Sometime in 1979, I'm sitting at my desk at Central Junior High doodling in the margins of a book report, waiting for the end of the class period. My eighth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Imelda Guthery, appears at my row, and the usual passing of papers up to the front commences...Hollingshead, Harris, Hallford. I hand her the stack of papers but catch the flash of something on her face as she sees the monster I've scribbled in the corner. A smile? A frown? Before I can work it out, she quietly tells me I need to stay after the bell, then moves on to the next row.
For the next few minutes, I'm in a knot worrying whether I've done something wrong, if I'm in trouble for something. The rest of the class period feels interminably long as I mentally sort through potential crimes. Once the rest of the kids have bustled out of the room, I make my way over to her desk and she asks me to take a seat. I'm braced for an admonition, a lecture...almost anything except for what she actually has to say to me.
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"Neal, you're going to be a writer." It isn't a question, nor a commandment, but it's like the tolling of a bell in some distant cathedral. In the instant she says it, I feel like she's some delphic oracle revealing the future that's ahead of me.
For the next few minutes, she draws out a roadmap. I'll want to get into the journalism program at the high school, but first I'll need to know how to type. That means enrolling in the typing class with Mr. Eddings next year, and in the meantime, she'll help me to continue to develop my writing skills and encourage my unconventional imagination.
From that day on, she would respond to my monsters in the margins of my papers with fanciful doodles of her own and become the first in a long line of women who would propel me into my writing career.
By the fall of 1981, I've moved up to the high school where my writerly ambitions are now being fueled by my new journalism teacher, Mrs. Laura Schaub. While Mrs. Guthrey's encouragement had taken the form of a relatively gentle nudge in the right direction, Mrs. Schaub has strapped me to a thermonuclear powered booster rocket and she's pointing me towards Alpha Centauri. She seems to have absolutely no doubt about my skills or my ultimate career, even if I lack the confidence to believe I'll ever be good enough to make it as a writer. I'm not even sure I'm good enough to be a paperboy. I'm surrounded by kids who have the spark, the drive, the tenacity to survive in a newsroom or on a TV screen. I, however, am just a fat weirdo kid writing a column called Timeloops in our school paper that tackles decidedly uncool subjects like science, science fiction, and whatever other save-the-world issue has a fire under my butt at the time I've got a deadline. In a class full of potential Woodwards and Bernsteins, I'm pretty sure I'm Carl Kolchak from The Night Stalker.
CHANCE ENCOUNTER - During a trip to Oklahoma in 2015, I happened to run into Laura Schaub as I was getting off a flight at the Oklahoma City airport. Still is still the same amazing lady who had been my teacher in high school.
By the next year, the rhythm of the class is almost a reflex. We get our assignments, we bang out our stories, and some of them make it into the school newspaper or magazine (if the editors think they're good enough). I've got my own column, but I honestly don't read much into it. Mrs. Schaub seems to like that I'm tackling really big picture issues, even if the other kids in my school aren't paying attention to the column, or to me. It all seems like a frivolous bit of fun until a series of unexpected events begin to change my perspective on my own writing.
During one of our usual end-of-month meetings, Mrs. Schaub is standing at her podium in front of the class and handling all the usual class business about deadlines, ad sales, and so on. At the end she pulls out an envelope and proceeds to announce that our school publications have won Oklahoma Interscholastic Press Awards - monthly statewide contests for high school publications. It's a big honor. I’m proud for Mrs. Schaub because this is a terrific endorsement of her, of our program, and of our school newspaper and magazine. While basking in this collective glow, I’m suddenly gobsmacked when she pulls out a certificate and calls my name. Timeloops has been named the best school column in the State of Oklahoma. Timeloops. My silly little sci-fi / futurist / neo-liberal soapbox, named after something from Doctor Who, has been recognized for journalistic excellence by complete strangers who didn't even have to pretend that they liked me.
A SURPRISE AWARD - One of the OIPA awards I won for Timeloops during high school. I'd win this honor at least four or five times more before I graduated.
The announcement is a shock to me for two reasons. Firstly, because I can't believe that out of all the high school newspaper columns in Oklahoma, my unconventional rantings deserved to rise to the top. Secondly, and even more perplexing, I'm not even sure how it could have happened. There's a process for being considered. It involves cutting out a copy of your story / article / column, attaching it to a board, filling in a form, and then mailing it to the association's headquarters at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. But I hadn't done that. I hadn't even considered doing it because I never thought there'd be a chance in hell it might be taken seriously by anyone other than me. I'll refer you back to the previous paragraph to remind you that nobody, or virtually nobody, at my school paid my column any attention. How had it been considered for, let alone won, a statewide award?
It was all because of the lady we called "Mom" Schaub. She was the one who had mailed it, and she would be the one who would continue to submit my work to the OIPA month after month, and the lady I'd have to thank for a dozen of those awards ultimately landing in my undeserving little hands. She believed in me fiercely as a writer, and she would continue to support me, and back me, and go to bat for me through the rest of my high school years. When I wrote my own satirical version of "A Christmas Carol" that was sharply critical of our city school board, she saw to it that it got printed not in the school newspaper, but in the much more highly circulated city paper, the Sand Springs Leader. When the school's literary magazine (run by the English department instead of the journalism department) generally refused to publish sci-fi and fantasy stories because they were considered unworthy to be included in a collection of literature, Mrs. Schaub helped me publish two annuals of my own alternative literary magazine, Vortex, and got the school to pay for the printing costs.
CAUGHT IN THE VORTEX - I had grand plans of publishing Vortex at least two or three times a year but getting enough submissions and finding time to get them produced was more than I was able to accomplish. These would end up being published during my sophomore and junior years. For those of you who know about my computer gaming work, a small bit of trivia. The cover illustrations used for both issues of Vortex were created by Kenneth Mayfield, the man who would later recommend me for my first job in the industry at New World Computing. Ken was also the primary artist on Planet's Edge, the first computer game that I ever designed from scratch. ALSO, on the cover of the second issue of Vortex you may notice a short story credited to Ron Bolinger. Ron was my co-creator for the original run of the Uncharted Regions audio drama series, and I later imported him to New World Computing to take over the writing duties on the Might & Magic series. He would go on to lead the story development for Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra as well as the Lightside and Darkside arcs for Might & Magic IV & V.
As I moved up through my junior and senior years at the high school, she would continue to guide me and give me the tools I needed to become the co-editor of the official mainstream school magazine, Page by Page. I'd learn not only how to write and edit news articles from her, but also how to do magazine layout the old-fashioned way. The hard way. No shortcuts. Press on headlines with Letraset. Pica poles. Rubber glue. Rule tape. Layout sheets. At the same time, I was lucky enough to be learning my craft at a time when computerized editing and typesetting were becoming available to a wider audience. I'd do all the typesetting for Page by Page on a gigantic beast of a machine called a Compugraphic Editwriter 7500 but which Mrs. Schaub affectionally nicknamed "Ottmar." It stank tremendously when you had to change the toner in the imager, but it was a joy to compose on, and it gave me a lifelong obsession with typefaces and fonts. Because of this predilection, she would give me the nickname that has stuck with me over the five and a half decades of my life: Nealios, a play on the classic typeface Helios. A name from classical mythology which refers to a sun god, but which I came to think of for its homonym. A son rather than a sun, a recipient of the love, and encouragement, and distilled wisdom of Mom Schaub.
OUR BELOVED OTTMAR - "Ottmar" was a fixture, and an obsession, of mine through my high school years, and I can't even begin to count the number of hours I spent in front of his keyboard. Ottmar was named after Ottmar Merganthaler, the German-American inventor who invented the linotype machine which revolutionized printing in the late 1880s.
After graduating from high school, I was more than ready to start my college adventure. I was looking forward to seeing the wider world, having access to more classes, and meeting new people. I wanted intensely to pursue a degree in journalism and knew my feet were now irrevocably set on the writer's path. But there was a major gap between what I wanted to do and what I'd be allowed to do in large part because of my father, Henry.
Dad was intensely practical, the director of the vocational department for the entire Sand Springs School District (a suburb of Tulsa.) He'd grown up poor during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl and saw college purely as a road that should lead directly into a traditional profession. He thought of writers, and musicians, and actors, and painters as future homeless people. Drug addicts. Probably perverts. Journalism skated perilously close to being disreputable in his eyes, but at the same time he was hard pressed to deny that you could get a steady job as a journalist. He read the paper, he argued with the TV weatherman during the evening news. His vocational department in Sand Springs actually oversaw Mrs. Schaub's journalism classes, and he'd been instrumental in helping get Ottmar for my high school out of surplus vocational funds.
And yet, it was still a struggle for him to accept journalism as an appropriate major for me. He'd come into my room and lean against the doorsill while I was writing, stare at me and say tremendously helpful things like "I never ever sat down to read a book for fun, let alone thought about writing one." Another gem of his was to pop in and say "Since you're not doin' anythin'..." followed by an insistence that I drop whatever I was working on and go with him to NAPA for auto parts or help him build whatever he was messing with at the time. I know this came out of love and a concern for my future well-being, but it was a fight in the months between my high school graduation and my enrollment in junior college. He wanted me to go after almost anything else. Plumbing. Electrician. Engineer. Banker. School teacher. Just at the point when I believed I was going to get roped into a career path that I'd absolutely hate, an unexpected champion stepped into the ring to fight on my behalf...my mother.
Having my mother intercede to defend my interest in writing was both unexpected and bewildering to me. She didn't care for any of the books I liked to read, and in general thought the entire body of English literature was just one huge pile of unchristian perversion. Like my father, while she would read the newspaper or the Bible, I never once saw her crack open a book of fiction and read it for pleasure. In mom's eyes, writing existed purely for the purpose of education, for the communication of news, and for the spreading of the Holy Word. That was it. All else was sacrilege. What I had in my favor, however, was that her Aunt Hazel had actually been a journalist at an early Oklahoma newspaper. Mom loved and respected Hazel deeply, and even modelled a great deal of her own life after her. If journalism had been a good and worthy profession for her aunt, then it certainly should be good enough for me. Although I would ultimately owe this great aunt of mine a huge debt for inspiring my mother to win this fight on my behalf, I wouldn't know about it until several years later.
MY MOTHER THE PARADOX - Despite her complete discomfort with anything that wasn't written in either a newspaper or the Bible, my mother made certain SOMEONE in the family read a book to me every night when I was a child, and later supported my frequent trips to the library and the bookstore. Thankfully, her profound respect for her journalist aunt would help her win over my father's objections about my choice to major in journalism in college.
By the summer of 1984, once the dust had settled between my parents and I'd received permission to pursue my authorial ambitions in college, I was anxious to get going. Ultimately, I aimed to attend the University of Oklahoma because it was well-respected for its journalism program, but before I took off to a four-year college that was half a state away from home, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. Adjusting to the demands of college would be one thing, but I feared that adding the complication of going off to live on my own might be more than I should try all at once (and there was a hometown girlfriend I didn’t want to part from either). As a way to ease myself into things, I planned to get all of my general education requirements out of the way somewhere in Tulsa, and then I could transfer to the big leagues when I felt I was ready for "the big jump."
Officially, as far as my enrollment went, I knew I'd be pursuing a journalism major, but what I was really looking for were classes in what was colloquially called "creative writing." In most places these were offered in a kind of demilitarized no-man's land between the Journalism and English departments with neither really knowing what to do with writers who aimed to create novels and short stories rather than work for a newspaper or a TV station. Thankfully, Tulsa Junior College (now called Tulsa Community College) had quite an extensive slate of writing programs aimed at would-be fiction authors.
Rather than wait for fall when I'd officially enroll for my first full college semester, I dove into a short story writing class that met on Tuesday and Thursday nights at TJC's brand-spanking-new southeast campus. Although I'd already learned some of the basics of narrative construction in my high school English classes, what I learned most from my first college course was about the art of taking and giving constructive criticism. Each week we'd get a story assignment, go home and bang it out, bring it back to the instructor to be xeroxed, and then we'd pass out our work to be reviewed by our fellow classmates. It was terrifying. And illuminating. And exhilarating. For the first time in my life, I got to see - and listen to - the process of other novice writers who were going through the same things as I was as they struggled to get their ideas down on paper. I no longer saw myself as a lone wolf in the wilderness, but part of a larger community from which I could learn, and to which I could usefully contribute.
In the fall, I decided to sign up for something even more ambitious. Spotting Novel 1 in the course catalogue of TJC's downtown campus, I dove headlong into what would become a series of classes that I would take under the tutelage of Susan Jarvis King, the woman who would teach me virtually all of the fiction writing skills that I've used throughout my thirty-three-year writing career. From her I'd learn how to analyze the underlying worldbuilding and story structure of successful novels (and for my first paper on the topic, I deconstructed The Tree of Swords & Jewels by fellow Oklahoma novelist C. J. Cherryh). I learned how to create book pitches, query letters, and story summaries for potential agents. Susan taught me about plot, character, and everything else that makes a good story tick. She taught me not only how to write, but also how to make a living doing it.
Unlike many writer groups to which I could have belonged at the time, Susan's class actually served as a place where other published, professional writers were workshopping their works in progress. Susan herself was a romance writer who worked under the pseudonym Susan Dix, among others. There were two other well-established romance authors in the class as well, and I know out of our group of classmates, at least half who went through the novel program at TJC went on to become published authors in their own rights (I racked up my first professional "thank yous" in the forewards of three romance novels as well as a biography about the founder of Sand Springs - a nearby town to Tulsa).
Our class was quite an interesting collection of people, primarily composed of middle-aged and elderly women who were writing romance, historical, and mystery novels. (During the entire three years that I took classes with Suzan, the only other speculative novelist was a fellow named Wesley who was working on a comedic sci-fi romp while I was hammering out my ill-fated first novel, This Realm Alone, which was a science fantasy novel heavily inspired by Dune). The makeup of our class meant that the vast majority of material I was reading and reviewing was significantly outside of the genres with which I'd previously been familiar. I spent a great deal of time dissecting romantic entanglements, discussing the mechanics of childbirth, and learning where my classmates drew the line between erotic and trashy in popular romance novels. Their feedback on my own work gave me a perspective on my characters and plots that I can genuinely say would never have occurred to me if I'd not participated in Susan's classes. I would emerge from her novel courses not with one, but with multiple literary godmothers who inspired me and lit the road I would later walk as a professional writer.
FOLLOWING THE LIGHT - Suzan Jarvis, writing under the pseudonym Suzan Dix, wrote The Phantom Light, published by Windswept in the year before I started her classes at Tulsa Junion College. She was one of three professional romance authors who were using Suzan’s class to workshop their novels between 1984-1987.
#writing #creativewriting #novels #Tulsa #TulsaJuniorCollege #TulsaCommunity College #writingcircle #SandSprings #CharlesPageHighSchool #CentralJuniorHigh #Compugraphic #Journalism #UniversityOfOklahoma #OIPA #OklahomaInterscholasticPressAssociation #SandSpringsLeader #NewWorldComputing #PlanetsEdge #Might&Magic
The Many Worlds of Neal Hallford is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Wow! Nealios, I had no idea you had this blog! I'm so touched by your kind words, and I loved reading your story. I'm so glad I'm a subscriber now! Love you so very much! Love Jana so very much, too. Can't wait to read more!