To mark the transition from West Coast to East Coast occasioned by my recent move, included below is a short summary of who I am at this time (August 1998) and place (Washington, D.C.) with regard to literacy. I admit it: I’m indulging myself by including something that I had to write for a class. However, I do think that its theme of a reading/writing journey is reflected in these commentaries. You be the judge; skip it if you like.
“What will you be studying?” asked an elderly female acquaintance.
I hesitated before I answered, but then went ahead and told the full truth. “I’m getting a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing,” I said, then jokingly added, “with any luck, five years from now, you’ll see me in a Barnes & Noble bookstore.”
“Oh, no,” she responded. “I’m sure you’ll be able to find a better job than that.”
I laughed, assuring her that I had was hoping that I would be signing books rather than ringing them up on the register as a clerk. But her comment was typical of some of the responses to my news-writing, per se, is not considered a practical profession. A writer is like a movie star. Children can say that want to be a writer when growing up, but it is not something that high school guidance counselors advise as a career.
From childhood, I read voraciously. I could read before I entered school, and I won prizes from the local library for reading the most books in my age group when I was six and in church for reading the entire Bible when I was seven. Books and their authors were magical beings, and while I dreamed of being a movie star or a writer, when I started to picture myself in a career, I agreed with everyone else that these fields were out of my reach.
I changed this opinion in my freshman year of college at the University of Texas at Austin, where I was studying mathematics. A friend introduced me to his brother, Bruce Sterling, a science fiction writer who had published three novels and four times as many short stories. From several conversations with Bruce, and the many writers I met through him, I learned that writing was as valid a career choice as mathematician. Some writers were stars, but there were many others who published novels, wrote stories and articles, and edited books and magazines. If Bruce could make a career writing, I reasoned, so could I.
While this decision seemed to occur suddenly to me, when I looked back over my life, I see that I had been preparing for it since childhood. One day when I was home during spring break, my mother pulled out a poem that I had written in first grade. It was my “walking home song,” an endlessly mutable ditty that kept me busy during the fifteen minutes between grade school and home. As early as ten, I was writing other songs, the lyrics to which today survive in my file cabinet as poems, while I have lost the music chord changes and the ability to play the piano. My favorite comic book, Howard the Duck, was cancelled when I was 13, and I recall writing a script for the comic, erroneously thinking that the comic’s demise was for lack of a writer. In high school I dedicated two notebooks to a highly derivative story called “Anything Can Happen, and Does.” It starred two other friends and myself and, in true wish-fulfillment fashion, it presented what we wished our lives were like rather than the dull reality (so we thought) that they were. Even as recently as my first university English class in 1985, the professor had indulged me, and I wrote my research paper thesis on proving a link between freemasonry and the Bavarian Illuminati (a nonexistent group). All this time, I realized that I had been playing with writing, that I enjoyed writing so much that I never truly considered it as a career. Working, I had reasoned until then, does not equal playing.
Upon making my goal, I immediately sought ways to achieve it. I signed on as a cub reporter to the daily university newspaper. I worked for a semester but was quickly discouraged, frustrated by the pyramid structure and the mind-numbing press conferences and city council meetings. Not quite knowing where to turn next, in 1988 I registered for a writer’s workshop being held in College Station, and wrote my first short story to send in with my fee, the two of which constituted the enrollment requirements.
“I don’t get it,” wrote instructor Warren Norwood on his copy of my story. “Maybe I’m stupid, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Too muddled and vague.” He was not stupid. The story was very muddled and vague, about a young man who was not doing very well in school, who thought his parents wanted him to be one thing, but who secretly harbored a desire to be another. Reading that story is painful today-it is awkward, full of passages that tell and do not show, and is full of computer references that have quickly been dated. But the main problem with the story is that it was written for a highly specific audience which did not include Norwood, or any of the other instructors or students at the workshop. Only three people needed to read this story: my parents and myself. For while I was investigating writing as a career choice, I had neglected to attend to the day job, which at this time was to be a full-time mathematics student. My parents visited me after the workshop, worried about my finances (a shambles), my health (drug free, to their surprise and joy), and my future. Although my first short story was not the toast of the workshop, I am proud that its combination of catharsis and confession bridged the communication gap that had separated me from my parents at that time.
At the College Station workshop, I began the story that would be my first published piece. Unlike my entry story, this one was not about me; instead I drew on the many years of religious schooling I had received and wrote a metaphysical tale about Jesus during the three days between the time he died on the cross and rose again. In a notebook, I had written the beginning line–“He woke with original sin.”–and a challenge to write a 500-word story at the workshop enabled me to complete the thought. Chris Kelly, the fiction editor of the Dallas small-press magazine New Pathways, heard me read the draft aloud, and it was published in New Pathways in a final form the next year.
This initial success, and the professional and beginning writers whom I met at the College Station workshop who would become life-long friends, provided the encouragement I needed. Once my parents and I worked out a plan to set my finances straight, I dropped out of college and spent the next two years working and writing, moving from Austin to Los Angeles. A succession of jobs as a typist, legal secretary and database manager paid the rent, and at night I tried to teach myself to be a writer by writing. I bought books on writers and writing, I talked with other writers, and I joined writing groups. “Write what you know,” was one of the most often heard dictums that I remember from this time; unfortunately, I was so immersed in trying to be a writer that what I knew was authors and the blank page, and my stories were often insular and dull because of this. My second story to be published was written at this time. I knew Mike Resnick from a writing group, and when several authors failed to send him stories for his alternate history anthology, Alternate Presidents, he invited those of us in the group to propose story ideas to him. He greeted my idea to flip the tables on Truman and Dewey warmly (I found out later that he had already suggested to the cover artist the climactic image in my story, that of Thomas Dewey holding up a Chicago Tribune whose headline reads “Truman Defeats Dewey”). The story, “The More Things Change…,” is technically competent, but lacks any true feeling. I had learned how to structure a story, how to write dialogue and description, but something was missing.
I had felt that something was missing during my day job, as well. The lack of a Bachelor’s degree made me insecure in my position, feeling that I received less respect from my co-workers and passed over for raises and promotions. I personally felt unfinished, knowing that I had been only a year away from obtaining the degree. I moved to Colorado and went back to school in 1991, hoping to change my major to Creative Writing and match my new direction in life with my schooling. Unfortunately, I had to work full-time and, since I wanted to minimize the amount of classes I had to take to finish, I settled for a general degree in Arts and Humanities. I was able to take one class in creative writing, and this strengthened my writing by helping me tune my years of self-instruction with much needed critical guidance. I wrote “Going Mobile” during this time, which was eventually published by a bookstore in Denver as one-half of a limited edition chapbook in 1993. Unlike my previously published work, this story has a freedom to it, a certain joy in its creation that still comes through years later. However, the desire to quickly finish the degree prevented me from writing much else during this time. After I graduate, I told myself at the time, I will concentrate on my writing.
My experience in the environmental engineering field in Los Angeles and my new degree landed me in Richland, Washington in a technical writing job that then led into computer programming. My first excuse for not writing in my new home was that I would write more when I got settled into this town. My second was that I would write more after the company settled down from its booming workload. My third was to wait until after my marriage to Jill, with its accompanying arrangements.
In the summer of 1997, Jill and I were in Ecuador for the U.S. Agency for International Development, doing a two-week joint lecture on pollution prevention (Jill’s topic) and the Internet (mine). While Jill took her turn in front of the class, I sat at a desk and ruminated on my situation. I watched my wife respond to the students’ questions, living out one of her life-long dreams, and I realized what I had been missing. I realized that four years passed by, and I had not written anything new; in the last year, I had even quit sending out my finished stories to publishers in the last year. I was miserable at work, even though I was making more money then I ever had before in my life. The day job had become my career without my consent; I had lost sight of my goal. But at that moment, I was the happiest I had been since I graduated from Colorado State. For although I had neglected my original goal, I had just discovered by happenstance that teaching fulfilled a need in me that I had sought for in writing. The preparation and presentation of a seminar closely mirrored the rehearsal and performance of a play or the creation and editing of a story. While lecturing, I could improvise around my main theme, shifting my prepared materials to meet the demands of the different audiences. Teaching was revealed to me as an organic activity, alive and immediate, something I had been missing in my programming job and never been able to achieve by writing alone. When we returned to the U.S., I began to make the arrangements to return to school, to pursue the creative writing degree that I had always wanted, and join it with the joy of teaching that I had discovered in Ecuador.
Jill and I attended a potluck this past Saturday. One of our new acquaintances asked what I was doing in D.C. Without hesitation, I told him that I was getting a Masters in Creative Writing.
“That’s not a professional degree,” he said.
I asked what he meant by professional.
“Doctor, lawyer, engineer–you know, a certification.”
I agreed with him. Writing is not a profession; it is a way of life.