As the oldest brother of my siblings—myself no older than five years—I used to invent the stories that put my brothers and sisters to sleep. Even after they’d conked out, I would keep telling the story to myself till it was finished, because I wanted to know how it ended.
That sort of thing came naturally to me.
During my third grade year some good person donated a score of typewriters to our school. As soon as I learned to type I started writing my stories on paper. They were foolish and juvenile, of course, but I got a kick out of the practice and, at the same time, got better at it.
And still I told my stories out loud. But now I learned to weave reality into my tapestries—an advance which I scarcely realized at the time.
One day Kathy Drees stood up in class and described her experience at the funeral of some relative. She said she stood in line to say goodbye. Then she was looking at the old man in his casket. He seemed to be sleeping. She put out her hand and touched the back of his hand, and was shocked at how cold, how cold it was.
Well. I thought that her story was pretty good. But I could do better.
So I stood up too and told my own story.
I said that once upon a time I had an older sister. I said that my sister was hit by a car….
The “sister part” was made up. But the hit-by-a-car part was true—only I was the one that had been hit. This was the piece of reality which I wove into the tale.
My brother and I were crossing a busy avenue in Chicago. He ran out in front of a bus, then suddenly turned and ran back. But I was already on my way after him. He ran back because a car was coming. I didn’t see the car (it was purple and very big) until it was on me. I whirled away from it, but it hit me directly on the butt and sent me ten, fifteen feet through the air when, again, I landed on my butt. The poor driver ran to me. He asked how I was. I was stunned, but not all that hurt.
Nevertheless, the man carried me to the car and put me in the back. Three little girls were already sitting there, so I stood up against the door with my head bent at the ceiling. I told the driver how to get to my house. On the way I peed in my pants and was riven with embarrassment. Before we arrived at the house, I saw my brother Paul walking all alone on the sidewalk, crying so mournfully that he looked like a wolf cub with his face to the sky.
Now, then, this was the first half of my story. When I told it, I took the place of my brother, and in my place I put my pretend sister. Only—she had been killed by the car.
So that was already better than Kathy’s tale. The death of a sister by car was so much more dramatic than an old man’s passing away.
Here was the second half, and it was a doozy.
When I was at the funeral, and when I was at the casket of my poor, pure white sister (I named her Karen), my mother told me to kiss her. So I kissed here, and my lips were cold, cold for a week thereafter.
I sat down, proud of my performance—and a far piece more skillful than I had been before.
The upshot was not as happy.
When I got home that afternoon, both my teacher and the school principle were sitting in the living room. So persuasive had my tale been that they believed it. They had come to commiserate with my mother for her loss.
My mother met me not with praise but with punishment. But I thought that she didn’t understand. I hadn’t been telling lies. This is how a good story is told.
A writer has to overcome such jealousy. But that there was jealousy at all signified a fierce affection for his choice of words—that what he had written, he had written.
That summer I wrote my first novel. It was based on Einstein’s belief that time was fluid. I imagined that there were two twins, one of whom left the earth to travel through space. When he returns only a year older than when he left, behold, his brother is an old man.
Through college and into my marriage I stayed up late into the night writing stories, writing stories, self-consciously improving my craft.
When I satisfied myself that I had finally produced a worthy novel, I sent the manuscript to something like thirteen publishers. They all rejected it—except that an editor at Harper & Row rejected the piece with a long letter of explanation. She persuaded me of its unfixable errors. (My jealousy had resolved itself into a hungry practicality.)
I wrote her immediately asking whether she might consider a second novel. She said she might.
In a year I sent her a book I entitled, The Book of the Dun Cow. In the end Harper & Row accepted it, and I was on my way.