Knowing Write from Wrong

In the summer of 1964, my parents rented a small, red cottage on Cherry Street at Chapman Beach in Westbrook, Connecticut. Headed east along the shoreline, the next beach is Chalker Beach. The one after that is Indian Town. That matters because that same summer, my cousin, Gary, was staying in a cottage in Indian Town. That meant Gary and I, both 10 years old that summer, were within walking distance up the beach from each other. It also meant Gary and I could share comic books with each other. (In case you’re curious, they were 12 cents apiece in those glorious days.)

I primarily read the flagship titles of DC Comics: Superman and Batman. But Gary had discovered the Marvel Comics world. His sharing it with me changed mine. (Gary still doesn’t believe any of this.) As a result, this book and this book, both of which I was fortunate enough to acquire before they went out of print and became collectors’ items, are two of my most treasured possessions. I frequently re-read them — not just to experience the stories again — but to remember what I am and why.

Imagine That

I’m a writer because of Stan Lee. It’s that simple. I knew, even at 10, that his Marvel stories had what my DC stories did not: personality. They had an authentic voice. They had actual life. They had wry wit and sarcastic bravado. They were revealing and human. They used language — even more than imagery, a fantastic and audacious feat in a predominantly visual medium — to engage, move, entertain, and inspire me. They had style. I knew it because I felt it. Yes. My calling found me at 10.

What Stan Lee gave me most of all was the courage to imagine.

I was no longer afraid of I don’t know. Rather, I was encouraged and energized by I don’t know yet. Yet transforms I don’t know into positive potential. It connotes the possibility that what there is to know, or what needs to be known, hasn’t been created yet. It yields the opportunity to create it. And that opportunity yields an equation something like this:

Is anything more inspiring, more empowering, or more liberating than that? The numbers are all — and always — in our favor.

The Gift

Hulk debuted on June 20, 2003, the 17th birthday of my younger son, Quinn. We saw the film together. When we got home that evening, I sent an email to Stan Lee, telling him the story I just told you, telling him we’d seen the film, and asking him how rewarding it was that — 40 years after the fact — cinematic technology had finally caught up to his imagination.

He didn’t reply. It didn’t matter.

He’d already taught me to know write from wrong.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. I understand how the comic book stories connected with you in such a way.
    Similarly, I always knew I wanted to and would write. I thought the book and pages I was holding was much more than paper and ink… it was magical and had taken me out of my reality into another’s world.
    Amazing share

    • Thank you, Laurie. Reading Stan Lee’s stories was like light flooding in.

      Your comments put me in mind of this quote from the late Harry Crews:

      “As far back as I could remember, I had longed and lusted for an unlimited supply of books. I was weary of the [Sears] catalogue and the Bible, the only two books I had ever seen in my sharecropper’s house. When I got to my first duty station [in the Marine Corps] and walked into the base library, it was like throwing a starving man a turkey. I did my time in the Corps with a book always in my hand … I remained convinced in my belief that all anybody needed to develop as a writer was access to a good library and the willingness to play fast and loose with his life, because make no mistake about it, by the time a person even moderately masters any art form, it is almost always too late to do anything else.”

      It’s why I don’t understand what people call writer’s block. If I ever struggle at all to write, I make time to read. And I’m restored creatively. The world is full of pages of inspiration.

      I’m very grateful for your comments. Thank you.

    • Jeff, that’s an amazing observation. When I published Martin the Marlin — the story of a boy who wants a goldfish, inadvertently buys a marlin, and realizes he can’t keep the fish in a tank — a gentleman who’d read it to his children asked me if I’d been confined in a tight space as a child. That question was as amazing to me as your observation. There is, of course, truth in both. But that’s another story entirely.

      Thank you for your comments and your interpretation. I love it when that happens. 😊

  2. Great story, Mark. I love that you knew at such a young age that you wanted to be a writer. I knew from a young age that I liked to write, but it wasn’t until five years ago that I started to connect over 30 years of dots that would lead me to want to be a writer. Hopefully, someday with a capital “W.” The beauty of growing and aging, I think, is the wisdom to lean into these kinds of things – even amidst our fears.

    I never tire of reading your mastery, Mark. Like you, your work is always a bright spot in the day. Thanks for sharing this piece with us.

    By the way, I like both Marvel and DC, and I think it rocks that you emailed Stan Lee.

    • Thank you, Laura. I’m always happy to read your comments. This is as true a sentence as I’ve seen written in a while: “The beauty of growing and aging … is the wisdom to lean into these kinds of things – even amidst our fears.” That’s it.

      It’s a matter of reaching the point at which the need (to write) overcomes the fear (of trying or being judged).

      Keep writing and sharing. I’m grateful you’re here.

    • Thank you, Larry. I still love comics and recently acquired three collections of old monster comics, two drawn by Steve Ditko (Spiderman) and one by Don Heck (Ironman).

      I have no intention of growing up. There’s no future in it. 😉

      Thank you for your comments.

  3. Batman, Superman, The Hulk, Spiderman. DC and Marvel Comics. Stan Lee was an icon. He had a cameo role in one of the Hulk movies. I want you to know late at night I watch the Hulk, Spiderman, Wonderwoman, Batman and Superman on Youtube. One day I will tell you stories about when I used to dress up as Batman and the mayhem my friends and I caused. Yes, I LOVE your article! Congratulations again.

    • Believe it or not, Joel, I still read comics. I have every Batman movie ever made on DVD. And I’ve written a graphic novel (a noirish murder mystery), which is now in search of a publisher.

      Thank you for you comments and for sharing your love of comics.

    • You’re welcome, Joel. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. If you want to know how deep I’m in, please see my not to Larry Tyler below. It ain’t over yet. 😊

  4. I love this story of how you found your writer’s voice at 10 years old, Mark! What a gift to connect with Stan Lee’s “voice” that inspired yours. Thank goodness for comic books and books and great friends. Inspiration comes from so many places!! I’m delighted to hear where yours came from! I have sent thank you letters to famous authors and never heard back from them- The ability to express our gratitude from the heart can create its own rich gift.

    Your essay reminds me of how Dr. Wayne Dyer often would invite that passion to create something that wasn’t in the world– yet– just because that’s what our hearts and souls yearn to do-to experience that unleashed freedom to invent, imagine, create, and express. Yes!!

    • What’s so immensely powerful, Laura, is that all of us have the power “to create something that wasn’t in the world– yet.” Not all of us are blessed with the ability to recognize that power and to develop the passion for using it. But if all of us are encouraging each other, more of us will find the power and the passion.

      Knowing I’ll always have the power to create makes it impossible for me to comprehend the notion of “retirement”. I’ll have plenty of time to retire when I’m gone.

      Thank you for being a part of this conversation.

  5. “I don’t know – yet.” I wish I had written that, Mark. It summarizes exactly how I see our future. I said those words just the other night as I was making what I call a refrigerator dinner (some call it kitchen sink). My husband asked what I was making, and that was my response as I pulled leftovers out: I don’t know… yet.

    I don’t believe that everyone can live in that place comfortably, but if we can encourage others to get more comfortable with it, maybe we’ll have more inspiring stories like yours, open to the universe’s messages, no matter what form we experience them. Excellent post.

    • Thank you, Sarah. The notion of yet occurred to me one day when I was in a school gym, sharing my books with 320 kids ages 3 to 14. (Yep. K through 8, plus pre-school.) The younger children enjoyed the stories. The older ones gave me the opportunity to ask them questions and to explore their feelings about writing and other creative pursuits. The last question I asked was, “Is anyone afraid to write?” I was floored at how many hands went up.

      Since I was equipped with a wireless microphone, I went to each student whose hand had gone up to ask why. One boy said to me, “I start a lot of stories, but I don’t know what to do with them.”

      I said, “Do you know who has the ability to decide what to do with them, in any way, at any time?”

      He said, “Me?”

      I said, “Yes. So, please do me a favor: When anyone asks you how you’re going to finish a story, please say, ‘I don’t know yet.’ Then you and that person will know finishing any story is completely within your power and ability.”

      Since then, I can’t tell you how many hundreds of handmade thank you cards I’ve received from school children who’ve included yet and told me they’ll never forget that word. From my point of view, if I can reach children like that, I’m doing something.

      Thank you so much for your comments. I wish I’d been at your house for dinner. 😊

  6. As always, Mark, an excellent piece. There are writers, and there are Writers. You are clearly in the second group, keeping us all waiting for the next article, the next story, the next whatever — and thoroughly enjoying each!

    Ten years old, hmmm? Amazing that you are actually fulfilling that childhood dream. I wonder if any of the rest of us are … I wanted to be a cowboy. It never even occurred to me that cowboys were male; I just wanted to ride in on a horse, put the bad guys away, clean up their mess, make everyone do it things MY way, and then ride off into the sunset.

    Oops. But life is still wonderful, even if things didn’t quite work out that way!

    • At times in my childhood, Susan, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut, a scuba diver (which I was for a while), a doctor, a teacher, Superman, or maybe Batman. Writing was always there, but I didn’t take it seriously until Stan Lee woke me up.

      Perhaps what got me the most is that in all of the comics I’d read before Stan Lee’s, the stories were about the heroes’ what — their invulnerability, their crime-solving prowess, their magic rings, bracelets, lassos, or whatever. Stan Lee explored the why — why they were empowered, why they chose to use those powers.

      As for cowboys being male, Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley called. They want a little credit. 🤪

      Thank you for your thoughtfulness. I’m always grateful for your comments.

    • Thank you, Kimberly. Those were magic moments, indeed. And my cousin, Gary, still doesn’t believe a word of that very true story. 😊 I don’t know why, but I just love that.