Some writers are born. Others are made. I’m from the latter camp.
Nowhere in my ambitions while growing up was there the notion that one day I might earn my keep via the printed word. I planned on becoming a physician, a heart surgeon, to be more specific—at least that’s what I told adults whenever they asked what I wanted to be when I became one of them. They seemed impressed.
That I ended up paying the bills not by cracking chests but by stringing sentences together is only partially explained by the fact that I lacked any real desire to be a doctor in the first place. I wasn’t sure back then how I wanted to spend my life. That I ultimately became a working writer happened only because to land in the classroom of English teacher Aurelia Valley.
Miss Valley was what some might describe today as a Big Beautiful Woman minus the “beautiful” part. She wore her dark hair short and stringy and unwashed in an outdated bob, parted to one side. She favored featureless, flat-soled shoes, rimless glasses, and cheap, shiftless pattern dresses that hung on her like potato sacks. She had a small, upturned nose that drew comparisons to that of a pig, and I seem to recall her breathing mostly through her mouth. To my recollection, she never smiled. The less sensitive among my classmates frequently made fun of the way she looked. Truth be told, I probably did, too, if only to fit in.
To say that the high school in which Miss Valley labored was blue collar would be like saying the Pope is religious. We had no honors classes (though we always fielded a powerful football team). Relatively few students went on to four-year universities. It was the kind of school where landing a job at the post office after graduation was considered high achievement. Reading and writing reports about Shakespeare, Beowulf, Last of the Mohicans and the other classic works of literature that Miss Valley strived mightily to make us adore as much as she did was antithetical to my bored, distracted classmates, and to me. But that never seemed to deter her. Miss Valley taught passionately.
One afternoon midway through my senior year, after the bell rang and everyone else emptied out of her classroom per usual like Russian nukes were inbound, she asked me to stay behind for a few minutes. I was embarrassed. What would my buddies think? That Miss Valley was sweet on me? I wanted to run. Only I couldn’t. She had blocked the doorway with her ample frame. “You should think about being a writer,” Miss Valley said. “You have an aptitude.”
I don’t recall what transpired between the two of us after that, only that I was struck by the realization that it was the first time anyone had ever told me that I had an aptitude for anything other than griping about having to shovel snow from the front sidewalk or mow the lawn.
Flash forward a year or so later. I was in college, a pre-med major nursing a 2.2 GPA–hardly the kind of grades that’ll get you into Harvard Medical School. I’d discovered beer and girls by then, and I knew, given my paltry academic performance, that I performing heart transplants was definitely out of the picture. And so, one night in my dorm room, while thumbing through the university’s course catalog, struggling to figure out what the hell to do with the rest of my life, I happened upon the requirements for a degree in journalism. In that moment, I swear I heard Miss Valley’s voice as if she were standing right beside me: “You should think about being a writer. You have an aptitude.”
And so I became one.
Upon graduation, I landed a newspaper job in a town where I soon met an intelligent, beautiful young woman who eventually would become my wife. We remain happily married more than three decades later. We have two wonderful children and live in a fine home overlooking the Pacific. It is hardly hyperbole to say that my life would’ve been far less fulfilled had Miss Valley not kept me after class that day. Indeed, had it not been for here, I never would’ve written Flat Spin and the many other Cordell Logan mysteries that have followed.
Aurelia Valley passed away in 1996. I foolishly never took the time to express my appreciation to her before she passed on. This will have to do.
Thank you, Miss Valley. For everything.