Early blooms on our literary landscape

December 23, 1993|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel

The child, we have often heard, is father to the man, or mother to the woman. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that before Roy Blount Jr. wrote humorous essays for national magazines, he wrote funny columns for his high school newspaper.

Or that long before Rita Dove became our country's poet laureate she composed childhood verses about a droopy-eared rabbit. Or that at age 9, Stephen King already was writing imaginative -- although badly misspelled -- tales such as "Jhonathan and the Witchs."

But what is surprising about the new anthology "First Words: Earliest Writing from Favorite Contemporary Authors" is how entertaining such juvenilia can be.

Several years ago, Paul Mandelbaum, managing editor of Story magazine and a former editor at Baltimore magazine, put out the call to scores of writers to dig up those dogeared notebooks containing their earliest efforts as writers. Forty-two responded with a variety of poems, essays, columns and stories.

Some were written at a very early age -- Paul Bowles volunteered a thank-you letter composed at age 4. Others were products of late adolescence, such as Michael Crichton's disturbing short story, "The Most Important Part of the Lab," written as an 18-year-old premed student.

The question naturally arises if we would be interested in many of these writings if we didn't know their authors. Probably not, at least in the case of the stories and poems written as grade-schoolers. Generally speaking, these early poems and paragraphs aren't any more significant -- or less precious -- than those written by our kids, or by us when we were kids. What is interesting, however, are the ways in which the juvenilia often foreshadow a writer's later career. Mr. Mandelbaum makes these connections in margin notes, as well as in the introductions that zTC accompany each of the 42 chapters and include commentary from the authors themselves.

Amy Tan notes that upon rereading the essay she wrote at age 8, "What the Library Means to Me," she was struck by how little her writing style has changed in the intervening years. "I wrote about emotions, the basics, happiness and sadness."

Then there's Mr. King's clever short story with its horror motif. In the tale, a cobbler's son helps a rabbit who is actually a fairy in disguise, who then grants the boy three wishes. These wishes come in very handy later on when Jhonathan sets out to kill three witches.

Other writers with vivid young imaginations, as well as a way with words, include Norman Mailer, George Garrett and John Updike. Mr. Mailer wrote "The Martian Invasion" at age 10 and admits that one of the characters, Dr. Huer, is the origin of Hugh Montague in "Harlot's Ghost." Even at 10, he was writing on a grand scale: Although only a few pages of "The Martian Invasion" appear in this book, the full version reaches 35,000 words.

Garrett's ironic "Escapes," written when he was 14, is about a convict who decides eight years in prison is long enough. ("He would have given his right leg gladly to hear a little jazz music.") He decides to wriggle through a pipe in a boiler room. Mr. Garrett says the story was inspired by the tiny slit of a window in the dungeon at the San Marcos fortress in St. Augustine, Fla., "through which some captive Seminoles, including the warrior Osceola, somehow managed to slither and escape."

Mr. Updike was also 14 when he wrote a long, untitled -- and unfinished -- mystery novel featuring a Spanish sleuth named Manuel Citarro. Mr. Updike notes: "Presently at work on my 16th novel, I recognize myself all too well in this pubescent perpetrator of dialogue, facial descriptions, and -- very transparently -- suspense."

It's even easier to see the older writer in the younger one when the work is written in late adolescence. In the stories and poems by Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Allan Gurganus, Pat Conroy and Judith Ortiz Cofer, one recognizes familiar influences and themes.

Mr. Conroy, for example, readily acknowledges Thomas Wolfe's influence on the elegiac poem he wrote at 16 about the death of a high school classmate. And Mr. Conroy, as anyone knows from reading "The Prince of Tides," can still be as word-drunk as Wolfe, writing prose that reads like poetry.

As Mr. Mandelbaum writes in his introduction: "Juvenilia reminds us of often forgotten truths: that art takes its nourishment from the common garden of human experience. And that authors are children grown up, still learning, even as they teach us."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "First Words: Earliest Writing From Favorite Contemporary Authors"

Editor: Paul Mandelbaum

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

0$ Length, price: 502 pages, $24.95

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