Being a Good Writer Almost Got Me Expelled From High School
When I was 12 I played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. I soon discovered I didn’t like playing half as much as I liked creating the adventures, but as a Game Master I quickly became frustrated when the players wouldn’t walk directly into the brilliant plot twists I’d set up for them. At some point it occurred to me that maybe I should just write stories because then I could make the characters do what I wanted without having to deal with bothersome players who all too often had their own thoughts and ideas that were not on script.
However, it did not occur to me to show these stories to anyone, nor did it occur to me that I could improve my writing with practice, nor did it occur to me that I could ever make a living as a writer. Why not? I don’t know, 12 year-olds make assumptions and often the assumptions we make go for many years without being challenged.
My father is an entrepreneur with a background in accounting and is a very hard worker. I assumed he’d think writing was a waste of time and I should focus my education on learning to be a successful businessman like himself. To my surprise, when I was 16 he bought me a book called Writing To Sell by Scott Meredith. I’ve read dozens of books on writing since then, but that book provided me with the foundation that all my other writing knowledge rests upon. If you want to learn how to write, check out this post for the list of books that have been the most helpful to me.
The fall of my senior year of high school my history professor, Mr. Handmaker, focused our studies on colonialism and it’s impact. One of our assignments was to write a fictional short story with colonialism as its theme. I’d had a lot of practice writing by that point, but it never occurred to me that spending a lot of time writing might eventually result in me becoming good at it.
I wrote a story about a pre-industrial society living in thatched roof huts that had a peaceful religion, one aspect of which was the belief that when a person dies their soul enters the Earth and if they have a pure soul it helps the trees and crops grow, and if they have a cruel or selfish soul it is poisonous to the living things around them. A group of people show up in flying ships and are so sophisticated that the young protagonist of the story believes they know everything, and when they tell him that his religion is wrong and he must join their religion or suffer dire afterlife consequences he is desperate to do so. He runs away from home, deciding that to save his soul he must travel to their city and learn from them. But he has no concept of how fast their flying machines travel, so when they told him their travel took one day he figures he can get to their city in a couple days’ walk. He continues on through the jungle for weeks, always hoping that he might see their city in the next clearing, never understanding that he hadn’t covered the slightest fraction of the distance. Eventually he dies of starvation.
A couple of days after handing in my story I was walking though the hallway between classes when Mr. Handmaker stomped up to me, waved my story in my face, and said, “Where did you get this?” Not understanding the question I think I said nothing, I just stood there trying to figure out what he was talking about. After a moment he must have realized I was not going to reply so he said, “I could have you expelled for this,” and stormed away. Over the next couple of minutes it slowly dawned on me that he thought I plagiarized the story. Which meant he thought it was too good to be written by a kid in high school.
That’s when I started to think, "Hey, maybe I'm not half bad at this writing stuff."