I was in the fifth grade, and an editor of the local newspaper, the Wahpeton Daily News, must have needed extra ink with which to fill her pages. She asked my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Bjornson, a matronly sister-of-the-sod and a die-hard fan of Anne of Green Gables, to have her students write poems that might, just might, if they made the cut, be published in the sainted News.
Up to that point, about the only poems I’d read were by folks like John Greenleaf Whittier. In fact, Mrs. Bjornson had instructed each of us to memorize portions of “In School Days,” by that grandfatherly old Quaker.
To this day, when I plant head to pillow at night, lines from that poem will still rake across the time-worn byways of my brain which the obsessive mill of my mind often plunders for grist. I scribbled out a natty imitation in my Big Chief tablet with a number two pencil, all in rhymed couplets, and, lo and behold, “The Hanging Tree” made the cut.
I was a published author!
I began carrying pens and a small notebook in the breast pockets of my pearl-buttoned western shirts and I even bought a pipe at Gibson’s Discount Center (which I carried in the well of my cowboy boot but which I smoked on the sly under the old train bridge lest my mother should skin my ass.) Still, I was a published author.
I wish I could remember that poem better. I know I held onto the clipping, probably saved many copies, in fact. I’ve scoured files and boxes of old keepsakes, and I just can’t find it. All I remember is that it was about a regal old tree standing alone on a stormy hill and from which many men had been hanged for various reasons, their widows sobbing beneath it and “salting its roots with their tears.”
I had so much fun writing that first poem that I couldn’t stop. Then as now, with a pencil in my hand…or a keyboard at my fingertips…I get giddy and sweaty with the creative fire. I was a shy kid, a self-effacing hayseed. Writing broke me out of my shell. Usually incorporated into my early English classes was one or two hours a week in which we students were compelled to write creatively. Sometimes our teachers would give us a prompt or they’d just let us write a poem, a short-story or an essay about anything we wanted.
I didn’t care. Prompt or no prompt, when I opened that tablet with the prospect of filling a page or three with a made-up world, my heart would quicken, my palms get sweaty, and my mind would race.
Most times when I set out to write, I couldn’t get the words down fast enough. One word, one sentence would lead to another until I was as enmeshed in that imaginary world as much or more than the actual world of the classroom in North Dakota. I didn’t want to surface. I didn’t want to return to the humdrum world of the present when the one in my head was so much more compelling.
I’m feeling it right now as I write this. My heart is beating fast. I’m breathing as though I were walking quickly. I’m warmer than usual, I can feel my pulse in my ankles, my head is stuffed to brimming with thoughts and the urge to get them down on the screen as quickly and as clearly as I can, so that I can make some unsuspecting reader out there laugh, cry, scream, or call me “sick” or “gross.”
To captivate them.
To captivate, entertain, and evoke a response was my main motivation back then in the fifth, sixth, and seventh-grade English classes, and it still is today. In math or science class, I was a moron. In fact, a teacher or two, throwing up his or her hands in frustration, even called me that to my face—back during a time when a teacher using that term didn’t seem all that unreasonable. Especially in my case. But I excelled in English. That’s where I shone, and man oh man, I loved shining!
When we students were called on to read to the class what we’d written in our Big Chiefs or spiral-bound notebooks, I knew from experience that I could evoke a response with my writing. And I always did. Positive or negative, I didn’t care. I usually got equal amounts of both.
I didn’t see much difference between a fellow student calling what I’d written “gross” or “weird” and “heartfelt” and “poetic.” It didn’t bother me if someone exclaimed, “Oh, god, why would you write about such a thing? What a bizarre brain you have, Peter!” I didn’t care if they laughed or cried or looked at me as though I were an amber-eyed, three-headed demon who’d just sat down in my chair.
As long as I was getting a response, as long as I wasn’t boring anybody, I felt praised.
I’m like that to this day.
But back to the apprentice me. That first publication gave me the publication fever. If I could get a poem published in the Daily News, why not the…why not the…? There was my problem. Where did an author go to continue his career?
Why not The New Yorker?
My parents always told me that to get anywhere in this crazy world, you needed to aim high. Shoot low, you’d land low. Aim high, you’d land high.
I found out about The New Yorker in the Leach Public Library, a leonine ole edifice sitting on the broad greensward across from City Hall. I’d gathered enough courage to visit that intimidating building after I’d heard that anybody, even I, could just walk in and check out a book.
I’d stop in to warm up on cold winter afternoons when I was delivering newspapers—the very newspaper of my first publication—to sit and read until I could start feeling my fingers and toes again. After I became an author, I perused the magazine racks for a rag that looked worthy of becoming the home of my next effort.
The New Yorker, it was!
I set about carefully crafting my next gem—a poem about a rabbit in a snowy field. The rabbit is chased by a coyote, as we all are chased by death howling outside our doors. It ends, as does much of my writing to this day, coincidentally, with a good deal of blood.
When I’d penciled several drafts in my Big Chief, I broke out my dad’s portable Royal typewriter, long stored away, to give my carefully considered rhymes the Official Author treatment. I opened the case, rolled a sheet of pure white paper, paper as white as the snowy field in my poem, into the machine, and started to type.
Only, since the machine hadn’t been used since my father’s stint in the state college had ended a decade before, the ribbon was as dry as a dead moth’s wing.
Off to the office supply store for typewriter ribbon. This new stuff was as fresh and black and as professional-looking as all heck. Over half a dozen nights, I hunted and pecked my way through a half a ream of paper before I finally got the whole thing flawlessly hammered out on one black-and-white sheet.
Twelve lines of utter beauty. They looked so good they should have been framed.
Brilliant. The old Quaker himself couldn’t have churned out lines so profound.
Off to the Big Apple went “Death in a Snowy Field.”
How long do you think I had to wait for a response? One month? Two months? Three months to a year?
To my delight, the very next week a tony-looking ivory envelope with The New Yorker logo showed up in my humble mailbox at eleven-eleven Evergreen Court, Wahpeton, North Dakota. They must have loved it so much they couldn’t write back fast enough with a lucrative offer. Could they pay me for the privilege of publishing this weighty, philosophical and insightful work?
Dear Peter Brandvold:
Thank you for sending your poem, “Death in a Snowy Field” for our review. Unfortunately, we are returning it to you with no intention of publishing. While your work does display some interesting imagery and overall promise, we found this poem a bit trite. If you’d like to submit to us again, please remember to include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Without one, we can’t guarantee a response.
Aim high, fall hard.
I had to look up the word in Webster’s. I promptly felt as though I’d been kicked by a mule.
“Stale.” “Tired.” “Unoriginal.” “Common place.” “Pedestrian.” “Worn.” “Stock.” “Hackneyed.” “Corny.” “Cliched.”
I had to look up some of those words, too. By the time I was through, I felt like throwing Dad’s typewriter out my bedroom window. I felt like crawling under my bed and mewling like a gut-shot coyote.
I felt stupid, insulted, angry, sad, furious, humiliated…
And driven to get better.