Early creative outlets

Brad and I were just chatting about our early creative outlets, and I thought it might be interesting to hear what some of our readers did while generating the “juvenalia” volume of their complete works. As for me, I’ve been publishing more or less continuously since age twelve. I began drawing comic books in sixth grade, starting with “The Adventures of Mr. West,” based on one of my teachers. As I recall, I originally started it because I felt that he had unfairly denigrated a timeline that I was working on, so he was something of an “anti-hero.” Other stars included Mr. Wilcox, who was quickly reduced to a head in a jar. It was a more innocent time — I’m sure if I were in school today and drew such things, I’d be institutionalized.

Eventually it somehow evolved into a sci-fi series starring the crew of the S.S. Swift: Swifty (the incompetent captain), Ensign (the second-in-command who was always covering for him), Drago (who looked like a dragon and was often treated as their pet or child), and Paddy (an Irish character who was frequently killed off and resurrected). Every character’s body looked basically the same, and their heads were based heavily on the style of the comic strip Fox Trot. I recall doing at least two continuity reboots during my career as a comic book writer — publishing an issue every couple days led to some pretty contrived plots.

For a time, I was trying to monetize the comic book (which I would draw on notebook paper and distribute to friends by hand) by starting a spin-off magazine known as the Swifty Spotlight. It included single-frame Swifty comics, television reviews, and a series of sci-fi stories loosely conceived as a “prequel” to the Swifty universe. A lifetime subscription cost $5. It ran for approximately twelve issues, and I don’t know if any copies still survive.

By the end of middle school, the comic book thing wasn’t working for me anymore — it was clear that I couldn’t draw and had no willingness to do the work required to correct the problem. I did a few last issues that I’m still proud of. One featured “reader mail” and basically skewered all the questionable artistic choices and plot devices I used. For instance, I explained that the S.S. Swift was equipped with a clearly labelled “Villain’s Easy Access Door,” which was why the villains always wound up on the ship (an environment where the background art could be limited to a line designating where the floor and wall met, together with the occasional door). Another had the crew land on a planet in search of treasure, then get lost and give up. Finally, I did a one-off story about a superhero with electrical powers. He wound up catching the villain, but still felt empty inside — so the final frame showed him drawing a bath to electrocute himself.

In high school, I flirted with Kafkaesque short stories for a time, but only wrote a handful. Around that time, I also started a journal that I wrote in pretty prolifically — sometimes up to ten pages a night. It was all adolescent navel-gazing, but I did some experimentation with different styles, imitation of other writers, etc.

The groundwork for my current “system” of constant online publishing coupled with academic work was laid by my senior year. One of my friends had started a homepage featuring a “Hate List.” I was obviously a prolific contributor, and he ultimately handed the torch over to me. This formed the basis of my personal web site, originally designated “The Homepage.” After I graduated college, it would be succeeded by “The Weblog,” which incoporated some of the more self-obsessed “journaling” type of writing, and then the present blog.

Around the same time, I was taking an AP Literature class with an open-ended format: we would read books on the AP Lit exam list and write practice papers at our own pace. There were some required in-class writings as I remember, but it was basically the honor system — and I took it and ran with it. I became absolutely obsessed and even begged my mom to let me quit my high school job so I’d have more time to read and write. Critical and analytical writing came to seem like the most satisfactory creative outlet.

AND THE REST IS HISTORY!!! So what about you, dear readers?

16 thoughts on “Early creative outlets

  1. I spent a lot of time drawing giant killer robots and dinosaurs. Later in life, I learned everything there is to know about the equipment available to our armed forces, to the point of assembling dossiers and carrying them around in my backpack. I have full confidence I could have prosecuted the entire Persian Gulf War with a level of success comparable to what was achieved by our leaders at the time.

  2. AS soon as blogs were a thing I had one. I used to get angry when people told me they did not read it regularly. Before that was poetry, as early as grade school, and short stories which tended to be horror themed. The blog alternated as my writing does now between self involved navel gazing, tirades against various perceived social ills, and critical analysis of art, which of course has advanced from the “this album rules” phase I hope.

  3. It was a more innocent time — I’m sure if I were in school today and drew such things, I’d be institutionalized.

    I drew comics about talking knives and zombie sex in middle school and never got in trouble. But I think they had given up on me by then.

    Then again, I got kicked out of college for an earlier blog I had, so…

  4. I slept through most of my juvenalia. In retrospect, it was an acceptable decision.

    But I did have one “great” moment in my “Independent Study” project for “Writer’s Craft.” I designed a detailed plan for overturning the authority structure (both the school administration and their student council lackeys), key targets, how to effectively neutralize them, and core demands of the oppressed–i.e., those who found administration and/or student council to be more than a bit sad and annoying. Obviously, I put it online. My social fortunes briefly rose: not only was I accepted at more parties, but my presence was requested in the Vice-Principal’s office like every day for two or three months. I got the impression–creepy–that he preferred “talking” to me than the various miscreants he was otherwise required to talk to, but at least I had a legitimate way to get out of class. I wondered if this could be pursued as an inroad to destroying the administrative apparatus. An insider is always valuable. The ultimate outcome was that I was invited to a “constitutional meeting” to “discuss” how student council could be improved. I insisted I’d only attend if my friends could also come. We took it with the requisite seriousness. The movement sprawled out a bit. Shortly after this, another group independently invented a person named “Biff McGee” and made a number of posters with variations on the theme that “Out of the ashes of the revolution will rise Biff McGee.” This was accompanied by some hammer and sickle imagery–some even took to wearing hammer and sickles (on paper stolen from the art class!) on their arms. In all, that was my greatest moment. There were widespread rumours that the police were contacted, but they never spoke to me.

  5. I drew and painted anything I could at a young age and began trying to write novels early on as well. Teachers didn’t really know what to do with me but my parents, thankfully, gave me plenty of space to explore, pretend, imagine, and develop. It’s all part of the process.

    When I see stats and tracking on the prescription of creativity inhibiting drugs I wonder if our world is bound to become less colorful, less expressive, and less real in the search for sensibility.

  6. A sequel to “Star Wars: Dark Empire II”. It bothered me that the Galaxy Gun still existed at the end of those comics, but was never mentioned in the Jedi Academy trilogy.

    I didn’t find out there was an actual sequel until about a decade later. Mine had better art (I was eight years old and using crayons, it was 90s comics art).

  7. Some of my Boy Scout chums and I made a zine called The Freddie Flyer, named after the mascot of the state fish and wildlife commission’s program for educating children about boat safety. It was a horrible looking fish, which we thought was awesome and wanted to ironically promote him as a brand. The zine had divergent opinions about our most recent camping trips and probably something about heavy metal music.

    I was also into writing poetry, and actually published a couple poems beyond school and college publications, even into my 20s. I loved beat poetry and always carried Gary Snyder’s books around with me to read in spare moments.

    Also to echo Adam, being into comics, I too made a comic called Hapless Violence Comics and Stories #1. I still have it, or at least part of it. The comic had bizarre characters: The Hairy Skull, Fighting Pancake, The Leech, Wooly Mammogram, Inconspicuous Mortal. It was wannabe Fred Hembeck type stuff, as I thought his ‘Archie meets the Punisher’ comic was brilliant during this time. It was popular enough with my friends that we made a t-shirt with The Hairy Skull on it as the ‘official’ t-shirt of the trumpet section of the high school marching band. The t-shirt was a cereal box with the Hairy Skull presenting a bowl of cereal called Trumpet-O’s. “Kid tested, mother despised.” “Fortified with triple-high C’s.” Etc. I know, I know…

  8. I wrote preachy, smug Evangelical columns for my public high school’s student newspaper.

    There were a few short stories as well. I really only remember one: I was trying to imitate Douglas Adams, and it was called “Starship “Titanic.” That Adams soon produced a game with that name convinced me of my creative genius.

  9. I also started in elementary school with hand-distributed comics. Most prominently, I wrote a consistent series from about 4th grade through 7th grade called “Space Brat” about an obvious author-insertion character who flew a space fighter in a massive war between humans and robots. The primary antagonist was a robot named “Rusty,” who suspiciously resembled IG-88 from the Star Wars universe. Generally each story was a one off where Space Brat and his cybernetic copilot Malcolm (based on the classmate who originally taught me to emulate the Calvin and Hobbes art style) uncovered some grand scheme or were targeted by some new kind of robot assassin and foiled the plot within an issue. There was a multi-issue special event or two, and two continuity reboots – one when I made the jump to Jr High, which retold a lot of the original stories in a more coherent way, and one when I started getting “serious” about independent films and began trying to reboot the comic as a film franchise. I never finished the first film, but there’s footage to be found in my parents’ house.

    In about 7th grade, my dabblings in video took over my creative output completely and I started producing effects-heavy short films for the next several years. The best one from my high school years was called “Cutter Saul” and was a dystopian sci-fi story about a future in which multinational corporations ran the world and maintained private militaries and oppressively for-profit healthcare. I don’t know, in retrospect, why it seemed necessary to set this film in the future.

    I went to undergrad to study film, quickly found more of a home doing critical theory and theology papers, and said fuck it, I’m doing that instead.

  10. My earliest work of any note was a Thanksgiving play that I was asked to write for my 5th grade Hebrew school class, which was met with a “thanks but no-thanks” when my writing partner and I turned in a farce that involved Hitler and a giant turkey.

    In high school I started the Cyanide Tamales, a rock band that managed to produce an EP and three albums, the last of which we managed to mass-produce on cassettes and sell at our high school. The album had a small following among the arty weirdos who succeeded us, one of whom touchingly arranged for a 20-year anniversary digital rerelease. We were mostly a 4-track band, but we had a few live performances; after we closed the Winter Talent Show, they canceled future Winter Talent Shows.

    We also made an accompanying movie, taking advantage of the school’s sports media equipment. Eventually the sports media director, who had very patiently let us edit on his gear during lunch, asked us to return the favor by doing color commentary for our school’s Sports Night, a popular community event that got taped and replayed on local cable. The resulting tape was so off-the-charts weird that people called the cable station to complain, and he used to show the tape to his classes as a cautionary tale.

  11. Sheesh. I feel a little intimidated after reading some of these. I was never so ambitious, as my early creative efforts were just a number of short stories. Early stories typically involved a protagonist either in D&D type fantasy worlds or space. Their mission was usually to kill all the crazy shit coming at them.

    Perhaps more notably, I used to draw a lot. I wasn’t good enough to just put things on paper straight from my mind, but if I was looking at somebody else’s drawing, I could reproduce it reasonably well. I was good enough that I could charge classmates for their drawing requests. I charged between 25 cents and a couple of bucks, depending on how much effort the requested drawings required. “Draw rapper Snoopy”. 25 cents. “Draw a full sheet sized picture of Wolverine.” Two dollars. One time I did a drawing of Juggernaut that was good enough that I refused to sell it for the previously agreed upon price.

    What undercut my chance at a career in a creative field was the times when I most had the opportunity to pursue a path of writing (in some capacity) as a career were also the times when I was most practical and averse to such a risky field. In high school and my first three years of college, when I could have best aligned myself for that route, I wanted to be – at various times – an architect, an Air Force pilot, a lawyer, a physicist and an actuary. Good lord, what a list. Anyway, in my fourth year of college I decided there was nothing I wanted to do besides write.

    I tried to make up for lost time by writing and reading like a madman, but when I graduated with a math degree and applied to three different schools’ writing programs, I was turned down for all three. I told myself I’d continue writing and just forego the schooling, but once I was out of school (1998) I seemed to run out of ideas for stories. I didn’t really write anything again until I started blogging regularly in 2006.

  12. i worked on a historical novel for a couple of years in junior high. it was going to be a grand bildungsroman set in medieval central asia, but got caught in eternal revisions of the first couple of chapters. i also used to sketch pretty regularly, and wrote poetry/journaled for years (often every night) until one day i just stopped. likewise blogging, which i started in 2003 and kept at for about six years until i realized how self-indulgent my tone was. now i do none of the above but still tell myself i’ll start up again someday soon.

  13. I managed to write a play of sorts when I was three or four–epic story about Dracula and the wolfman doing something or other. I wouldn’t remember this at all, except that my mother saved the cue cards I made. The most legible reads, “Get to yur batl stashns,” a curious line that invites us to consider why Dracula’s castle had battle stations and who might’ve been attacking, points never resolved in the plot. The play was performed only once, in my bedroom, my father having borrowed a camcorder to humor my cinematic aspirations. Come to think of it, I also directed, since this was not a one-man show– my two year-old brother kept taking off his werewolf mask and didn’t howl to my liking.

    Pretty much everything I produced from that point on to maybe junior high was hilariously violent. Directed to paint pictures of our friends in kindergarten, I produced scenes of us in uniform (private kindergarten in Japan, didn’t go to school w/ Americans till grade school) dismembering each other with swords on the playground. I tried to give my teacher a valentine I drew, with a WW2 scene of one fellow machine gunning the brain out of another’s head, but my mother said it was inappropriate. Took me years to grasp why.

    By early elementary school I was completely stuck in a quasi-Arthurian version of medieval England. My favorite books were a simplified translation of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and some large children’s books on English history by a fellow named Unstead that I pulled out of the school library and kept for about three years. Everything I drew or wrote was derivative of these–significant amounts of bad poetry about knights and pictures of jousting. I could tell you every king of England in order from Alfred to Henry VIII, could identify armor styles characteristic of different parts of Europe. I actually daydreamed about lecturing in medieval history.

    Mid to later elementary school years saw increasing D&D influence. It was about this time I realized I had no artistic talent whatsoever and so mostly abandoned drawing derivative crap about Standard Generic Fantasy Team Kills Monster (that would be one human in armor w/ sword, one human in armor of a religious persuasion, one human in a bathrobe shooting fire out of his hands, and a dwarf with axe or large hammer–never any elves, as for some reason I never liked them–fighting something very big and red) for writing about same. Poems, short stories, many attempts to draw up maps and create fantastic(-ally predictable) geographies and histories. Mythological themes would pop up–I prefered Norse and Babylonian subjects.

    Junior high continued this, but with more snark and a broadening of themes to include teachers I didn’t like, lame attempts at political satire (thank you Ross Perot), and eventually a stint writing for the youth section of the city newspaper, until I moved away. For some reason they had me doing movie reviews. Oh, and I also wrote a piece about my early years in Japan that pissed a guy off enough for him to write an angry letter to a 16 year-old.

    In later HS I stumbled on some Ezra Pound and thought that it would be a good idea to write poetry with lots of chunks of Latin and obscure mythological references in it. Thank God nobody noticed, or politely pretended not to.

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