Thursday, November 18, 2010

The "Aha!" moment when I first realized I wanted to be a writer

I'm killing two birds.  From time to time I present brief excerpts from the book I'm writing on growing up in the swingin' '60s in Southern California. Reader Tamara submitted a Friday question: "When did you first know that you were a "writer"?  So here's a way to combine both posts. 

We all had to take state aptitude tests. These were a series of tests intended to determine which career path might be best for you. One test was spatial relations. We’d see a folded house and be given four flat layouts. Which layout, when folded properly would match the house? Other than working for Ikea, how could this skill possibly help you? I think I finished in the 40th percentile.

Worse was mechanical reasoning. “If Gear A turned left and Gear B turned right, how does a steam engine work?” I had no fucking idea how to answer any of these questions. I placed in the 25th percentile. That has to be in the severely retarded range, doesn’t it? The apes in 2001: A SPACE ODDESSEY who pounded sticks on the ground had to score at least in the low 30’s.

The only test I excelled at was clerical proficiency. As fast as we could we had to copy down sequences of letters. I placed in the 78th percentile. So according to the State of California, my life’s calling was filing.

Thanks to Miss Harper for providing another option.

Miss Harper taught U.S. History. Instead of tests she would assign us several essay questions on Monday that had to be turned in on Friday. To answer the questions you needed to hear her lectures and read the chapters. Essay writing has never been my strength. I would slog through the material and vomit back as much as I could. My grade was usually B-.

One week I put off the assignment until the last night. Having worked at Wallichs that evening it was well after midnight before I tackled the essay. I didn’t have time to do all the reading so I padded the paper with a few jokes. If I was going to fail at least I’d do it spectacularly.

I got an A.

Miss Harper had little exclamation points after the jokes (no one knew from LOL in those days).

So the following week I sprinkled in more jokes.

Another A.

By week three I had stopped reading the textbook entirely. I just used the essay topics as springboards and wrote comedy monologues. I suspect the quality of the material was not that stellar but I was Richard Pryor compared to the twenty-five other explanations of the Monroe Doctrine.

I breezed through that course with an A and a light went off in my head – there’s gold in them thar hills. Writing comedy might just be a more lucrative skill than alphabetizing.

Thank you, Miss Harper, for being my first and maybe most important fan.


Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Wonderful! Did you ever find her years later?

bloggity said...

It's amazing how one teacher can inspire you like that. I was lucky to have a couple.

Mary Stella said...

I LOVE this story! I don't remember when I realized that I wanted to write as a profession. I do, however, remember when I realized that good writing had a positive payoff.

In fourth grade I wrote an emotionally moving essay about Washington crossing the Delaware. I got an A. When I read the essay out loud to my family, my older brother mocked me and the writing. Our Dad looked at him and said, "On your best days you don't write as well as your sister."

Considering that my brother was a straight A student in all subjects while I totally sucked at math, that was the first time that I'd been deemed better at anything academically. It was a shining moment.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it helped you, but that woman is a terrible teacher.

emily said...

Was that teacher Mary Kay Letourneau?

Sally creeping down the alley said...

"A" in high school, been down hill ever since, eh?

You've done okay... Or maybe a little better.

gottacook said...

Ken - as I mentioned some months ago, when your book is ready to go to publishers/agents, it could use a copyedit first. How can I send a resume? (I am not known for chutzpah and this is not an instance of it. I've been a pro for 25 years and I could make a genuine difference in the quality of your book. Plus, I want to read it - so it's in my interest to help improve the chances of its being published.)

Jeffrey Leonard said...

It was those very same aptitude tests that made it very clear that I would be a terrific Fuller Brush salesman.

Gary said...

Friday question: been meaning to ask for a long did the character of Tommy Tuttle from Tacoma, Washington come to life? What inspired you to make him a Wazzu grad?
Great character and so very well played by Mr. Candy.

Tamara said...

Thanks for answering my question Ken! Such a great story!

Keith said...

I had to write essays in English during my first year of college. I was liberal with the jokes and got remarks such as, "Even science fiction is logical. This is not! Automatic F", "This is NOT a creative writing class. Automatic F".

She always chose the topics and the final one was, "Explain why one must make mistakes in order for one to learn", so I broke every grammatical rule I could think of and wrote that I learned I'd get an Automatic F. I did, but it was worth it to see points off for things such as, "This is not a run-on sentence!"

Erika C. said...

Friday question: Do you think that the writers of How I Met Your Mother currently know who the mother is? Or are they going to wait until they know they're in their last season to decide who she is and reveal her?

They've planted a lot of details along the way, but it still seems like it could go in any direction.

As a TV writer, have you ever carried on a mystery storyline without necessarily knowing the resolution yet?

te said...

In summer school between my junior and senior year of high school, I took a typing course -- still one of the most important classes I've ever taken.

The course consisted, for the most part, of typing the same exercise over and over; presumably gaining technique and speed as you go along. I can't remember the story, but it was a fairly tale (though probably unique to the course; not a childhood classic).

I'd hunt-and-peck, but pretty soon I was finishing the story before the allotted time. So I started embellishing.

After several weeks, the teacher pulled me aside. "If this were a creative writing course, I'd give you an 'A'." But since I wasn't typing "correctly," he'd have to fail me. He allowed me to leave before the course was over. I got an incomplete, and all the speed I needed.

Dr. Shrinker said...

When I took the vocational aptitude tests at Canoga Park High ("where even the school mascot has a gun") a few years after Ken, I was best qualified for two professions: (1) Bank guard and (2) model. All I can guess is that I was mostly interested in a career that consisted of standing around and doing very little.

VP81955 said...

When I took the vocational aptitude tests at Canoga Park High ("where even the school mascot has a gun") a few years after Ken, I was best qualified for two professions: (1) Bank guard and (2) model.

Bank guard/model -- if Will Ferrell were five to 10 years younger, that might be the character he would play in his next movie. Sounds like a tacky "SNL" script, doesn't it?

Anonymous said...

I had an English teacher in high school. Mrs. Coffee. Her real name. Of course, we called her Mrs. Folgers. She hated me partially because I didn't play football. She had a crush on the football team. I think some of them crushed her.

We had to turn in a creative writing essay. I had heard about Ebbets Field -- where the Doyyers played before moving to L.A. -- but didn't know jack about the place considering it was torn down years before I was born. Problem was, I described it in full detail (from what I thought it would look like and how it might feel to be in the stands).

Mrs. Folgers thought I had plagiarized it from an in-flight magazine (she might have been a stewardess in the swinging '60s. This makes sense).

Not only did she accuse me of plagiarizing, but she also gave me a 'C.' WTF?! If it was good enough to seem plagiarized, it should have gotten an 'A.'

I wasn't able to plagiarize in math, so I became a writer. Math sucks.

Mac said...

For five years in High School I was taught English by a horrendous old bag who delighted in telling me how little I knew. Then I moved class to a man who just loved to discuss books and always encouraged my opinion. Crucially, he always nodded sagely and pretended I wasn't talking pretentious teenage crap, allowing me to come to that realization for myself.
He loved his job and was brilliant at it. A great teacher can give you a life-long passion.

Joey H said...

Too bad Miss Harper isn't the Executive VP of ABC-West Coast.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Those test when I took them the result always was that I should be an engineer. The thing is I'm not very good at Math, don't like it and don't care about the value of X.


Jim said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing! She's a great teacher -- she taught you exactly the lesson YOU needed. You didn't need to know about the Monroe Doctrine!

By Ken Levine said...

Had to delete a comment. Please don't use this blog to just send people to your website.

mcp said...

"Jim Pacek said... You didn't need to know about the Monroe Doctrine!"

Actually it is vital that everyone know the Monroe Doctrine which is to replace worn shocks and struts at 50,000 miles.

Thank you. Thank you. Please remember to tip your blog host.

Novick said...

If she's giving out As for crappy papers, then she is a bad teacher.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I think I have an aspiring comedy writer in my first grade classroom.

We generally have a Reading and Writing Workbook page to do every day. It's pretty easy, usually. "match and write the correct word under each picture". Too easy, if you ask me. So I ask the students to then take those words and write sentences for them.

This week, one of the words was "fox". Here's the sentence I got from a little boy called "Alex":

Oh no, it's a fox! RUUUUUNNNN!

(And yes, he did use all caps and elongated the word "run" just like that.)

Generally, I get sentences like "The fox likes to run.", or "I like to see a fox." or even "A fox likes to eat meat." Nothing like this, though. Needless to say, I was delighted and laughed out loud.

Sometimes it's fun teaching first grade.

Geo said...

This post was a pure delight to read. It's so encouraging to read about how teachers inspired their students in unique ways.

Your story reminded me of a time in junior high when I had to deliver an oral report on the Monroe Doctrine.

The fellow sitting behind me, also named Ken, wanted to read my speech. And he gave it back just as I was called on by the teacher. So I stood at the front of the class and looked down at my paper to see that he had scribbled all over it basically having rewritten the whole thing. It had become the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine, and I'll just let your imagination take over from there.

Since I had written and rehearsed the original speech and was more interested in the grade than making the other kids laugh, I just regurgitated what I had originally written.

As for Kenny, his goal later became to steal more cars than anyone else in the state of Texas, and the last time I saw anything about him in the news he being sent off to the big house. Maybe he ended up doing stand-up in the chow line.

Tully Moxness said...

Re: Anonymous former student of "Mrs. Folgers"

Your story hits home, too closely unfortunately. I'm in a business program and taking a required Ethics course. My professor is tenured and has a real problem with giving us our writing assignments in advance, and when he does, the questions are vague (he often assigns questions from his book, which is informational but poorly written). He gave us an assignment at the end of class a couple of weeks ago, due on the next session, and I misunderstood what he wanted (along with a couple of my other classmates). I ended up getting the paper completely wrong, and he returned my paper with a big "C" on it. His comments were very antagonistic, wondering why I wrote on the wrong subject, but his final comment is the one that pissed me off. It said roughly, "Why did you choose to write about that company and not the one in the assignment? I know I assigned a paper on that company a couple of years ago!!!!!!?!?" I took it as him insinuating that I plagiarized the paper off an old student of his, but what pissed me off is that he gave me a "C". If he had any balls, he would have either given me an "F" or called me in to discuss the matter. Instead, he chose to follow the "unethical" approach, which was to passive-aggressively give me a weak grade and then chide me in veiled language about stealing my paper. I have always been extremely respectful to him, but after class, I met with him and explained why I had done the wrong paper and showed him how it was so easy to confuse what he wanted. Thank God this will be my last class with this dude, but sometimes, I really think a lot of little people end up as teachers (that's not to generalize, because I have some amazing professors at this school).