When I was 14 I started writing a mystery novel with perhaps supernatural overtones. I’d been writing stories for as long as I could scribble more-or-less recognizable words on paper, though by 14 I was typing on a big heavy typewriter at a decent clip.
My protagonist was a 12-year-old boy—for plot purposes I felt it was important to begin the story in the summer between his sixth and seventh grades at school. He lived in a small town that was an amalgam of all the small to medium-sized towns I’d lived in thus far.
My habit at the time was to write until I couldn’t think of what happened next (or my folks yelled at me to stop making all that clattering typing noise and go to bed). The next day I would read what I had written so far, and usually I could start typing away, writing the next scene and the next and so on.
So one afternoon, when I had several chapters finished and wasn’t sure what to do next, I re-read what I’d written thus far. It was all going well until I hit the last scene I’d written the night before…
There wasn’t anything technically wrong with the scene. I hadn’t accidentally changed a character’s name or contradicted something in an earlier scene. What freaked me out was the dialogue between two of the adult supporting characters.
They were flirting.
The narration didn’t say it was flirting. The two characters never said anything even remotely romantic or sexual to each other. Neither one complimented the other on how they looked or anything like that. But the banter between them, to me, was obviously that of two people flirting.
And they were both men.
It was 1974. I lived in a very tiny rural town that was hundreds of miles from anything that could not be described as another tiny rural town. I had been raised in an evangelical fundamentalist church, and just about every other church in the town was just as conservative as ours. I had known since puberty that I was attracted to other guys, but I also believed that I was going to burn for eternity because of it. And I knew without a doubt that if anyone ever found out I liked other guys, I would lose what few friends I had.
Heck, my father had once, when I was 10, beaten me badly enough to break my collar bone (and to require stitches in my scalp and upper lip) because I cried when I fell out of a tree. None of the names he was calling me while beating me were as nice as “sissy” but every one of them was a crude synonym for “homosexual.” If that’s what he did because I had cried when he thought I was too old to be crying, I knew it would be infinitely worse if he found out I liked other guys!
I gathered up all the pages of the story, plus pages out of notebooks where I had scribbled ideas about the story when I was away from my typewriter. I rode my bike to the river, dug a hole, put the pages in it, and set them on fire. I stayed there until everything had burned, then I scooped up mud and buried the ashes.
In retrospect, I suspect no one I knew back then would have read between the lines of that scene. It just would not have occurred to most of them that it was even possible for two men to feel that way about each other. I probably would have been safe if I had just finished the story.
On the other hand, I had been given several long, stern lectures when I had written a war story a few months before and had one of the characters say “damn” when he narrowly avoided getting his head blown off. And a few people who read my science fiction stories always wanted to know why I never had any of the characters pray for deliverance from whatever danger I put them in (why they never asked the same question about my war or detective stories is worth another essay). And, given the types of teasing and bullying I had been enduring for years, not to mention the odd questions that sometimes teachers and other adults asked me about some of my friendships, it’s fair to say a lot of people suspected I was gay.
I had nightmares all night about someone having seen me burning the pages and subsequently tricking me into admitting why I had burned them.
The next day I put a new sheet of paper in the typewriter and began writing a story. It was an epic fantasy with monsters and sorceresses and damsels in distress. My protagonist was a boy about my age who was an assistant gardener in some castle. He was secretly in love with the princess. I managed to mention his secret love for the princess about five or six times in the first chapter.
A few months later, when I had to write a short story for a school assignment, and it needed to have a science basis, I made darn sure my protagonist’s fiancée featured prominently in the tale. And to mention that he kept a Bible in his briefcase right beside his notebooks and slide rule.
Many years later, I found the manuscript of that fantasy novel (along with a bunch of other stuff I wrote in my early teens). The fantasy novel consisted of nearly 200 double-spaced typed pages. And it was awful. To be fair, most everything I wrote back then was cringe-worthy—even the one science fiction story I managed to sell to a tiny publication (which went out of business about a year later) when I was 16.
But you can tell which stories I wrote during the period when I was scared to death someone might figure out I was gay from my fiction. Those stories are noticeably worse. They aren’t worse because the heterosexuality or faith of the protagonists is spelled out. They are worse because I, the author, was constantly worrying about what people would think when they read the tale. I was not focusing on telling the best story I could.
I hadn’t planned for those two supporting characters in that mystery novel to be romantically involved. I hadn’t planned any romance of any kind for the story. I had certainly not planned for any of the characters to be gay. I didn’t know any adult gay people at all (as far as I knew). I had fooled around, over the course of a few years, with a couple of other guys my age. But it had all been very furtive. I’m sure on the parts of most of them it was nothing more than hormone- and curiosity-driven experimentation.
My subconscious, for whatever reason, had decided those two personalities would be attracted to each other. It’s what made sense for them. I hadn’t planned it, but while I was concentrating on moving the plot along, the flirting was what naturally grew out of the narrative alchemy that is characterization, plot, setting, and theme.
If I had decided to remove the scene because it didn’t further the plot, that would have been fine. If I had revised the scene because it seemed to introduce a new subplot that would muddle the main story, that would have been fine. If I had decided to abandon the story because my plot was too convoluted, or because I realized I wasn’t ready to tell the tale, or because there was a more compelling (and different) story I should be telling, those would have been acceptable reasons. If I had abandoned the story because I realized that it just wasn’t a story worth telling, that, too, would have be all right.
The tragedy is that I stopped working on the story and destroyed every trace of it I could find because I was terrified of what people might think of me.
Given my circumstances, given the cultural climate of the time and place where I lived, it is perfectly understandable. Many would say it was justifiably prudent to set the story aside and concentrate on other tales. I literally might not have lived to tell any of the stories I’ve managed to get published subsequently if I had pursued that story at that time in that place.
And they may be right. But I hope that living to tell other stories isn’t the only redemption this particular tale receives. Because the opening scene of that novel—my 12-year-old protagonist kneeling over his first solid piece of evidence in a mystery that is just unfolding—has haunted me for all the years since.
Some years ago I opened up a file on my computer and I retyped that first scene. The world is a very different place than it was in 1974. I’m not that same person I was then, either. I’ve been working on this tale off and on for some years, now. In all of the important ways it is the same tale I was trying to tell back then.
I hope, someday not too soon, that you will have the chance to read it. And when you do, if I have done my job properly, no matter what happens to any of the characters within, I, the author, should be the very last thing on your mind.
“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.” — Ray Bradbury