GoodReads and Bad Poetry

* In Ozark, Alabama, circa 1986. Shelley McLaughlin Hoerner (left), Mellisa Henderson McLaney (right), and performed this dance, to Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," in several beauty pageants, not as contestants, but as half-time entertainment during intermission. My dance teacher, Molly Mizell Comin, says this photo was actually from a Carroll High School production of The Wizard of Oz. 

* In Ozark, Alabama, circa 1986. Shelley McLaughlin Hoerner (left), Mellisa Henderson McLaney (right), and performed this dance, to Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," in several beauty pageants, not as contestants, but as half-time entertainment during intermission. My dance teacher, Molly Mizell Comin, says this photo was actually from a Carroll High School production of The Wizard of Oz. 

After three rounds of voting, What Stands in a Storm made it to the finals in the GoodReads Choice Awards - Best books of 2015. This is the only major book award decided by readers, and it's a pretty big deal. I honestly didn't think I'd make it this far, and now I'm up against some heavy hitters in the Science & Technology category: Susan Casey, Elon Musk, and Oliver Sacks. (Note: feel free to ignore the rest of this post and just vote.) 

I still feel weird about self promotion and social media, but it's an essential part of today's marketplace, and I'd be foolish not to do it. I decided to campaign for votes, and my platform is self-humiliation. I promised that, if 10 people shared the voting link on Facebook, I would post a photo of my 10-year-old self dancing with a tornado in a beauty pageant.* I got 10 shares. Thus, the photo above. If I got 20 shares, I promised a selection of bad adolescent poetry, written in high school about a tornado. I thought I might get out of this latter deal, but yesterday my friend Chris Spencer alerted me to his 20th share. So I went and dug out the notebook:

The notebook dates back to November 1993. My junior year at Choctawhatchee High School in Fort Walton, Fla. I don't remember who my English teacher was that year. But I know that is when I began, in earnest, to write. Which, in high school, usually involves bad adolescent poetry (is there any other kind?) and/or journals steeped in hormonal angst and cluttered with cliches. The tornado poem was my stab at a sonnet, during a brief foray into the Romantics. I don't remember writing it, but I stumbled upon in a month ago when my mom found this old notebook in a drawer. 

During my senior year, AP English was my favorite class. I can still hear Mr. Adams reading us Wallace Stevens's "Bantams in Pine-Woods" and awkwardly trying to explain the messier parts of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," by T.S. Eliot (it made him pace and sweat). He once spontaneously removed his shoes and threw one out the window. The next day, a bird flew into the window, and he reckoned it was the spirit of his shoe. That same year, another favorite teacher, Ms. Evanchyk, asked me to write a news story for the student newspaper, Smoke Signals. It won a little award. Then she arranged an after-school internship at the Northwest Florida Daily News. That's where I wrote my first published piece, a personal essay about prom (and how much more of a hassle it is for girls than for boys). Once I saw my byline in print, that was it. I knew I'd be a writer. 

Here's the thing, though. It doesn't happen overnight. I've been chipping away at it for 21 years since that column, and it still takes me seven drafts to get a piece of writing to the point where it feels ready to publish. (Note: It never feels done. Just far along enough to publish.) I still chip away at it, every single day, copying passages of greater writers into a notebook, so I can feel what it feels like to write sentences like that, and so I can re-read them to myself and aloud to word-obsessed friends. I read through old notebooks, with mortification, because it reminds me how far I've come and how long I've been trying and how much father I want to go. I am still embarrassed by my first drafts (and often my second, and third, and fourth drafts).

"The thing about writers is that, with very few exceptions, they grow slowly—very slowly," John McPhee said in an interview with the Paris Review. "I sent stuff to The New Yorker when I was in college and then for ten years thereafter before they accepted something. I used to paper my wall with their rejection slips. And they were not making a mistake. Writers develop slowly." 

So in that spirit, here's that sonnet, from September 1993. I was 17.

Once upon a spot in time
I walked a long tornado’s path
and saw the ravaged, crooked line
of Mother Nature’s rage and wrath

A tree, uprooted by thin air
(as witness to the violence)
raised twisted branches in despair
in the aftermath of silence

And so this place did speak to me
of overwhelming power
and how it stood so helplessly
to face its final hour.

Unsettled and disturbed, I left
to think of what could be bereft.

As a bonus, I did find this slightly more redeeming description of a storm whipping through my back yard. I was always enraptured by thunderstorms. I loved sitting outside and watching the light show, feeling the thunder rattle my bones. Though I did not understand that thunderstorms are the mothers of tornadoes. I guess I wrote this right around graduation time, when I was 18:

The storm came suddenly and without warning. Thick, dark clouds approached from the south, and all background noises ceased. What followed was an ominous calm. The bay’s swirling emerald waters lost their [sic] lustre, turning metallic, impermeable, formidable. The first fragment of cloud fell and shattered the glass. One by one they fell, peppering the deck with little shiny spots, and beating a sporadic yet captivating cadence.

The storm grew progressively worse. The rain came driving down in waves, drops striking the ground in little explosions. At the climax of the tempest a huge bolt of white light struck ground over by the bridge. With a sound like the crack of a whip resonating across the bay, the lights of the town flickered and died. The audible pop as the television went off was replaced by the continual sigh of the rain. This left one with naught to do but think.

—dated May 12, 1994