secret knowledge.
4. Some attractive girls appreciate smarts. That was the Big One. I’d never be the popular jock, so I needed to be the opposite. The intelligent boy. The good listener. The sensitive artist that girls, I was so certain, would discover they preferred.
Honestly, most of the jocks I knew were OK guys, but I couldn’t let that spoil my moment of clarity. It was me versus them and I needed a date. It worked for Knox Overstreet in Dead Poets Society and it would have to work for me.
Naturally I tried my hand at poetry. I wrote a poem a day, sometimes more, and thought they were brilliant. If someone didn’t understand them, they simply weren’t reading closely enough, and I knew that eventually, when I was hailed as a rising star, they’d be forced to look again and appreciate whatever they had missed.
Want to read one? Here we go—a representative poem of my late high-school period.
“Lingering Disdain” (April 3, 1992)
Pound on wakeful brain,
Caress of mournful rain,
And gasp for scented pain.
Drag the carcass long,
Unearthly bitter wrong,
Crawl alone, along,
With screeching vulchar’s song.
Beastly hand hath drew,
Nightmarish eye to view,
Close dishonest true,
Winged specter up and flew.
See: I knew that’d get published someday. Surely dozens of athletic former classmates are reeling, twenty-one years later, from my victory! (How about that spelling of “vulture”?)
What’s amazing is that this poet business worked. I found purpose in reading and writing. I gained confidence. I even scored a terrific girlfriend who was impressed, at least briefly, by my bookish persona. And although I still had a long way to go before I wrote something decent and impressed a woman enough to marry me, I had plenty of books to keep me going and point me in the right direction.
You can read Part 2, “How Poetry Got Me a Prom Date”, at my blog.
Dennis Mahoney lives in upstate New York. Fellow Mortals is his first novel. You can find him online @Giganticide and at www.giganticide.com.