Smilin' Bill

31 March 2001

Just got back from Santa Cruz and lovely time with Tim. Now I'm going to try to get my back to fix itself, and I'm going to spend some time with Mark. And with Timprov, eventually. I think it'll be a relaxing night. That's good. And my Not A Moose Book will feature such things as the Northern Lights and a small wooden fish.

Megan got into Columbia! Yay for Megan! Columbia is the best grad school in the country for social work. I guess Megan is Just That Cool. Which, you know, some of us could have guessed. But it's always nice when the people with money and prestige guess it, too.

Memo to the guy in the white pick-up truck: I do appreciate compliments, and I try to take them as they were intended. However, I think that when you are the sole operator of many, many pounds of metal hurtling down a crowded highway at 70 mph, well, there are better times. Specifically, I'd prefer it if you didn't lean out the window, yell, and gesture at me, no matter how enthusiastically positive you sounded. I think the Chevy Caprice owner you almost hit would appreciate it as well. And if you do feel the need to do this again, remember that I don't speak Spanish.

This would not have bothered me so much if you didn't have a Caucasian cousin in a red pick-up truck who did the very same thing the last time I was driving any distance alone.

Driving down this morning, I was thinking about what I really don't know about writing. For example: I have no idea how to write the ending of a novel. I've done it twice, but I don't know how to. Don't really know how to write a synopsis, either, and that's pressing down on me because I want to have The Grey Road and the whole other place series synopsized by the time my folks get out here, if possible. (I'm going to start looking for an agent in May. And I am quite frustrated that SFWA's agent/author list is available to members but not to the very young people who are trying to get published in the first place [me] -- although I doubt that it's a big secret. It'd just be easier, though, than doing it the long way.)

And this reminded me of Smilin' Bill Novak.

Smilin' Bill was my English teacher my middle year of high school. (I skipped a year. And I did all of the senior year stuff during my last year. So I had freshman, middle, and senior.) He was possibly the most embittered human being I'd ever met. He had been an idealistic young teacher and body-builder, who held his students to high standards. He'd been married to another idealistic young teacher. Somewhere along the way, high standards became "elitist," and the idealistic young teacher wife became a shrill maven of bureaucratic groupthink. Then she became his ex-wife. Then she became his boss. So you could kind of see why Smilin' Bill was not the world's happiest man.

It wasn't that he had no sense of humor. My homeroom teacher had the classroom next to his, and one day Smilin' Bill came in to borrow a stapler or something like that. Mr. Morrissey, my homeroom teacher, said, "Today, Mr. Novak is going to rip a telephone book in half for us!" Smilin' Bill picked up Morrissey's phone book and ripped it in half along the spine. We all laughed. Then he put the halves back together and ripped them crosswise. We stopped laughing.

He had many a fine rant (I learn from the best!), but his favorite was about knowledge. He had four groups of people: those who knew and knew they knew; those who knew and didn't know they knew; those who didn't know and knew they didn't know; and those who didn't know and didn't know they didn't know. (Got that?) It was the latter category that got to him. He would rail against it in class almost daily. He would write "Don't waste my time" next to essays that were obviously trying to dodge the question. If they were really bad, he would just write "NO" across the answer in red letters. Smilin' Bill, or so the legend from the class ahead of mine goes, once gave a negative five percent to someone who missed all the questions on a test and misspelled his own last name in his hurry.

And sometimes it's Smilin' Bill that I fear, when I think about my books. Sometimes I think that I don't know and don't know that I don't know. And that I'm going to be at a signing in Omaha someday and look up to see a familiar face under a shock of messy white hair...and get my book slid across the counter at me. I'll open the front page to sign it and read that he's already been there before me: "NO."

I have heard tell that Smilin' Bill, once he quit his teaching job, starting working on the loading docks at Dillard's department store. I've heard that he's one of the happiest and most pleasant people you'd meet there. Even if he wasn't, most high school English teachers are thrilled to death if their students publish books. But that doesn't help my subconscious. Because Smilin' Bill, for all his quirks and his rough edges, mattered to me. And it still matters to me whether he likes my stuff. He's kind of representative of that large class of "cool people I used to know," the ones I think of from time to time and would like to have read my stories. They're the hardest, because the people you currently know can like your stories or not, and you know it. And the people who don't matter, well, that one's obvious. There's a middle ground. If you think you're part of it, you may be more important than you think.

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