How I Learned to Write

Menachem Begin taught me to read. Okay, he didn't. But seeing a headline about him taught me that I already could read. 

Prime Minister Begin of Israel
Photo: MSGT Denham, US Air Force

It was 1978, and the world was gearing up for the Camp David Accords, in which Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin would make peace. But I was six, and the only “begin" I knew was the kind that meant start. So when I saw a newspaper headline that said, “Begin Agrees to Talks,” it meant nothing to me, and I took that as proof that I still didn’t “really” know how to read. 

But then my mother explained it, and a light turned on. I realized that I had read that headline just fine; the only thing that made it confusing was my lack of knowledge of politics. From then on, I knew that I could read anything I wanted to. And if I didn’t understand it, I could always fix the problem by reading more.

I wrote my first story that same year, dictating it to my mother, who transcribed it onto a cut paper snowflake. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive parent when it came to my writing, and she proved to be an excellent editor, as well. 

My childhood was anything but typical. I was rarely allowed to spend time with friends. Television was off limits (except for the gruesomely violent miniseries Roots when I was six—more about that in a later post), but it seemed there was always a book being read aloud in our family. My exposure to the world was mostly through books, which left me with the impression that most adults were authors, and writing books was how they communicated. So I assumed that when I grew up, I would write books, too. 

I did sneak in a little TV watching at my grandmother’s, though, where Quantum Leap gave me my first forbidden taste of science fiction. 

Writing was not only an escape for me, but also a safe way to express myself and—though I didn’t know it at the time—a way to process my feelings. My mother reminded me frequently that “feelings don’t matter,” and of course I believed her. So I consider myself lucky that I started writing stories so young. The process helped form my thinking patterns, and even now I frequently find myself thinking in allegories—a big advantage for a writer. 

Homeschool creative writing assignments were where I first heard the song—the beautiful music of the prose in my head. But it wasn’t my song yet.  

Commander Worf of Star Trek

My mother would assign me a piece to read, and then tell me to write something in the same style. I loved those assignments. The music of the author’s voice was still ringing in my head, and I was able to infuse it into a new story. I think it was these exercises more than anything else that helped me develop my own writer’s voice, my own song. And for me, writing is the process of freeing that song. 

My unusual upbringing gave me a unique inside-yet-outside perspective on life. Since I grew up so isolated, I don’t really share a culture with anyone. I’m forced to view even “my own” American culture from the perspective of an outsider. This ability to stand apart is invaluable for writing, and it’s a big part of why I like science fiction, with its stories about aliens and the unfamiliar future. 

I was grown and out of the house before I discovered Star Trek. I was in Ohio living with a Fundamental Baptist family (their terminology, not mine), and Star Trek: The Next Generation was airing original episodes. The wife of my host family disapproved because the show wasn’t conservative, but the husband watched it in the living room anyway. In spite of the obvious quality issues, its optimistic view of science and humanity soon had me hooked. 

The first screenplay I ever saw was Twelve Monkeys, because I stumbled across it on the internet. I printed it out and must have read it a dozen times before I watched the movie. Then I discovered StorySense.com and Buzz McLaughlin’s On Scriptwriting and learned how to write my own screenplays.

In 2018, I entered the Fan Fiction Film Festival with a feature-length Star Trek screenplay called Quicksilver, and it landed in the top ten.

In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to take two writing classes, one for short stories and one for screenplays, and I enjoyed them both immensely. I’ll leave you with one of my shorts from the screenwriting class:

BIOLAB

EXT. LEAH'S OFFICES - DAY

Viktor NAVARRE, 30s, waits at one of several tables on an outdoor terrace in 22nd-century Boston. He's very studious, Caucasian, fit, shy, not good-looking. He wears no jewelry except two plain rings nestled into the creases where his left middle and ring fingers meet the palm.

LEAH Carter, 30s, African American, vivacious, warm intelligent eyes, pixie cut, emerges from the building and passes its sign: "Leah Carter, M.D., Psy.D., Pediatric Psychology." She walks to Navarre and joins him. She also wears two rings on her left hand, in the same place as Navarre's.

They open their lunch containers and begin to eat.

NAVARRE

It's very exciting. What a time to be alive. I mean, Leah, how many people can say they worked on the first genetically engineered human?

LEAH

Yes, the, um... Oh, I can't remember. What are they calling him again?

NAVARRE

Homo syntheticus. Donald likes to flatter himself that he's creating a new species.

They eat in silence for a moment, enjoying the sunshine and their friendship.

LEAH

You don't even like babies, Navarre.

NAVARRE

Hate them. You know that. Slobbery, incontinent. Can't even talk, much less hold a decent conversation. But I don't have to deal with the actual fetus too much. Most of my work is analytical.

LEAH

But when the pregnancy comes to term?

NAVARRE

The incubation period, yeah. It'll be my job to disconnect the subject from the incubator and ensure its viability.

LEAH

You get to deliver the baby. And you don't even appreciate it.

NAVARRE
(repulsed)

It's a baby.

INT. DONALD'S OFFICE - DAY

Albert DONALD, 40, permanent scowl, always grumbling, sits behind a desk with an expensive desk wedge that says "Albert Donald, President." He also wears the rings on his left hand.

Navarre sits opposite.

NAVARRE

Property! Are you crazy? You can't do that! It's a human being!

DONALD

Doctor Navarre, I hired you to be a medical consultant, not a morality judge.

NAVARRE

I'm a doctor. "I will do no harm."

DONALD

Oh, go ahead, hide in the dark ages, then. Meanwhile, the twenty-second century goes on without you. My prototype will complete the incubation cycle, and it will be the sole property of Kalagen Corporation.

NAVARRE

You're forgetting one thing. You need me. Without my expertise, your "prototype," as you call him, won't survive to complete the incubation cycle. And I have no intention of bringing a human life into this world to be anybody's property.

DONALD

You're forgetting one thing. I already have you. If you refuse to fulfill your contract, you'll forfeit your medical license and go to prison. And don't think I'll release you from the contract.

EXT. LEAH'S OFFICES - NEXT DAY

Navarre and Leah eat lunch on the terrace again.

NAVARRE

You're jealous, aren't you?

Leah laughs.

LEAH

I wouldn't put it quite that way, but...yeah, a little. I mean, how can you not love babies?

NAVARRE

Well, this particular baby is not going to be, not if I can help it.

LEAH
(confused)

Oh?

NAVARRE

He can't be. Leah, Albert Donald considers this baby nothing but a company asset.

LEAH

Interesting perspective. But he's right in a way.

NAVARRE

No, you don't understand. I'm not speaking figuratively. As far as Donald is concerned, the company designed and made the baby, so the company owns the baby. He intends to hold him captive, as property.

LEAH

You can't be serious!

NAVARRE

I only wish this were all a joke.

LEAH

You have to shut it down. Maybe your boss will listen to reason, if only for his own sake. False imprisonment must carry quite a sentence.

Navarre nods, thoughtfully.

NAVARRE

Yeah. Donald's really not a bad guy. He's probably just...I'll talk to him.

INT. DONALD'S OFFICE - DAY

Donald and Navarre sit on opposite sides of the desk again.

DONALD

You think I'm a fool like you.

NAVARRE

What do you mean?

Donald inhales, about to answer, but is interrupted by something only he can sense. He rubs his left thumb against his rings and the live image of a man is projected on the office wall. The man is Zebulon "ZEB" King, 45, large frame, Caucasian, heavy swagger. He also wears the rings.

Navarre sits nearly motionless, eyes front, waiting.

ZEB

It's ready to go. This genome is beautiful.

At the mention of "genome," Navarre's head jerks up and his eyes fly to the projection on the wall, then narrow in confusion.

DONALD
(to Zeb)

Of course it is. I'm almost done here. I'll call you back.

With another swipe of his thumb across his rings, Donald closes the call. Donald and Navarre are alone again.

NAVARRE

Genome? He wasn't talking about our baby in the lab.

DONALD

I'm not a fool, Navarre. I don't play dice with a company I built with my own hands. What we're doing is perfectly legal. Perhaps you're not aware of the Identity Act of Twenty-One Twenty-Four.

NAVARRE

Not off the top of my head.

DONALD

Just a little Congressional housekeeping to keep up with the times. It defines the term "human"--as in "human rights"--as a member of the species homo sapiens.

NAVARRE

As opposed to what, Neanderthals? I would think the United States Congress has better things to do with its time.

DONALD

As opposed to homo syntheticus. Your little "human-rights" project is legally not human. What do you think corporate campaign contributions are for, anyway?

Donald pushes his chair back and stands.

DONALD, CONT'D

I have another meeting.


EXT. LEAH'S OFFICES - NEXT DAY

Navarre and Leah eat lunch on the terrace.

LEAH

I guess you have a decision to make. And this time I'm not jealous.

NAVARRE

It's not that simple.

LEAH

Simple? Either bring a child into this world as a slave or go to prison? I wouldn't call that simple.

NAVARRE

They found another specialist.

LEAH

As qualified as you?

NAVARRE

No, but enough. The baby's going to be born whether I go to prison or not.

LEAH

I wish...

NAVARRE

Yeah, I've been thinking about that.

LEAH

About what?

NAVARRE

I'm going to talk to Donald. I'll be damned if that kid has to grow up with nothing but cold scientists who look at him like a lab rat. And I'm going to tell Donald he needs a child psychiatrist. And not just any child psychiatrist. He needs you.

Leah beams.

NAVARRE, CONT'D.

You sure you want to do this?

LEAH

Never been more sure of anything.

INT. KALAGEN LAB

The windowless lab is big enough to be an airplane hangar, but we concern ourselves only with the incubation cell. While Leah stands by with a receiving blanket, Navarre opens the sealed incubation chamber, retrieves the baby and suctions his nose and mouth. The baby immediately starts crying loudly.

LEAH
(cooing)

You've got strong lungs, Apollo.

Navarre smiles and hands the baby to Leah, then clamps and cuts the umbilical cord.

He holds his hands out: he wants to hold the baby.

LEAH, CONT'D.

He can't talk, you know. Only drool and poop.

Leah hands the baby to Navarre, who cradles him tenderly.

NAVARRE

I don't care. He's my boy. It's gonna be a tough life, little one, but we're gonna get through it together.

Footsteps tell us someone is approaching. The pair looks up to see. It's Donald.

DONALD

Well? Does it check out? Is it healthy? Genes stable?

NAVARRE

I'm just about to start the workup now.

DONALD

Well, get to it. We've got other projects waiting. We're not a charitable organization, you know. If the prototype's viable, we can get started on growing the first crop.

LEAH

The first crop...of babies?

Navarre places Apollo in a baby scale and begins to clean him. A computer screen at Navarre's eye level shows Apollo's weight, vital signs and other data.

NAVARRE

Embryos.

DONALD

Our line of business in this company, Madam. I believe you remember from your orientation?

LEAH

Yes, of course. Only they never used the word "crop."

INT. DONALD'S OFFICE - NIGHT

Donald is alone in his office. He fidgets with an antique diver's watch--from our time--and frequently glares in the direction of the open door.

Finally, Zeb arrives in the doorway.

DONALD

It's about time, Zeb.

Zeb comes in, closes the door and sits.

ZEB

What's on your mind?

DONALD

The prototype came out of the incubator today. My team tells me it's viable.

ZEB

Congratulations. You could have said that on the phone. What do you want?

Donald pushes his chair onto its back legs and takes a deep, self-important breath. He's unusually relaxed; his scowl is almost gone.

DONALD

I want to move on to the next step, of course. Get started on that bioweapon.

FADE TO BLACK

No comments:

Post a Comment