On Tuesday, April 22, 1975, my creative writing class of eleven students clambered into a New Smyrna Beach High School van to visit Jonathan Livingston Seagull author Richard Bach. Jonathan had spent 38 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List, appeared on Publisher’s Weekly top US seller lists in ’72 and ’73, and was made into a movie in ‘73.
Florida morning steamed sweat and toxins—like Dad’s sighs of disappointment—from my pores. Today he said I needed voice lessons… to speak. What was I supposed to do with that pearl of fatherly wisdom, go mute? Audition for My Fair Lady? No one was happier puttering out of town in a van full of people who thought I was pretty much okay the way I was born. Around me fish and salt and the smell of clean laundry suspended in bright air.
Linda Reader, a 26-year-old who had been tossed into teaching creative writing days before the semester began, had already wrangled a miracle bagging the field trip. She’d fired off a request for Bach to speak to our class. Bach scribbled a speaking fee of $2,000 in the margin and mailed back the letter. Linda scrawled that he had to be kidding, we were a small class in a public school with no money and sent the note back.
The piece of paper shuttled back and forth across Florida until the twelve of us emptied onto the Gilbert Field tarmac in Winter Haven, laden with submarine sandwiches, milk, and a seagull-shaped cake.
Bach met us in front of the hangar that housed his two biplanes and warned us not to show his vicious pets any fear.
Dinah Martin’s eyes rounded to lollipops and she stepped behind David Jones. Dinah was a senior, the girl I’d dubbed most likely to become a real writer.
I shrugged. If nothing, I was queen of obnoxious pets, though vicious gave me pause.
We traipsed after Bach, marching up a flight of stairs outside the hangar to his living quarters and our fate… a couple of Siamese kittens.
We lunched around the circular copper fireplace in the center of the room, played Ping-Pong, and lined up for Bach to autograph our books.
I handed him my edition of his novel. I peered, tongue-tied, as he drew sunshine, Jonathan Livingston Seagull in flight, two gulls doing loop-d-loops, a sailboat, the sea, a flock of birds, and the scrambled egg of his signature. The largeness of his kindness settled on me.
Janie Payne pointed to a painting of a medieval man on the wall, her curiosity beating out her normal quiet. “Who is that man?”
“Ebb Demont.” Bach said he’d found the portrait while traveling Europe and believed he’d discovered himself in a previous life.
As his comment filtered through the Catholic catechism in my brain, Bach switched topics. “There are people out there who are like us. We need to find our family.”
James Knox’s elbow jostled mine and my eyes shot to his, but he was intent on Mr. Bach. James—my perennial crush—and editor of the literary magazine Linda had dreamed up, dedicated the inaugural Kaleidoscope to Ebb Demont. At the end of the year, James referenced Bach when he wrote in my yearbook that he counted me part of his family.
Kyle Avery, likely goaded by best friend James, blurted, “Did you ever get any rejection letters?” His voice cracked at the end.
Bach laughed. He’d gotten so many rejections, he’d papered his office with them.
My head jerked up. Bach could have covered his office in canceled checks, but he chose to immortalize “Sorry, your work sucks.” Failure, I understood. Dad’s disappointments papered the inside of my skin. Being born was the first time I’d let him down—not being a boy. And I slouched, got B’s on my report cards. I leaned Republican when he leaned left. At 23, I’d ask Dad if I’d ever done anything that pleased him. Nada. Nothing. I’d never pleased him. Not even once.
Wendy Phillips and I exchanged glances, neither brave enough to ask for a glimpse of his office. But we both remembered the comment. In fact, I’ve collected a fat folder of my own fails. Like Bach, I wear them as a badge, not so different from getting flipped off by a freshman during my fling as substitute teacher.
I toted my navy blue dust-jacketed copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull from New Smyrna Beach to Lakeland, Florida, where I studied journalism at Florida Southern College. I took the novel to Ashland (Ohio) University where I completed a BA in creative writing. The book slipped into my family heirloom cedar chest with my clothes and a Bible that I carted from dorm to basement apartment to marriage in half a house. Jonathan followed me through raising four children, migrations to Indianapolis and Phoenix and ten changes of address.
I read the book once. Maybe twice. Jonathan was a bird who loved flight more than food. This passion led to excommunication from his flock, visiting nirvana, and a return to earth to evangelize the like-minded. Richard Bach’s prose soared and dipped with acrobatic beauty. I met Bach at the height of his fame, but it was his failures that caused me to crate Jonathan at every juncture of my life.
On the way back home, scrunched in the middle seat between Cheryl Hires and Becky Blackwell, I breathed in the scent of orange blossoms that bloomed on either side of I-4—sweet, like the day had been. I didn’t buy reincarnation—what I wouldn’t believe from Dad, I wasn’t buying from Bach. But I agreed with the author’s concept of family. Not only James, but Linda became “my people,” along with a gnarled rope of damaged souls who wound down the decades.
Starting, like Bach, from a baseline of failure, I aim high—querying The New York Times, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. Who knows, maybe one of them will buy an article. So what if they shoot me the bird? Dad did worse and I survived. I’ve been rejected by publishers, newspapers, public libraries, literary organizations, and my alma mater. Small change compared to my father.
After ten years of rejection slips from traditional publishers, my literary agent dropped me. The publishing world slumped and she went into another line of work. I fell into the black abyss of failure for a few months. Then, one of my sons suggested self-publishing. His voice sounded a lot like the voice of God. So, I swallowed a hairball of pride and launched five novels.
A few hundred reviews accumulated, over 100,000 copies of my free book were downloaded from Amazon in the first year, and a few thousand books sold. Dozens of newspaper, magazine, and blog articles were published.
Bach’s mentor, Ray Bradbury, wrote, “At the end of life, will we think, ‘I did my best!’ or will we think, ‘I never tried…’”
I dust off my battered dream and press on. Two memoirs are under construction and I’m pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Wilkes University. Bach and Dad taught me to climb on the backs of my failures and reach for bright air.
[Linda taught for almost twenty years, then advanced into principal positions in Volusia County. In 1975 she raced one day ahead of us all year, she later told me, inventing wacky writing prompts and preparing an environment where we could create our best work.
James wrote over twenty nonfiction books. Jane kept company with Jonathan Livingston Seagull and countless books as a Volusia County children’s librarian. Wendy became a high school math teacher. And I hope that wherever Dinah and the rest of our class are, they’re creating.]