Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sometimes, It Pays to Know What You're Doing

This week’s topic asked us to reminisce a bit about our very first manuscript. Talk about making the old noggin work overtime. I was going to write about a short story called The Root that I did back in 1993, but then it occurred to me that the topic didn’t specify what kind of manuscript.

So, instead, let me tell you about The Ghost.

You have to understand that I’ve only really gotten into horror writing over the past few years. But, in 1982, I wrote a play about a ghost. Right off the bat, you can see the oddity – I wrote a play about a ghost.

It was 1982. My mother brought home information from the Boston branch of the NAACP concerning the ACT-SO regional competition.

ACT-SO stands for “Academic, Cultural, Technological & Scientific Olympics,” and is a yearlong program that encourages young African-Americans to test the limits of their minds versus their bodies. The competition began in 1978 and continues to this day.

Anyway, being a skinny kid who clearly wasn’t going to be the next Bill Russell or Jim Rice or Sam “The Bam” Cunningham, I was glad to enter it.

I tried out initially for the art category and drew a nice picture of a giant lobster attacking Navy ships in Boston Harbor (can anyone tell I watched Gaiking as a kid?).

I tried the short story category as well because that was my forte (or so I thought). I submitted a story based on the grade Z sci-fi flicks I watched on Creature Double Feature on Saturday afternoons.

Then, I saw that the one-act play category was open and only had a few entrants. I entered based on the fact that maybe I had a better chance of placing with less competition. And, since no one's asking, that was the same reason that led me to do archery and golf in college.

Anyay, I immediately ran into trouble as I didn’t know how to write a play. I hadn’t even gotten to the stage (no pun intended) of English class when you have to recite that damned “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. I had been to one-act plays on field trips but seeing is not writing (yes, I know it contradicts my writing stories based on cheesy sci-fi movies, but I was a kid; don't confuse me with the facts).

All wasn't lost, though. It was 1982 and there were still plenty of libraries. My skinny legs still worked and I took myself to the main branch of the Medford Public Library. It provided me with books on play writing and ghosts. So, I read and studied and practiced. Keep in mind that I had procrastinated because play writing was not my strong suit. Most of my time had gone into the art and that awful short story. Finally, I did get serious when I realized it was going to be out there for everyone to see.

I let my brothers and my mother read it. From my brothers’ reaction, you’d have thought I just fed them liver and beets. My mom’s reaction wasn’t that bad, but she had one of those looks parents give their kids when they don’t want to hurt their feelings. You know, the kind that makes them either roll their eyes so they can see their brain or causes them to think about enrolling you in vocational school.

With not much time left, I did a major rewrite. Ironically, I fell back on Creature Double Feature. In this case, I "borrowed" from Roger Corman’s famous versions of Edgar Allan Poe with Vincent Price. Still not sure about the final product, I submitted the final version without showing it to anybody.

Yeah, I was deathly afraid of that play getting ripped to shreds. I didn't even want to look at the results. Instead, I focused on my “superior” artwork and the aforementioned short story.

At the end of the competition, all us kids from Medford (including my twin brother Gary, as well as future Grammy-nominated and “Arsenio Hall Show” jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington) gathered for the posted results. 

As the competition was only in its fifth year, there was no big award ceremony. The results were printed on one of the newest dot matrix printers which, back in '82, was considered a milestone over the mimeograph machines (yes, I'm old enough to have used a mimeograph machine; one of these days, I'll tell you all about it, along with x-acto knives and Spray Mount).

I checked the Short Story category and my name was so far down on the list that I had to shoo away the ants so I could read it. The Art category was better as I was the fifth or sixth name under “honorable mention.”

Then, on a whim, I glanced at the “One-Act Play” category. My eyes went wide. I was in second place! And, better yet, I had beaten out 10 other people.

And, yet, I had to kick myself. Only gold medal winners moved on to the nationals (for Medford that year, it was Terri Lyne and some guy in sculpture). What might have happened had I put more time into what I had written? Might I have gone on to the Nationals? Now, the winner’s play was a lot better than mine, but, still, I could only wonder what might have been.

The lesson I gained (and have had to relearn from time to time) is to put in the best effort possible and submit your best work.

Sadly, The Ghost was the first and last play I have ever written. When I moved to Texas, “One-Act Play” was a major extracurricular activity in the University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governed high school extracurricular activity in Texas. Students there were far ahead of me, so I fell back on my journalism and science fiction.

I still remember my play, though. I don’t know what became of it because it was typewritten and I didn’t make a copy. But, it’s the one piece of prose I clearly remember and cherish from my childhood. Well, that and “left right rudder,” but that’s a blog for another time.


  1. Oh, I have a few good ones from high school and collage. I can't remember if I wrote anything worth while before that. My mom says she has a box full of my writings from school. After reading your post, I have the urge to dig that box up and take my own trip down memory lain. Leave it to Mom to know I was always a writer on the inside. Awesome post, Greg. Also, I've used an x-acto knife before. We're talking about the art tool that looks kind of like the knives surgeons use to cut bodies open, right? Or am I thinking of something else?

  2. No, you're right about the x-acto knife. I used them, along with Spray Mount, to lay out the school newspaper. Kids today can do it all on computer with Pagemaker et al. But, in the old days, it was cut and paste, and good vision to get the copy straight on the page.

    Which is more than I can say for the old mimeograph machine in the hallway of my elementary and junior high schools.