I was a teenage (and possibly disturbed, passive-aggressive, and very weird) writer

Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.

Last year, visiting my father and stepmother, I discovered a trove of letters. 

My letters. 

Ever since I was six, my dad and stepmom had moved away. I lived in New Hampshire, and they lived in Montreal. So I’d sent them a fair number of letters over the years. And it turns out, unbeknownst to me, they have been saving every scrap of paper --- every letter, drawing, and ransom note --- I've ever mailed them. Real letters, as in lick-and-stick-on-a-stamp, and stick-in-the-mail letters. This was before personal computers and the Internet, kids.

What these letters show, my friends, are the inklings, the faint glimmers, the dewy hopes of a budding writer.

And a very weird and possibly disturbed pubescent boy.

Yet I also see here the desire of this young Ethan to express himself, however strangely. Did I know then that I’d become a writer? No. At the time, I wanted to make my fortune as a film director, or a cartoonist. Or to get rich on the professional Dungeons & Dragons circuit. Somewhere along the way, I had discovered an old manual typewriter. And began to type.

I’m going to show you three highlights from a particularly prolific time in my young career as a belletrist, the year 1980. These letters were all written in the autumn I turned 14. What do you make of them? I have some thoughts I’ll share at the end of this post.

Letter 1: To Whom It May Concern

Here’s a letter I wrote to my dad and step-mom, in the form of a fake court summons:

September 21, 1980

To Whom It May Concern:
Dear Sir/Madam:

We are sorry to confirm that the apartment you are residing at violates the Quebec Code Book Council decision, Article VII, Section 3, Number 27, Line 46 that states “No person(s) with the middle initial of O or the absence of a middle initial will not, under any circumstances, be able to reside at an apartment building with a three digit numeral in which the first and third numerals are equivalent base values and a third numeral that is an uneven integer."

Then I go on to say:

It has come to our attention that your case falls under [this] example, which means that we expect you to appear in court on the date in the space below. SEPTEMBER 32, 1889. Failure to appear in court at the stated date will result in the following penalty: Excessive loss in power, prestige, and sexual potency.

Very truly yours,

E.J. Gilsdorf and Associates

Just a week bit passive-agressive, do you think?

Letter 2: Run On

I loved writing, I also fancied myself an editor. Here, I've written a letter, but before sending it, I've corrected it with red editorial marks like my English teacher would have done.

You can see the corrections for "run on" and "spelling" and the suggestion "Try to use others than 'I' " and crossing out “good” and correcting it with “well.” All very clever. Now it seems quite clear that young Ethan seemed to be headed in a writerly (or at least grammar-ly) direction. Funny, because I never did learn the parts of speech or how to diagram a sentence in school.

Letter 3: Multiple Choice

Here I've written a letter in the form of a multiple choice test. Or choose your own adventure story. Or interactive fiction. Here are highlights:

• Our cat Sox is missing, either "missing for weeks" or "escaped from vet's."
• Mom appears to be fine, but our beagle got a hysterectomy.
• Recent books I've begun to read might include: My Name is AsHer Lev or The Sword of Shannara.
• I've begun to play D&D.
• Under "stupid things" one possible response is "anxious to see you."


I wrote these in 1980, as I said. This was just a year or so after my brother, sister and I were getting used to our new and disabled Mom, who has suffered a brain aneurysm, and survived.
So maybe these letters were trying to get my Dad to notice me, and my budding creative talents, probably going unnoticed at home due to everyone focused on caring for my mom.

Or maybe I needed an escape. After all, that’s one of the function of writing.

But, also this: I was also just practicing. Messing around. Sort of like the literary equivalent of a kid banging on a the keys of a piano. To see what noise I could make. Which I think is another reason we write. To just make some noise.

So get out there, and make some noise with your pens, pencils, and keyboards. To my mind, the best noise comes from a clanky old manual typewriter.

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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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