Person to Person






Never in my childhood did I want to become a writer. Early on, I had a thing for trees tall, leafy ones. I climbed the highest ones I could find; then I built houses in them. My father once asked, "Do you plan to become a monkey?" That would have been fine, swinging from limb to limb. Or perhaps become an explorer? I sought out drainpipes to investigate and once I got stuck in one. The fire department unstuck me.

My mother, who wanted to be an actress on world stages but bore six children and raised five instead, would stop in the making of a pie and dramatically throw an arm into the air in a final curtain flourish, shouting, "Excelsior! Excelsior!" Ever higher. Onward.

I grew up where the air was fresh and clean. The fields and creeks of North Carolina were my playgrounds, I roamed as free as rabbits and birds and deer. With three or four other boys I played Huck Finn and rafted down the Catawba when I was no more than nine. Never once did my mother ask, "Where are you going?" Off to explore, of course. A very religious lady, she trusted God that Id come safely home. Several times I came close to joining Him. With another kid I once crossed an abandoned wooden bridge that had been built during the Civil War. The earth was a hundred feet below and rotten pieces of wood kept falling away beneath my feet. Exploration! A writer needs to explore, mentally and physically.

But the land was gentle, as were the people living in it. Mother said she thought it was fine when I told her Id gotten a paper route. I was up at four in the morning to walk to the Vance Hotel and wait for the Greyhound driver to toss off the Greensboro Daily News. Moving through the still darkness at age nine, not once did I think of harm. Then off to school I trudged in knickers and a cap.

A few years later, in Virginia, I would lie in bed listening to the ships whistles from the Elizabeth River. Sailing on the night tide, the vessels were bound for exotic places around the world. I wanted to be aboard them, to be a sailor, go to London and Conakry and Durban and Hong Kong and the Java Sea. With the Second World War, that dream came true. I love to read and write sea stories.

But well before December 7, 1941, something happened that turned my life around. At thirteen, green as the creek bank rushes, ill equipped, I began writing for money. Fifty cents a week was my reward for a page and a half of double-spaced sports copy. I reported the weeks athletics at my high school for the Sunday edition of the Portsmouth Star. Late each Saturday afternoon Id ride the streetcar to town. I was in awe of the sports editor, who said I was the rawest recruit hed ever had.

These were Depression times, beginning in the late 1920s, and we were a rather poor family. My father didnt have a steady job for six years. But there are many long-lasting riches that are not material. I did all sorts of things to make money: I plucked steaming chickens at a local grocery; delivered dry cleaning and dental plates on my bicycle; crabbed Paradise Creek from a homemade rowboat, selling the blues for a nickel each; worked as a "cornerman" for a group of boxers, wielding a sponge and applying collodion to eyebrow cuts. Not realizing it, I was training to become a writer, a worker in words. I tell aspiring young writers to do diverse things, to go to as many places as possible, to watch and listen.

My grades in high school were so bad (I never passed freshman math) that no college or university would accept me. The newsrooms of five different papers became my places of higher learning. I loved the excitement of writing under pressure, the smell of fresh ink, and the rumble of the presses.

I look back on a lifetime at the typewriter, many typewriters in many places, and marvel at how lucky Ive been. On those keys I have two-fingered sports and crime and love and death. Ive pecked out books for adults and young readers, as well as scripts for radio, TV, and feature films. Ive been so very, very lucky. Here I am, still learning the three Cs of good storytelling: character, conflict, and construction. And Im still pecking away.

Excelsior! Excelsior!


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