Writing can be a dangerous activity. Not in the way of, say, a bit of cutting-board contamination (Kung Pao chicken) leading to one’s first experience with drug delivery by suppository. Nor in the way of turning too fast and into one’s gravel driveway on a new 150-cc motor scooter and crashing into the shrubbery as neighbors look on in amazement. But writing can be dangerous in similarly peculiar ways, especially when the writer dashes off a piece of writing with insufficient forethought. (“Dashing off” may imply that.)
The progenitor of impulsive writing is, as you might imagine, impulsive speaking.
Thinking back, as I do when searching for examples from my past, those kindergarten days of yore in Chase City, Virginia come to mind. My dirty word lexicon consisted of “wee-wee” and “doo-doo,” making them numbers one and two in usage as well as, well, you know. Uttering either meant an eruption of laughter from the kindergarten intelligentsia – and incurring Mrs. Moseley’s ire and default punishment: a trip to the bathroom to wash out my mouth with soap. Ivory, if I recall. It was a time when teachers were rarely imprisoned for forms of mild child abuse.
I was a repeat offender known to skip the soaping step, so Mrs. Moseley would have a girl classmate accompany me. Once we were safely out of sight, I entreated my witness for mercy, which meant joining me in the lie I had performed the tastebud-abusing deed. (Bless you Nancy Parham, Yvonne Bugg, et al.) It was a standard ploy for us mouth-washers. Even though Mrs. Moseley was inadvertently honing our ability to fib, we loved her and that kindergarten she ran out of her basement.
By fifth grade, teachers still had great leeway; and mine, Mrs. Parker, used all the lee she could get away with. A classmate’s report of my rash comment, e.g., “George said he would beat the snot out of me,” would land me in solitary confinement in the hallway athletic-equipment closet. At least until I came up with a highly effective early release stratagem: bouncing a red playground ball without pause in the darkness. Mrs. Parker left this mortal realm long ago, and sad to say, I still hate that woman.
The habit of impulsive speech tagged along with me to Bluestone High School. An innocent but overheard laugh during assembly once got get me suspended for three days. After that, I became quiet. And read Marvel comic books in class. And had them confiscated. They would’ve been worth a lot today, Mr. Blane, wherever you are.
It was during the maturation process of college that I made the leap from rash comment to dangerous writing situation. I had been putting off choosing a topic for a philosophy paper; Professor Carlsson pressed me on it.
“Nietzsche’s epistemology,” I blurted. The nature and origin of knowledge had interested philosophers for ages. Nietzsche was among the greatest.
“Really?” Carlsson said, and added, “Very interesting.”
A bit of research later, possibly done the night before the paper was due, I discovered Nietzsche had never given epistemology much thought at all. My esteem for the great man dropped immediately along with that for a certain close-mouthed college prof of my acquaintance. Then I scoured the library for every Nietzsche-ism I could in a bungee-cord stretch contrive to address the subject. It was the first time I had written very creative nonfiction. (It’s a subset of creative nonfiction.) I received an A, and to this day that paper remains among my most treasured writing specimens.
But the greatest danger that writing ever put me in? That was not to come for many years. An account of that life-threatening event and its cast of characters – a careless outdoors writer, an ex-Marine crackpot, an African lion, and a Maasai spear – comes to you next week.