My mother died less than a month after I entered ninth grade. Soon after, my father and I moved, and I began attending a new high school–but only occasionally.
To say I had trouble focusing on school would be like saying the Cyclops had trouble crossing his eye. I began to skip so frequently that my freshman biology teacher branded me with the nickname AWOL. Mr. Phillips would call my name in class and, when I didn’t answer, he’d say, “AWOL again.”
In my first two-and-a-half years of high school, I flunked all but one class (English Literature, interestingly). I refined truancy to an art form. I became adept at lying, at forging absence excuses in my father’s handwriting, at falsifying report cards, and at creating clever–but credible–stories when school officials would call during the day, while my father worked.
I developed a knack for paying attention to detail, too. I screened the mail every day to filter out anything that threatened to disrupt my career as a truant. I even reviewed the school lunch menus in the newspaper each week, in case Dad happened to ask what I’d eaten that day.
During my long weekdays as a goof-off, I retreated into a make-believe world of books, hoping to escape my real life, which I knew was going nowhere. I discovered Thoreau’s Walden and London’s The Call of the Wild. I identified with fellow ne’er-do-well Huck Finn and empathized with Oliver Twist.
Spurred by boredom, I spent hours in my room writing elaborate letters to faraway friends. I invented episodic tales, composing them on an old Remington typewriter. I may have first considered becoming a writer when I learned that a former childhood sweetheart read my letters at the dinner table to entertain her parents and siblings.
Eventually, I went back to high school, but not because the school caught me or because my father threatened to ship me to a military academy. The truth was, my girlfriend found out.
The whole time I’d been skipping school and lying to everyone who knew me, I’d also been attending church–and dating the pastor’s daughter. When she discovered the truth about my truancy, I expected her to drop me like a bad habit. But she didn’t. She simply let me know that her plans for the future didn’t include foraging in trash cans for food; she wanted me to start attending school.
It wasn’t easy, but I managed to break my hooky habit. I finished high school, and even attended enough college classes to earn a BA in English.
Since then, I’ve recognized that the experience of those years may have contributed more to making me a writer than all other factors combined.
First of all, writers, like politicians, are professional liars. To adapt Mark Twain’s phrase, we “remember things that never happened.” We make saints of villains and gods of men. We invent dialogue and scenery and action, often out of whole cloth. We create cities, countries, entire galaxies, and people them with creatures, human and otherwise, that proceed out of our imagination. We challenge facts, adapt facts, twist facts–even defy facts–to suit our purposes. No one practiced those skills during his youth as much as I.
But the ability to “lie” effectively is not all I learned from my failures as a high school student. The attention to detail I developed in order to survive as a truant has also helped me survive as a writer. In our profession we need to have an eye for seemingly insignificant–but revealing–trivia: glances, gestures, sounds and smells. We exult in well-placed commas, in musical phrases, in dialogue deftly timed. The same caution and care that led me to make sure I knew what the school cafeteria had served for lunch when I skipped school has guaranteed that the wilted roses with brown-tipped petals mentioned in chapter 2 aren’t budding in chapter 8, and that the one-way street on page 42 doesn’t magically transform itself into a tree-lined boulevard on page 256.
The most obvious fruit of my high school exploits, however, has been the fact that they formed the basis for the first novel I ever wrote (even though it’s the sixth book I’ve published): They Call Me AWOL (from Horizon Books of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania).
They Call Me AWOL is the story of Ben Howard, a “model Christian” teenager–when he’s at church. He attends services every Sunday, sings in the choir, teaches a Sunday School class, and is dating the pastor’s daughter, Randi. But things are different at school, where he’s called “AWOL” because of his habit of skipping more often than he attends.
One day, Ben’s two lives come crashing together: Randi announces she’s transferring to this school. Ben hears the news with horror. He has two’ weeks to bring his two lives” together or risk losing Randi.
The book is a novel, not an autobiography: still. They Call Me AWOL does incorporate many of my true experiences as a teenage truant. For example, when he fears that the school will contact his father with an evening phone call, Ben disconnects the cord at the back of the phone to prevent incoming calls–a technique I had field-tested.
I don’t recommend truancy as a means of getting published. I do, however, recommend writing as a means of confronting–and perhaps correcting–one’s past. The process of writing They Call Me A WOL reminded me that I missed out on a lot when I was a teenager, and had to work twice as hard as other students my last two or three years of high school. The novel shed new light on some teenage flaws and habits that have followed me into adulthood, such as my tendency to deceive and manipulate the people I love most and a frequent inconsistency between my faith anti my life. Recounting my teen years has helped me move forward in correcting those faults.
The writing process also became a means of working through some unresolved grief I’d hardbored for more than 20 years. Even while writing the comic scenes of the book, I would occasionally find the words on the page blurred by tears as I recalled my mother’s untimely passing and the turmoil that event created in my teenage heart. Writing AWOL helped me to finally accept my mom’s death. I’m still occasionally driven to tears by a snatch of music or a whiff of fragrance that evokes her memory, but the tears now are bittersweet, not just bitter.
AWOL also bore fruit in my relationship with my father. Dad and I had gotten along fine since my youth, but re-creating those years in the pages of my book reminded me of how my deception and delinquency had hurt him. Until I started writing, I’d managed to forget–or perhaps ignore–what I’d put him through. That recognition prompted me, soon after completing the first draft, to send him a copy of the manuscript and a note thanking him for his patience and love during my adolescence and adulthood.
Finally, the exercise of relating my experiences as “AWOL” also revealed to me how much I owed to the biology teacher who’d tagged me with my teenage nickname. Not long ago, I called my alma mater and set up a meeting during Mr. Phillips’s free period. He probably thought it was a joke–that I’d once again go AWOL. As surprised as he may have been that I showed up at school that day, he appeared even more shocked when I presented him with an inscribed copy of the novel to which he’d unknowingly contributed.
Writing a novel based on my life did far more than produce a good book. It helped me confront some things in myself, my life and my past that needed attention and correction. It also convinced me that a writer need not hunt elephants nor pilot fighter planes to come up with a good story. I did it by skipping school.