Excerpted from Ghostwriter
I was born a gifted child. By the time I started school, everyone was telling me I could be anything I wanted, do anything I wanted to do. At home, too—I had very supportive, encouraging parents. But there was only one thing I ever wanted to be: a writer. Just a writer.
That’s the wrong word, “just.” It trivializes something sacred. Writing is my connection to the universe. My only connection. If some magical surgery could scalpel it out of my soul, there would be nothing left. Without my writing, that’s what I’d be: Nothing.
I knew this years before teachers started telling my parents about my “talent.” I felt it inside me, growing. It suffused every cell in my body, surging with such power that I couldn’t have suppressed it even if I had wanted to.
That force crushed everything in its path. By the time I was in grade school, it was so potent that it took over my world. It wasn’t just that writing was the only thing I cared about; writing owned me. Every sense was always tuned to that same signal. If I wrote something great, that’s how I’d feel. And if I wrote something lousy, that’s how I’d feel, too.
I don’t know the exact time it happened, but, after a while, writing was the only thing that could make me feel anything at all.
The topic didn’t matter. Even if it was supposed to be writing about writing—like when you do a book report—it was always about my writing. It didn’t make any difference if I liked the book or I hated it, the only thing that counted was how I said whatever I thought—that was the power-source.
I knew the grade didn’t matter. Of course I’d get an A, but so would other kids. There was no grade that could measure my writing. I was the only judge.
But I was never smug, never satisfied. I’d spend hours deciding on just the right phrase, always trying to get it . . . perfect. I didn’t care about being the best writer in class. What did that mean? I always knew there was more than that. Much more. Some place where I rightfully belonged. Don’t mistake me for some petty narcissist—I was always my harshest critic, even when I was my only critic.
It wasn’t until tenth grade that I saw my name in print. I could actually feel my synapses flame with this confirmation of my destiny.
The editor told me it was very unusual for a sophomore to get a bylined story. Even though I knew I could have written the whole school paper by myself, every single word, I told her how grateful I was to have gotten the chance.
I wasn’t even lying. Not then.
The staff of the school paper always picked the editor. Every member got to vote, but it wasn’t like the other elections at school. It wasn’t the most popular kid who won—it was the one who was willing to do the most work. Some of the kids just wanted to do their own thing: take photos, or write poems, or do a gossip column, silly garbage like that. But putting the whole thing together, that wasn’t a job most people wanted.
They always said the editor should be someone who had earned the job. Worked their way up from the bottom, paid their dues. So, naturally, they always picked a senior for the position.
High school has all kinds of rules—the kind they put on posters, and the kind you learn by watching how things work. It doesn’t take long before you realize that the rules don’t apply to everyone. Certain kids get to do certain things; other kids don’t. Nobody had to spell that out. It was just the way things were—and so blatantly obvious that even the dullest kids picked it up quickly.
I saw this as an operational system, a weird blend of objectivity and favoritism. Like with the jocks: the best players got to be first string, no matter what year they were in. So the stars actually earned their positions. But once they got to be stars, they got their own set of rules as well.
I thought writing would work the same way. So whatever the editor told me to cover, I jumped on it. I was never late with an assignment. And I always nailed it, too: If they wanted three hundred words; they got three hundred words. Who, What, Where, When, and Why, just like the faculty advisor said had to be in every story.
The faculty advisor was Mr. David. The school hired him because he had a master’s from the Columbia School of Journalism, and he had a lot of pieces published, in magazines with big names. He won some prizes for writing, too.
Mr. David had been what they called an “investigative journalist” before he retired. I guess they had to pay him a lot of money to get him to teach at a high school. But that wouldn’t be a problem. In the town I lived in, the parents always demanded the best teachers. They paid a lot of taxes to keep their public school as good as any private one. Better, even. That was very important if you wanted to get into the best colleges.
I remember hearing my father tell my mother that was why we moved there from the city. It made the commute worthwhile, he said.
Besides the school paper and the journalism class, Mr. David taught creative writing. He even worked with the Debate Club. Maybe he was one of those men you read about—the ones who can’t stand being retired. He was busy all the time. I don’t think he needed the money, so I guess that teaching was what he really wanted to do.
I thought a lot about Mr. David because I was trying to come up with a solution for my problem, and I thought he might have the experience to help me.
My problem was the editor of the paper. She was a fat, pasty-faced toad, with frizzy hair and thick ankles. Outside of the paper, she was so marginalized that you wouldn’t believe she could squeeze her disgusting presence into that tiny bit of space. But when it came to the paper, everybody always gave in to her, because she did just about all the work.
That made her really valuable. If someone turned in a pile of slop, Amanda would fix it up for them—even if she had to rewrite every word. That meant a lot, especially to the crowd who needed every extracurricular activity they could grab. They were obsessed with getting into the best colleges, and they knew grades and SATs just weren’t enough. Their competition always had more than that to offer, so they needed more, too.
They were always saying Amanda was a real lifesaver. Saying it to her—I don’t what they said about her at the cafeteria tables where she knew she’d never be allowed to sit. Or even if they ever mentioned her at all.
But to me, Amanda was no savior, she was a roadblock. She changed everything I turned in. I would get it back, all marked up. The first time, I told her I wasn’t going to rewrite it. She hadn’t made what I wrote better, she’d just changed it to be what she wanted it to be—she was in control, and she wasn’t letting anyone else join that one-member club.
She didn’t like me saying that, I could tell. But she didn’t lose her temper or anything. She just said everyone on the paper had to be edited, and if I didn’t “go through the process,” my article would have to be spiked.
I knew what that meant—Mr. David taught what he called “newspaper vocabulary” to all of us. He was the first person I ever heard use words like “byline” or “jump” and expressions like “above the fold” or “column inches.”
I couldn’t stand the thought of anything I wrote being spiked—it would be like the spike going into my own body. So I made all the changes. Every single one. Because we were so close to deadline by then, I had to make them with Amanda looking over my shoulder, watching the screen.
I wanted to spike her eyes.
Nothing was going to change until Amanda graduated. A whole school year away. I couldn’t live with her having so much power over me for that much time. I couldn’t let her keep changing everything I wrote. It was like she was slicing pieces off me. If I didn’t find a way to stop her, there would be nothing left. Not of my writing, so . . . not of me, either. By then, there was no dividing line.
I knew I could never say anything like that out loud.
Nobody would ever understand. And if I tried to explain it, they’d probably want me to see some “counselor.” That’s when I started to plan.
I waited a few weeks, then I took one of my articles home with me, all marked up with Amanda’s “editing.” By then, she didn’t watch me make the changes in front of her anymore—she knew I’d do whatever she said, even if she didn’t know why. So when I told her I’d bring the article back to her the next morning, all fixed, she believed me.
I waited around for the stupid Debate Club to be over. Then I asked Mr. David if I could talk to him for a minute. I asked if I could meet him somewhere off campus. To talk about something in private. Anywhere he wanted, but . . . well, it was kind of an emergency.
He didn’t even look surprised when I said that.
He drove me to a coffeehouse. Not a Starbucks, a real coffeehouse. It was all older people there, and the music they played was old. I guess it was, anyway—I’d never heard anything like it before.
The waitress knew Mr. David; she didn’t even ask him what he wanted, only me. I asked her if I could have some green tea. She waited for a few seconds, like she expected me to say something more, then she walked away.
That’s when I showed Mr. David my article. It was about a boy in our school who had gotten a perfect score on his math SATs. That kid was in a wheelchair. What I wrote about was how everyone knows kids in wheelchairs sometimes develop really powerful arms—one part of their body doesn’t work, so they compensate by building up another part that does. But the barbed point of my piece was how important sports are in high school, and how this boy knew he could never be part of that. He hadn’t just wanted to fit in; he wanted to excel. Arm-wrestling wasn’t a school sport, so he found another way.
My piece was supposed to be all about his perfect score. But I wrote it about how that kid didn’t like the place people wanted to put him in, so he made one for himself. And then he rolled his wheelchair right into it.
Mr. David read it right there, sipping his coffee. Not too fast, not too slow . . . the way a real editor reads, not the way a teacher grades.
When he was finished, he looked over at me, but he didn’t say anything.
“I know I must be doing something wrong, Mr. David,” I said. “Every time I turn anything in, it comes back looking like this.”
Then I handed him Amanda’s edits. “The thing is, I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong. I mean, I always make the changes she tells me to, but they never make sense to me. This isn’t an ego-thing; I just want to improve. I need to be the best writer I can possibly be. But how can I learn to be a better writer if I just keep changing what I write without ever knowing why I’m doing it.”
“Doesn’t Amanda explain her edits to you?”
“I . . . guess she does. I mean, the first few times I asked her, she said some things. But she only used adjectives, and those are . . . well, flabby. If someone says they want to change what I wrote because it needs more punch and they don’t tell me what ‘punch’ is, I can’t get better. And I have to get better.”
Mr. David gave me a look I didn’t understand. I waited a long time, but he didn’t say anything. So I did.
“I’m not criticizing Amanda,” I told him. “She must know a hundred times more about writing than I do. I’m just . . . embarrassed, I guess. I mean, how come I don’t get it? I try. I read her edits over a dozen times, but I still can’t see how they make whatever I wrote better. So I know I must be missing something.
“I need to find the key, Mr. David. Because if I can’t unlock the door, I can’t get inside the only place I want to be. The only place I truly belong.”
“Surely that’s not the school newspaper, Seth?”
“No, sir. I want to be a writer. I want the best writer I have in me to come out. I know how important it is to learn from others. But if I can’t even do that, how can I ever hope to . . . ?”
Mr. David sipped his coffee again. Took off his glasses and rubbed his temples. Then he said something to me I never forgot:
“You’ll get better at it, Seth.”
“But how can I get better if—?”
“Better at manipulating people,” Mr. David cut into what I was saying. “You just keep practicing.” He sounded sad when he said that.
He drove me home without saying another word.
Amanda never edited another of my pieces. She just ran them exactly as I turned them in, word for word.
Mr. David never spoke to me again, except in class, and then only when he had to.
I was sorry about that. I had learned so much from him. One of the books on the “optional” list he handed out is where I first read about how some editors have a need to mark their territory. The book called it “pecker tracks,” but I knew that was probably a real old expression, from before women were in positions of power. Like editors were.
Excerpted from Mortal Lock by Andrew Vachss. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Vachss. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.