CREATIVE WRITING JUST FOR THE HELL OF IT!
By W. T. Block
I told Mr. Neal Morgan I wondered why you might want me to address your society, since I consider myself anything but a successful creative writer.
If any masterpieces of literature ever flowed out through my fingers, they sure ended up in a waste basket somewhere without my knowledge. But I do know that I've shared some of your joys, but mostly your "sorrows," as a creative writer. And when I say "sorrows," I do mean those miserable, ugly, contemptible little pink slips sent out to would-be writers such as you and I, the sole purpose of which is designed to deflate our egos about ten yards lower than a snake's belly.
I suppose I should explain that I'm a 'late bloomer' - sort of a December rooster rather than a spring pullet - in the writing field. I have a Port Neches High School class ring, and a Nederland High diploma, class of 1937. I made no attempt to go to college when I was young. I grew up on a farm in Port Neches during the Great Depression, during which time my father died in 1933. And I made no attempt to go to college after returning from World War II, despite having four years of college paid for under the G I Bill of Rights. I was newly-married and was much more interested in starting a family and supporting them. During the 1950's I became deeply involved in Boy Scouting, what with being the father of three sons and a daughter. I also did a lot of reading, and at one time, I belonged to three history book clubs.
Then suddenly in 1963 I did something that altered my life as completely then as it still does today. Suddenly I felt as if I had cheated myself out of a college education - not the Great Depression or any other reason, except ME -that if I had really wanted to go to college, I could have found a way. And I did not want it particularly for financial gain since I was at that time assistant postmaster at Nederland and had no intention of leaving my job. You might say I wanted a degree just for the hell of it, even if I had to spend four nights each week and six years in college to get it.
I remember too how terribly afraid I was, having been out of high school for 27 years. I wasn't too concerned about the liberal arts, which had always been easy to me, but in math and science, where I was about as proficient as a bull frog on a lily pad. I went to a dear friend of mine, Celeste Kitchen, now deceased, who served as registrar at Lamar for 30 years, and I asked what she thought my chances of succeeding in college were, and she replied, "W. T., the three rules for success in education haven't changed one iota in 1,000 years. They're still STUDY, STUDY, AND MORE STUDY.
A month later, in January, 1964, I enrolled in Lamar's night school, and only a few days ago, I reminded Marian Ware Holt (who incidently is retiring next month) that she was my first teacher at Lamar. Of course, at that time, she was only about 23 years old and fresh out of graduate school herself. Over the next ten years, I took four history courses each from Mrs. Holt, Joe Lambert, Dr. Paul Isaac, Dr. McDonald, and a couple others, and I ended up completing during the next ten years, 70 hours of history, 30 hours of English, with other minors in sociology and German.
Perhaps my most unusual experience occurred in a 400 level course in contemporary American history, 1933 to 1968, from Paul Isaac. And any of you who may have had Dr. Isaac as a teacher in a history class may already know that should you activate his laughing bug, it takes about five minutes for him to recover and get his "tickle bone" quieted down. We were covering World War II in Europe that night, when suddenly he lectured about the capture by Americans of the Remagen railroad bridge over the Rhine River on March 7, 1945, which opened up all the interior of Germany to American troops, and thus, perhaps like the atom bomb over Japan a few months later, helped shorten the war in Europe with minimal casualties. I felt it only natural to raise my hand and tell Dr. Isaac that I had been at Remagen that morning, and had in fact crossed over the bridge only a couple hours after it was captured. Well, without realizing what I was doing, I triggered Dr. Isaac's laughing mechanism to the n-n-th degree, and he began laughing and laughing until we thought he would never stop. Later, he explained that "never in his wildest dreams did he ever believe that some day he would be teaching history to some one who had helped create it." Needless to say, when the present hierarchy at Lamar were preparing to fire the already semi-retired Drs. Ralph Wooster and Paul Isaac last fall, that was a bitter pill that I and hundreds of others just couldn't swallow.
Beginning college at age 44 and finishing at age 54 were two of the high lights of my life, and surely I could have become the perpetual, professional student if only I had had some one to pay the bills. Another high light was being in college at the same time with one or more of my children. And instead of my inquiring about their grades first at it should have been, they always managed to turn the tables and inquire about my grades first. During those years, I learned that 3 or 4 women in Nederland, being 40-something and suffering from the "empty nest syndrome," either began at Lamar or returned to college because they saw how much I enjoyed it. And I felt good in knowing that two of those women served many years as public school teachers before retiring.
Of course, during those early years, I had many freshman themes to write, and my grades always encouraged me to try harder. In the late 1960's, Dr. George DeSchweinitz (now deceased) was Professor of English, and I took creative writing classes from him, as well as private classes from Mrs. Ruth Garrison Scurlock. Back then, we had our own creative writing publication at Lamar, as I suppose they still do. I published some things in it, and won a couple of writing awards, but in the meantime, it was not the same as someone desiring to own your writing sufficiently enough to pay you hard cash for it.
About 1969 or 1970, I began sending off some of my writings to various publishers, and at the same time, there began a trek back to my mail box a trail of those much-hated, treacherous, rose-colored, nasty notes only slightly lighter in hue than Hawthorn's Scarlet Letter - you know the rest. And for most of the months thereafter, my ego slithered along on the ground where I suppose it belonged.
Also in 1970, I got my B. A. degree and a teaching fellowship in the history department almost simultaneously. Since I worked all day in the post office, the fellowship was granted with the understanding that I should teach one American history course at night, because I still had to find the time to take graduate courses and study. Almost immediately as well, I began researching and writing my Master of Arts' thesis - "A History of Jefferson County, Texas." In the course of the next four years, I researched page by page each issue of Galveston Weekly News, Tri-Weekly News and Daily News from 1842 until 1914. And if I may use such slang, I was "flabbergasted" by the quantity of stories about this area that I had never heard of - the brutal Orange County war of 1856, four Civil War battles fought at Sabine Pass instead of the usual one we think of today, including the Battle at Sabine Lighthouse, the Federals burning Sabine Pass as well as severe yellow fever epidemics there and at Beaumont, the biography and obituary of the last of Jean Laffite's pirates to die in 1893, two sets of memoirs and the long obituary of the only woman ever to live four long years in Laffite's town of Campeachy on Galveston Island, and a host of long stories about lost gold mines, buried treasure, western gun slingers, and Indian battles, each story more than a 100 years old and buried in the newspaper graveyards for a century. Since I was researching for an M. A. thesis, I couldn't use most of them at that time, but I did write down what date and issue of each newspaper the stories were printed in.
By 1974, my thesis had already reached 400 typewritten pages long, and I had only reached the end of the Civil War. Dr. Ralph Wooster, who was my thesis chairman, told me he usually had trouble getting a graduate student to start writing a thesis, but until then, he had never had any trouble getting a student to stop. And he suggested to me that my thesis was already at maximum length, and we'd even have to add "From Wilderness to Reconstruction" to the end of the title. And now, twenty years later, my wife will still tell you that she has difficulty getting me to stop writing. I've known people who would have "blown a head gasket" if you had sewed their lips together, but I suppose you'd have to tie my hands behind my back to get me to do the same. However, if I see some of you trotting out your needles and thread about 30 minutes from now, I'll catch the hint.
I recall attending a meeting of Beaumont Writers' Club about 1970 when those in attendance were principally elderly women. A contest had just ended, and the winners were soon to learn who had won first place and honorable mention in the various categories. The winner of the short story award used a pen name, and I dare not even mention the name of the story for fear it might reveal the identity of the writer. In plot, character building, and every other literary device, it was a masterpiece, but it had one drawback. It used baudy and offensive language that might qualify it for N. Y. P. D., but it violated all the refined speech and niceties of 1970. One dear soul decided to read it aloud by blanking out all of the obscenities, but apparently not recognizing the meaning of one phrase, she blurted it out intact, thus bringing down the house with its loud snickering and laughing because of her error of innocence. Thereafter, I'm sure she was ready to allow others to read aloud.
I began writing stories for Port Arthur News and Beaumont Enterprise in 1970, but I haven't written any popular history now in more than 10 yars. The last popular history I wrote for Beaumont Enterprise was in its historical issue of February 5, 1984, and I collected a check for $880 for that one issue. About 1973, I got a letter from Western Publications in Austin, wanting to see a sample of my writing. It seemed that a man wanted them to publish a story about his grandfather, but he insisted that I be engaged to write it. So I mailed them one of my yarns entitled "The Last of Laffite's Pirates." And they soon offered me $100 for that story, provided it had not already been published, and asked if I had any more stories I'd like it to sell. Well, this writer's ego that for so long had been slithering along the ground suddenly sprouted wings. And I ended up selling several stories to Western Publications, the last one being this one, "Crazy Ben Dollivar's Secret Gold Cache."
In 1976, I decided to publish the hard way my M. A. thesis myself. To that end, I borrowed $5,400, which paid for the printing (but not the collating) of 800 copies and 800 hard-back binders; and then I leased for one month two binding machines from A. B. Dick Company. For 4 weekends, I called in my 3 sons and daughter, the in-laws and outlaws, and we collated that book, spreading pages all over the beds, and binding books each night until daylight. Since I had a 6-months note of $5,400 to pay back, I launched a selling campaign, principally to libraries, of 1,000 flyers, and in 3 months time, I had sold enough books to pay back 3/4 of that note, and all of the books, or 750 copies, in 6 months.
In 1986, I wrote a 400-page history of Port Neches, that 100 people and business houses donated a total of $14,000 to publish 1,000 copies, all of which were soon sold out. I suppose the last two years have been my most productive in terms of books. In September, 1994, Vol. I of my East Texas Mill Towns and Ghost Towns, was published in Lufkin, and Volumes II and III will follow due to a $50,000 grant from The Pineywoods Foundation. This year, I currently have three books in the process of publication. The first, Sour Lake, Texas: From Mud Baths to Millionaires, 1831-1909, will be out in hardback by June 1st, underwritten by a $7,500 grant from two ladies in Houston, and 4,000 of these pre-publication flyers were mailed out in March. Two weeks ago, I signed an agreement for publication of another book, Cotton Bales, Keelboats and Sternwheelers: A History of The Sabine River and Trinity River Cotton Trades, 1837-1900, which should be finished about August. And Mrs. Doris Bowman of Lufkin has informed me that she will go to press next month with Vol. II of the East Texas Mill Town series, with Vol. III to follow next year.
I know many of you have degrees in English or have published novels, so far be it from me to try to set forth the rules for creative writing. I'm sure most of you know them better than I. I do suppose that were I to mention two of my rules, one would be to avoid the repetition of words in the same sentence or close together, so always keep your thesaurus nice and handy. Two very unlike men of Colonial American literature - Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards - were exponents of another simple rule of English - "Never use two words if one will do the job," and 200 years later, that rule still applies.
Now at this time, if you only hold back your tomatoes, eggs, and other flying objects for a few more seconds, I promise to shut up after this paragraph. On November 19, 1863, a man named Edward Everett spoke for two long hours at the dedication ceremony of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and as Abe Lincoln prophesied, "the world would little note, nor long remember," a single world that was said. After Everett stopped, Abraham Lincoln then said more in 259 words and two minutes of time than most of us could say in a lifetime. Believe it or not, while I was writing this speech, an encyclopaedia I pulled out of the shelf fell open on the Gettysburg Address. And I reread it again for the brevity of its wonderful message, told in Lincoln's inimitable few words and concise manner, and it rekindled once more within me an added admiration for the man who had written it. For the creative writer, Lincoln's address, said to have been written on the back of an old envelope, carries a message of humility that none of us should ever forget. I thank you for your kind attention.