When I was in the Marines, I was stationed in California for my entire three-year enlistment. I wanted to get an education, so I started reading all kinds of books from the base library at Twenty Nine Palms and Camp Pendleton. I spent every free moment reading. I even bought the Great Books collection and eventually read them all. Since I had dropped out of high school, I always felt that I needed a formal education, a college degree, to validate my writing. While at Camp Pendleton, I enrolled at the Fallbrook Community College and took an English composition course that the college offered on base. I really thought I was a great writer and I truly believed that the instructor would absolutely love everything that I wrote. Looking back, my writing was mediocre and forced. Well, I’ll be honest, it hasn’t really changed all that much. When I turned in my first composition, I was disappointed to get a B-. I was really expecting an A+++! Every time I see A Christmas Story and I see Ralph turning in his composition asking for the Red Rider BB Gun for Christmas, I remember feeling similar feelings of elation and expecting A when I turned in my first composition. Well, I guess I hadn’t developed as a writer because I couldn’t take the constructive criticism that my instructor gave me. I eventually stopped showing up to class. But because of the college catalog, I learned that there was a writer’s group that met in Fallbrook, just west of Camp Pendleton. I would drive past the bombing range to exit out of one of the lesser used gates. As I entered Fallbrook, I always enjoyed reading the sign, “Welcome to Fallbrook. Avocado Capital of the World.” Nothing inspires me to write more than avocados! I always looked forward to these writer’s club meetings because I knew I would be surrounded by avocados. Maybe I’m just too Mexican.
Anyway, Helen Hicks ran this writer’s club in Fallbrook. She was a published writer and she had written a few TV scripts for Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. She really knew how to inspire writers by example. She was writing Gothic novels when I was a member. What I really learned from her was how to take constructive criticism. She could really dish it out, but I respected her opinion and I always tried to follow her suggestions. Of course, she wasn’t always right, but she was a published writer and that counts for something. I remember one woman wrote an essay that began as one of our writing exercises. This woman was a flight attendant, but she had always wanted to be a published writer. Well, this woman read the essay to us and some writers really liked the piece. Helen offered her usual constructive criticism. But then she said she wasn’t sure who would publish it just as it was written. Undaunted, this woman kept writing and kept reading to our group. About two months later, she came in with a magazine that had published her piece almost as originally written. She was so proud of her accomplishment and wanted Helen to know it. Helen congratulated her and we all applauded her. And the moral of the story? Well, just keep plugging away and someday you’ll succeed.
When I returned to Chicago after my honorable discharge, I wrote to Helen to tell her that I missed her writer’s club. She wrote back and told me to start my own club in Chicago. She also told me to keep on writing.