The stories behind My Cleveland Story could be a whole new book. Where it starts I’m not really sure.
Sometime in the mid eighties I got to go to a writing seminar for English teachers at one of the local community colleges. I don’t remember who the presenter was, and I only really went to get out of school for the day. (Yes, teachers do that kind of stuff too.) Anyway, one of the exercises was to write about an emotional moment from our own high school days. The thought being that even though the audience was filled with high school teachers, most of us had forgotten what it was like to be a high school student.
Most of the men in the audience wrote about some big game lost or won years earlier, while most of the women in the audience wrote about losing their virginities to some upper classroom in the back of someone’s car. (You can make your own judgment on that if you wish.) I wrote about the end of the Padua – St. Ed’s game my junior year in high school, when the good old Bruins pulled the upset of a lifetime and beat what was probably the most talented team in the state at their place and a beautiful fall night in 1974. I was still young enough to remember most of the good parts of the evening, and when I came home from the workshop I shoved the three pages I had written into a desk drawer and forgot about it.
The next school year, for the first and last time, I taught seventh grade. I hated it, and I really hated some of the kids. There were some real criminals in the class. The only time I could get them to settle down and get on task was if I promised to tell them a story. So over the course of that school year I told and retold them a series of 6-8 exaggerated stories about the kids I went to high school with.
Two years later I had the same kids for ninth grade and they were just as bad. So I had to come up with some new stories, and I had my characters from the first batch go off to college, and came up with a new handful of stories I told and retold. At the same time I got to teach a real bright group of eighth graders, and they confronted me about not hearing the stories the other classes got to listen to. So on Friday afternoons I started to tell them the stories, and it was like having a room full of editors. From week to week they remembered everything, and if I got anything wrong they would correct me.
About the same time was the beginning of the computer era in education. I had to go to another workshop to learn how to use a word processor, and I forgot to bring something to work with. So I spent the day learning to use WordPerfect while typing out the dozen or so stories I had been telling my classes. I printed them out, I remember it was around 60 pages or so, and put them in the same drawer with my earlier football story and forgot all about them.
Then several unexpected things happened. The first was that I wrote a letter to the editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I had never done that before, not sure why I did it then. It must have been a slow news day, but a week or so later they turned my letter into a featured essay on their Forum Page, and at the end of it the said Greg Cielec is a freelance writer here in Cleveland.
The second thing that happened around that time was that some guys I knew from Canton started to publish a homemade monthly sports, music, and whatever moved them magazine called the Nooz. It looked like it was put together on someone’s kitchen table, which it really was, back in the days before desktop publishing. It was a great read, filled with funny stories, cartoons, quotes, music reviews, whatever they wanted to publish that month. The listed everyone on the subscription list on the back cover, and ever month a few more names would be added. They asked me to write a monthly column about almost anything I wanted to, and so I wrote about Opening Day at the old Stadium, McGuffey Lane concerts at Zachariah’s and Sty Glen, why Art Modell was an asshole, an album by album analysis of Jimmy Buffett’s career, and who knows what else. It was really fun publication to write for, and hundreds of people read my stuff each month and I felt semi-important.
Move ahead four or five years. The Nooz was no more (things like marriage and parenthood took up too much of the editors and publisher’s lives), I’m teaching at a different school, and my free time is taken up working and hanging out at the neighborhood tavern I now owned in Parma with a couple of buddies (which is a whole other story yet to be written). Those bright eighth graders from years before are now in college and a bunch of them come in for dinner one night and we sat around and got caught up on what had transpired in our lives. Several of them were quite critical with me over the fact that I had never turned my long ago stories into a book like I once promised to do. They really got on my case about it and got me thinking about maybe trying to turn it into a novel.
At the time I was going through one of those mini mid-life crises that people have when their birthdays end in five or zero. So I pulled the classroom stories as well as my old football story out of the drawer, tried to string them along together, and then tried to imagine the same characters really going to college, and extending the plot into adulthood. I had some good ideas, some unique things had happened to some old friends, and things started to flow.
Another lucky thing that happened to me was my friend Dave got divorced (lucky for me, not lucky for him) and he got a time-share in Cancun in the settlement. He had no one to go with so he took me. So for two years I was off to Mexico the week after school ended, and while there I worked on finishing the story every morning for four hours. It was while down there I filled in a lot of the gaps and came up with the ending.
A lot happened then that we will mention but not go into details including…sending it around to various publishers and agents…getting signed by both Random House and Doubleday…getting dumped by both Random house and Doubleday…getting permission from both Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen to use their song lyrics…selling out the first printing in a month…getting a real NYC agent…getting dissed by the Washington Post…getting several calls from Hollywood types…being a mini celebrity in Cleveland and Columbus…not getting a national paperback contract…meeting a lot of really cool writers and musicians.
And now, years later, not a month goes by where someone contacts me for the first time and tells me they have just read it and really enjoyed it. Probably the worst thing that happened is that my cover artist, and one of my favorite critics and closest friends, Chris Kowalczyk died of a heart attack in 2003. Still miss him and think of him often today. He was a big part of My Cleveland Story, he had read many versions of the manuscript over the years, and he really hit a home run with the book jacket.