When I was a freshman in high school, a Great Poet visited my creative writing class. I knew he was a Great Poet because a friend of mine who was two years older than I and who could already grow a beard and who had taken third place in a national poetry contest told me he was, and because this Great Poet had published a poem in Rolling Stone—or had published a poem that had been mentioned in Rolling Stone. Either way, the man, as far as I was concerned, had cred.
At fourteen, I had already made up my mind that I wanted to be a writer. My plan was to write big swords-and-sorcery epics like all the big swords-and-sorcery epics I had read since my grandmother handed me a copy of The Hobbit the summer after I turned twelve. The Great Poet did not like swords-and-sorcery epics. It was not his fault, he just didn’t, but I sensed right away that my taste in literature was a strike against me. I wanted the Great Poet to like my writing. He had a kind of nasally, intellectual delivery that was unfamiliar to me and that intimidated me, and I hoped that if I could write something really great I would win him over and I wouldn’t feel intimidated anymore. When he told us we would be doing a descriptive writing exercise, I saw my chance.
The exercise consisted of the Great Poet asking the class to finish sentences like: “When the shovel hit my ribs, it felt like . . .” I had been reading a fantasy writer who was immensely popular at the time and who liked to dip into his OED as much as possible. Now that must be good writing, I reasoned, and so I set about doing my best imitation of him, never settling for one adjective when I could think of two or three others.
The next day, when the Great Poet discussed our assignments, he took particular relish with mine. Normally this would be a good thing; on this occasion, not so much so. He read my work aloud, description by description, intoning my phrases with mock Shakespearean flourish. This got a good laugh from the other students whose writing he did not read aloud with mock Shakespearean flourish. “I hope you understand,” he said as he handed it back to me, “that I’m only having fun with you.” At the top of the page he had written, Bill becomes a man!
That night I tacked the assignment to the wall above my typewriter. Never again, I told myself, would I ever make the mistake of overwriting. I had learned my lesson. It was good he had done that, because now I would never make that mistake again and I would be a better writer because of it.
Yet my mistake had not been overwriting. My mistake had been my belief that the Great Poet’s taste mattered more than mine. It’s possible, I think, that the Great Poet wanted it that way—but it doesn’t matter. Even at fourteen I had both the right and the capacity to decline his or any aesthetic hierarchy. Maybe I actually liked all those adjectives. But because I had ceded the right to say what I did and did not like, I was left trying to figure out how to please The King. It was confusing and unsettling. Whoever knew for sure what The King would like? And more importantly, when would I get to be king?
The answer, of course, is that I, like everyone, was born a king. We are all lords and ladies of our own desire, and you take that crown as soon as you choose to follow yourself alone, despite fashion, prejudice, advice, and dissent. The pain I felt that evening when I went home to my desk, determined to grow up and never make silly mistakes again, was not from being exposed as a bad writer, but from the choice I was making at that moment to abandon myself, the one who would have otherwise chosen from that moment forward what I did and did not like. It was like floating off in a raft, waving good-bye to the self, who stood watching silently from the shore. That seemed like growing up to me. And yet the beautiful thing I have discovered about the self since that night is that no matter where or how often I leave it, the self is always waiting for me, patiently and eternally, with my crown.