“A man, a plan, a canal — Panama!” -Van Halen
Up to a week and a half ago, I had a job. It was pretty good, as jobs go. It paid well, my coworkers were nice, and I got to spend my workday planted on the couch. And while it didn’t hit on all cylinders as far as personal fulfillment goes, I had my pipe dream to pick up the slack.
I’ve had pipe dreams before. One was acting on stage, where I have next to zero talent. The other was in punk rock, where I have no talent at all. As time passed, those faded, and wanting to be a writer came to the fore.
Before I continue, let’s make one thing clear. I am not a great writer. I’m not terrible either. I grasp how words flow and more often than not, I can make that happen in a way that I like. Practical application is the part that has tripped me up in the past.
During what seems like several lifetimes ago, I was an editorial intern at a weekly paper in Santa Barbara. It was a part-time, unpaid position where my primary task was finding errors in galley proofs. In addition, I was able to pitch an idea (usually for some fluff piece) and if it got printed, I would get ten dollars out of the deal.
Along with a few small checks, I came out of the experience with the realization that I lacked some key ingredients to make it as a writer. One problem was not having a clue what people wanted to read. Fortunately, one of the editors would greenlight my pitch with a shrug and a nod if it didn’t completely suck. If I cared as much as he did, the articles I wrote might have been better.
One of my shortcomings is that I’m not a good listener. Along with my fear of abandonment and a pinch of misogyny in my worldview, I blame this on my mother. When she got upset, which was often, it was always a capital offense. I was held accountable not only for my own transgression but for every other reason her life was terrible. When she was on a tear, my brain would haul ass to a happy place where she didn’t matter. I just had to make sure it wasn’t a place with funny jokes as giggling during her tirades was not well received. I sure learned that the hard way.
Unfortunately, I ended up using this coping mechanism in other parts of my life, even when the only crazy person present was me. I’d take my mind out for a stroll during college lectures, work meetings, and being implored by loved ones to stop being such an idiot. It’s little surprise that I extended this to people I was interviewing for an article. I brought a tape recorder so I could play back as much as I needed to shit out some prose, but my heart wasn’t in it. I eventually quit the internship and added one more failure to my track record.
To fill the time outside my retail job, I dabbled in poetry and pencil sketches. To round out my beatnik nonsense, I even wore a beret for a while, though I try not to think about that. My attempts at fiction writing then didn’t last long. I was running into the same problem I had in creative writing classes in college. I was not bad at turning a phrase, but I couldn’t tell a story to save my life. My brain just didn’t think in narratives. I was more taken with vignettes and flashy imagery. It’s telling that my favorite reading material was books of fascinating facts, the more lurid the better. I was all headline and no feature story.
Sometime during the early months of 1987, I became friends with some computer geeks who were attending or working at UC Santa Barbara. It’s important to remember that back then, people in tech were mostly hippie nerds rather than the entitled douchebags they are today. My awkwardness made me seem like a fellow traveler and I was given a work-study job in the university’s geography department.
The job paid $7.50 an hour, which was a whole lot better than what I was making working retail. Also, I seemed to have some aptitude for being a nerd. I wasn’t great or even very good, but I wasn’t hopeless either. My writerly aspirations got put on the back burner. Lucrative mediocrity was good enough for me.
Move ahead to 2011. My blog has been up and running for five years. Most of it is just me being a potty-mouthed blowhard. But I’m also writing stories and posting them. They’re not great, but they’re a lot better than anything I did in the 1980s. A lot of credit goes to the fiction workshops I did in the early aughts. I had not only a teacher but other students to tell me what was wrong with my writing. Sure there was plenty of the “What’s at stake? I want to know more” stuff parroted by dullards, but there was really helpful stuff as well. For example, I learned that expository dialogue is better summarized. Probably the best bit of wisdom came from one of the instructors who told us to think of our stories as fairy tales. “Once upon a time” is a good and necessary start, but the reader isn’t going to wait too long until the “And then one day” part kicks into gear.
2011 was the year I would take what I learned and apply it to a more ambitious endeavor. Well, sort of. I signed up to take part in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal was to crank out a first draft of a novel with at least 50,000 words in 30 days. Craft didn’t enter in directly as getting the words out was the most important thing. That said, having some idea of what I wanted the novel to be kept me going. It was exhausting, but rewarding enough to keep me doing it for five years in a row.
I think it helped my short story writing as well. The stuff I wrote after 2015 is admittedly dashed out, but at least worth fixing.
For now, the focus is on a novel. I chose the NaNoWriMo endeavor that sucked the least and decided to run with it. I found myself in a position where I was able to quit my job and do this full-time. So that’s what I did. It will prove to be either the best or worst career choice I have ever made. We shall see.