Updated: Mar 12
When I was in the sixth grade roughly around twelve years old, I had written a book report for Mrs. D (I will change her name to protect the innocent, okay, the not so innocent for the purposes of this story at least) my English teacher at Park Hills elementary school in Spartanburg, S.C., so this was probably around nineteen eighty-one. She was handing out our papers, including our grades, passing them out to each student at their desks. I skimmed mine quickly and saw there was a handwritten note on it, I don’t recall the exact verbiage so I will have to paraphrase: “this looks like either you had help or you copied it from the back of the book.” I don’t even recall the grade, if there was one that had been bestowed upon me, I just remember stopping at that point once I read those words with a distinct feeling of indignation and disbelief. Back then, as now, paperback books had a synopsis of the story on the back and I suppose she believed me to be a thief of words, a purloiner of prose. She had accused me of cheating basically and skirting the rules with my work! To paint more of my backstory, both of my parents were avid readers, into the arts, and so they both read constantly and we had a library room in our home with multiple bookshelves. It was a habit of mine since I was a young child to camp out at these purveyors of wisdom, of story, to journey and look at their books as I saw them reading all the time, and of course, it made me quite curious relative to what had caught their apt, enthusiastic, and consistent attention throughout the years. As a result, many times even into my teens I would be sitting on the floor in the library at our house pulling out selected tomes, sampling so many interesting flavors, ranging from the classics to contemporary works, history, mystery, you name it. So many names I recall: James Michener, John D. McDonald, Dick Francis, Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout, Robert B. Parker, Joseph Wambaugh, Mark Twain, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Gregory McDonald, Bernard Malamud, James Clavell, Donald E. Westlake, Dorothy L. Sayers, John Le Carre, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Mickey Spillane, Gore Vidal, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, Robert Benchley, Sidney Sheldon, John Gregory Dunne, William Goldman, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Peter De Vries, Dorothy Parker, Lawrence Block, William Peter Blatty, W. Somerset Maugham, Dashiell Hammett, Frederick Forsyth, John Dickson Carr, Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum, Leon Uris, Truman Capote, and the list goes on and on. My Dad enjoyed mostly historic fiction, thrillers, and mystery as mentioned earlier, which as a writer is what I've gravitated to for some projects, particularly mystery. I suppose it also didn’t hurt that my Dad did radio book reviews and received books more or less weekly, newly released stuff too. Needless to say there were also some interesting “out of the ordinary” things as well here and there: an Elvis memorabilia book, the Harry Houdini scrapbook, a book about The Stereopticon complete with cards like slides (for those not in the know this was the precursor to the Viewmaster), the “new at the time” version of King Kong that would be made into a movie in the eighties with Jessica Lange, and other interesting and eccentric treasures. I also vividly remember my Dad literally went around with a paperback book in his back pocket, always, without fail. Hell, even when we went out to eat while we waited on our food half the time he would be quietly reading his book, whatever he was going to review, or simply for the sheer fun and enjoyment he gained from it. Ultimately it rubbed off on me elaborately over the years, and in addition to a distinct sense of plot and grammar, I had an emotionally vested interest in story telling, literature in general, and a love and passion for the written word from a young age. My Mother was also a big reader and she, not unlike my Dad, would read in multiple locations, she didn’t discriminate, the bed, the couch, all over the place. I credit in many ways the creativity that I have worked hard to continue to develop; please note like breathing it is never a given my good friends, as a direct inheritance and vestige of being around my Mother who had written her own stories since she was a child, also providing illustrations at times, designing dresses with pastel pencils, so very creative. She has inspired me my entire life and continues to do so. Not just for her story telling ability which was indeed profound and rich, but also how she treated others, not unlike her Father, my maternal Grandfather, who also was very kind, caring, and considerate. With all of this said it certainly offended my by then keenly developed fondness for reading and writing, the purity of this, the honesty and integrity, all of this seemingly tainted as I was an extension of this lineage, this appreciation, when my teacher, my English teacher of all folks, accused me of cheating. Words were my church in a sense, and still are, so to desecrate that with an accusation of impropriety and disloyalty to story, to words grouped together gloriously was more than I could take. “You accused me of cheating!” I exclaimed as she was near the next row of student desks, already with tears welling up in my eyes. “I didn’t say that specifically in the comments, I just wasn’t sure you were the author of that report,” she stated. “That is what it says!” I stated emphatically becoming upset even further. “I think we need to discuss this outside Steffan,” Mrs. D continued. As I stood up to go outside the classroom with her my emotional state was deteriorating, mixed feelings of anger and sadness welling up inside me, my defiance still intact however on some level. Once outside the classroom I must confess I don’t remember too many specific details of the conversation sadly, hell, it was thirty-eight years ago for God’s sake! Still, I know I reiterated that I absolutely “did not” copy my report from the back of the book, whose relative title I can’t remember either over three and a half decades later, but that I could prove it. How I proposed I would prove it I cannot recall at this juncture, but either I followed through with that premise, or she went back and reviewed my initial report again, I think it was the latter. I might have even added that I would review yet another book if that was what was needed, but I don’t think it came to that. Years later after reviewing fifty years of life, with much water under the bridge, many twists and turns in my journey, this moment, this anecdote represented my most hurtful experience based on how I was treated at the time. The indignity, the gall, the nerve! Certainly based on the subject matter involved it stung me more than ever being released from a job, personal attacks, or any other type of rejection experienced. I suppose this indeed is a statement of what writing means to me, its importance and sanctity in my life. Words and story are my cathedral, always have been, and getting them down, painting pictures verbally no matter how easy or difficult is my eternal sacrament. Worshipping there is pure, always an adventure, never dull, and a challenge that is welcomed. Upon reflection, I suppose it was my first lesson in sticking up for myself, but in the end, in retrospect, perhaps a reason to go on, to push until the work is done, making a statement of lasting merit somewhere, with someone, to be appreciated and respected for my art, ultimately to share and vibrate positively creating otherworldly escape for folks in a sometimes unforgiving and unpleasant world. This is the goal at least. To elicit a laugh, a sigh, tears, palpable excitement, or peace and calm is the cunning albatross we seek as writers, our great hope, let it be yours and mine.