Joy asked if I would share an excerpt from a letter I wrote to Darrell and Eric about how Bamboo Ridge had been a big part of my life growing up. That excerpt was rather short, so I thought I'd discuss why I write. This proved to be much harder than I anticipated. I couldn't answer the question succinctly in one sentence, so I thought I'd write a blog entry instead. I imagine my answer is hidden somewhere in these disjointed thoughts. I hope.

Last night I was lucky enough to have dinner with my former English teacher Bill Teter at a small cafe in Studio City, CA. We caught each other up on our lives and reminisced about the past. It was nice to see that we both still are regular journal writers. We compared notebooks.

Mr. Teter was my senior English teacher and my speech coach throughout high school. I've known him for a damn long time and the older I get, the more I am able to appreciate all he did for me. He's too polite to say this to strangers, but I was a terrible student. I'm pretty sure teachers described me back then as "troubled" or whatever word is used these days to mean "big pain in the ass", but I really can't blame them. I was desperately trying to stay afloat, and it showed, afraid that my depression would suddenly swallow me whole.

In high school, we had a stack of "Growing Up Local" in the corner of my English classroom. I often thumbed through the pages between classes, looking for names I recognized, making mental notes of the pieces I loved. It was then, five minutes before English class started, that I realized I wanted to see my name in print, attached to a collection of words that moved me.

While I struggled with my sexuality, depression, and parents' messy divorce during high school, UH Lab's English department focused on creative writing and daily journal writing. It was the perfect distraction from my chaotic personal life and ended up being extremely therapeutic for me. I used my English assignments as opportunities to write about what I was too embarrassed or hurt to say aloud. I wrote every chance I got, even if nobody read it but me and it felt good.

Growing up, I read to drown out the noise in my own life. In fact, I remember reading “Pass On, No Pass Back!” in Intermediate school so many times that I cracked the spine of the book. When I read it now, I have to cradle it so it doesn’t fall apart in my lap.

After dinner, I drove us to one of my favorite places in the city: Iliad Used Bookstore. Despite its name, it's located in a pretty seedy neighborhood in North Hollywood. It's easy to miss, especially if you're driving at night. It's on the corner near a street called Chandler that feels disconnected from the rest of the area. It reminds me of train tracks for some reason, maybe because it looks raised above the neighboring streets.

The store is huge, so I led Mr. Teter straight to the fiction/literature area. If you're patient, you can find some pretty great finds: like a hardcover copy of the Catcher in the Rye (with the famous carousel drawing) or two copies of Hermann Hesse's Wandering, which I learned is no longer in print.
Between the aisles of ceiling-high bookshelves, Mr. Teter read me a poem by Raymond Carver written as Charles Bukowski that he really liked. "It's funny," he added. "I think he does Bukowski better than Bukowski."

We discussed our favorite and not-so-favorite authors. He could not pass a shelf without knowing at least several of the titles. I felt like I was a student again, interested to hear his stories and insights on literature. Reminiscing about my years in high school, I realized how my ability to arrange words into sentences is what kept me from falling apart. Even now, I feel better after I've written something, anything. Sometimes I'll write for hours, just to empty the thoughts spilling over in my head.

We each purchased a few books, hugged, and then parted ways. I went home and wrote in my journal until I fell asleep at my desk.

Talk story

  1. Darrell Lum says:

    First of all, maybe you should buy a new copy of Pass On, No Pass Back…or find one at the Friends of the Library Book Sale. Maybe dollah table or 50 cents on the last day.

    Yeah, I hear that Teter's a great teacher and working with him on Growing Up Local, I got da inside scoops…he's just as much a kid as you are! Energy, passionate, smart, and a slighty twisted sense of connected and unconnected. But that is what writing is isn't it? Discovery.

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