My oldest surviving written work dates back to the first grade. An autobiographical essay, it discusses my birth in Texas, my early life in Texas, my family's move from Texas to California and how much I still missed Texas.
A precocious essay, it garnered widespread attention, at least among my school's first grade teachers, who plastered it with gold stars and awarded me the honor of reading it at the next parent-teacher school assembly.
I remember standing on the stage, surveying the hundreds of faces staring up at me, including my proud parents in their first row reserved seats, then reading my essay in a loud clear voice, no nervousness at all. That's all I recall until the end, but re-reading the essay today, I can imagine its loving and longing descriptions of my old Texas home touching a chord with an audience comprised largely of recent immigrants to California, the type of people you found in those brand-new cookie-cutter subdivisions sprouting like weeds in the corn fields outside Los Angeles.
I don't remember the applause, but I do remember my parents frowning in the front row. It must have puzzled them, this autobiographical essay of mine, for I'd never lived in Texas, I'd never been to Texas and, so far as I knew, my parents had never been there either. I'd been born in Southern California and, except for one brief trip to my aunt's house in the northeast, I had never left Southern California.
Initially my big lie triggered much mortification, both for my parents, who had to deny a hundred times to teachers and parental peers their Texas roots, and for me, revealed to all as a teller of Texas-sized tall tales. It wasn't until years later that the kids stopped calling me Tex. And it took even longer for my essay to soften into a family joke, one of those inexplicably bizarre episodes of youth that gets recounted at appropriately giddy family times to collective merriment. Eventually even I saw some humor in it.
But why did I invent a Texas childhood? Unearthing authorial intent is always a tricky endeavor, even for the writer, especially when the middle-aged writer reviews a piece he wrote when he was six years old. Thankfully, however, my Texas essay resides in a box filled with my early writings. A cursory review of these texts reveals, quite clearly, a writer with a rich fantasy life, borne in all likelihood out of a desperate desire to escape his mundane surroundings, to transform himself into someone better. My recollection of the books I loved back then supports this interpretation, for they were almost exclusively escapist fantasies and thrillers and tales of the supernatural centered around those heroes with a thousand faces plucked from obscurity to greatness.
Reviewing my early writings, I learn nothing about who I was, tons about who I wished I could be. And I remember how much I wanted to be a writer in those days, the countless hours I spent hunched over my desk, my writer fantasy producing page after page of written fantasies. Looking at them now, I can see a clear development in skill, but no development at all in theme, each piece yet another tall tale in the Texas mold.
My writing dream died in my mid-teens. I don't know why it died, but this fits my life pattern, for I've always been a scatter-brained enthusiast, a serial immerser who dives into one enthusiasm only to completely discard it for another. What's really interesting, at least to me, is figuring out why my writing enthusiasm suddenly returned after nearly 25 years of silence.
Again, unearthing authorial intent is always a tricky endeavor, even for a writer while he's writing, but a comparison of my childhood scribblings with my recent scribblings reveals many clues, chief among them my complete shift in theme from anything-but-me to nothing-but-me. I've gone from tall tales to little truths, from fantasy to reality, from big lies to brutal honesty. And that's just on the surface. What's underneath is more telling, I think, for sometime in those 25 years of silence I discarded my dreams of being someone I wasn't and accepted that I am what I am and that's all that I am and all that I ever will be. In short, I grew up.
Now that I'm stuck with me, I want to know me, but having spent so many years outside of me I realize I know almost nothing about me. And this is driving me crazy. Forty years in this skin, yet I don't even know the back of my own hand. Twenty years of formal education, but I can't even answer the most basic questions about myself. I used to think I knew a lot, but now I marvel that I would even presume to know anything else without first knowing myself. So just as my youthful yearning to deny myself fueled my first writing enthusiasm, my middle-aged yearning to understand myself fuels today's writing enthusiasm.
I've been wandering aimlessly, lost in my mental state of Texas. This is my ticket home.