Monday, September 9, 2013

Memoir Monday Revisited

This past Spring some of you may recall that I posted a series of excerpts from my latest book Memoirs of a Starving Artist.  For several weeks I posted a new chapter each Monday.  After some great feedback I decided to do one more major revision to the book, and now finally I am all finished!  To celebrate, I'm going to start up my Memoir Monday postings again, beginning today with the Introduction.

I am planning to hold off on releasing this book until November, but in the meantime I'll post a new chapter here each week for the next ten weeks (out of 36 total chapters).  So, without further ado, here we go again!


When I was a child I wanted to be a pilot.  At the age of six I boarded a plane and caught a glimpse of the cockpit, with all those wonderful dials, buttons and knobs.  The captain stood in the doorway, a stunning figure in his white pressed shirt and navy blue cap, ready to whisk us away on a far-flung journey.  Yes, that was the life for me.  In hindsight perhaps I should have listened to my instincts.
Instead I took the long, miserable path of a writer.  I had no idea it would mean forsaking nearly everything most people take for granted.  Money, security and even love would have to wait a very long time, if not forever.  I took on a lifestyle of poverty, uncertainty, rejection and at the same time, the ultimate freedom.  I didn’t set out to live a life so far beyond the bounds of tradition, but somehow that is the way things ended up.
In the 25 years since I made my fateful decision to become a writer I’ve had no real home of my own and no regular job I could stand to keep for more than a year.  I’ve lived under dark clouds of debt, afraid to spend any money at all and constantly worrying about my future.  While all of my friends slowly moved ahead, buying homes and new cars, starting families and saving for retirement, I merely got older and broker, with no bright prospects for salvation.  Do I regret following the path I’ve chosen?  No.  Not really.  I’ve had plenty of disappointments, sure.  Things haven’t worked out quite as I’d hoped when I started out, but I don’t regret chasing after my dreams.  Once I started writing I could not stop and probably never will.  The reasons are varied.  Of course there are the obvious goals of fame and wealth.  These are definitely possible to achieve as a writer, though I realize that the odds are stacked solidly against it.  I’ve seen the statistics.  Most writers don’t even earn a decent living from their craft.  For 25 years now I’ve held out hope that I might eventually do so.  I’ve also yearned for the respect and admiration that writers can still achieve, even in a society under siege from a constant stream of electronic stimuli.  I long for a career to be proud of, creating something of value from my own hard work and determination.
More practical reasons to pursue a writing career include the potential to lead an unconventional life of adventure.  Writers can travel the world, work on their own terms and never punch a clock.  Never sit in a corporate office and use their brainpower for someone else’s gain.  Never let their soul be sucked dry by a job they hate, but embrace life and the joys and the sorrows of living.  Writers wake up when they feel like it, work when they feel like it, and never have to leave the house if they don’t want to.  To many people this sounds like Nirvana.  No boss, no alarm clocks, no office politics, no overtime.
These motivations are powerful, yet there are just as many downsides to a writer’s life.  For one thing, all of the sitting around and thinking can drive one utterly mad.  Why else do so many writers end up sucking on the end of a shotgun or filling their pockets with stones and plunging into a river?  Lounging around the house in your pajamas all day and thinking is not psychologically healthy.  There is simply way too much to obsess about.  Financial concerns, for one thing, without a regular paycheck or company health insurance or any real security at all.  There is the terrible guilt that what you are writing is not good enough, or that you are not accomplishing enough at all.  There is the hopelessness that comes from trying to exact change in a world that seems impervious to any voice of reason.
Of course, not all writers are trying to change the world.  Some are merely trying to entertain.  I tend to think that these writers sleep better at night.  I’ve always strived to be a part of the other group; those that really are trying to make a difference.  These are the literary novelists and what defines them is their pursuit of truth and honesty.  Some hope to provide a mirror through which we can all get a better look at ourselves and thus a better understanding of the world around us.  Others are more overtly political, using their stories to make direct social criticisms.  However they go about it, what these novelists have in common is the belief that their insights are worthwhile.  Sharing them is what gives their lives meaning.  I always knew this was going to be a tall order.  Changing the world takes a lot more talent than merely entertaining it, but I wanted a career that could give my life meaning on a deeper level.
For more than two decades now I have tried to fulfill that promise.  Somehow I’ve managed to travel the world on so little money, even I don’t know how I did it.  An Australian friend once told me, “You could live off the fumes of an oily rag.”  Of course, I took that as a great compliment.  I may be dirt poor, but I’ve lived a life rich with experience.  This experience is the substance from which novels are made.  I think back to days working on a cable ship in the middle of the Pacific and watching whales swim past my porthole.  I remember a Tahitian boy treating me to mangos and warm soda at his ramshackle home on a remote island.  I remember late nights in Eastern Europe, driving around in a tiny car crammed with locals and feeling like I belonged. 
Traveling makes it easier to see the world around you with eyes wide open because even the mundane in one person’s world can be vastly intriguing to another.  Upon returning home, the traveler has a whole new perspective.  Suddenly he notices things about people and perceptions, and even the style of the buildings in his neighborhood and the weather on an average spring day that he might have completely dismissed beforehand.
Making these observations and sharing them with the rest of the world is part what writing is all about, and nothing lifts the spirits of a writer like a good day’s work.  Sometimes when I’m down I know that the only thing that will make me feel better is a productive day.  And when I know my work is going well, nothing can get me down.  Not my anemic bank account, my non-existent love life, or a stack of rejections.  When my writing is good, life is good.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would be like if I achieved all that I set out to.  What if I finally wrote something that made the literary world stand up and take notice?  What if I actually did start to earn a decent living from my craft?  What if I broke through that barrier that has seemed to stand between me and my dreams for all of these years?  Would I be any different?  I think perhaps less in my mind than in the minds of others.  Even if I’ve seen myself as a writer for all of these years, those around me often see only a snowboard instructor, or dishwasher, or day laborer, or whatever else I happen to be doing to survive.  With some greater measure of success, perhaps others might see me as the writer that I know I’ve been all along.
When Jack Kerouac finished writing On The Road, he carried the manuscript around with him in a knapsack for six years, unable to find a publisher.  In the meantime he cranked out several other books, none of which sold either.  Just like I have, he lived on the brink of starvation, working odd jobs and struggling to survive.  It wasn’t until his good friend, the poet Allen Ginsburg, implored a publisher to look at On The Road that it finally saw the light of day and went on to become a classic of 20th century literature.  During those six years, was Kerouac any less of a literary master?  Of course not.  But was he treated like one?  No way.  He was treated like the bum that everyone thought he must be.  Afterwards he was lavished with praise, featured on radio and TV broadcasts and all of his other works were quickly snapped up.
It should be mentioned that publishing success did not bring Kerouac happiness.  After the world finally discovered him, he moved home with his mother and drank himself to death by the age of 47.  And here lies perhaps the most important lesson of all for a struggling writer.  The writing itself must be its own reward.  You have to do it because you can’t live without doing it.  Because it gives you a reason to exist, whether anyone else reads it or not.
I heard someone once say that a successful writer is a mediocre writer with persistence.  I’ve always figured that if this were really true, I’d have a lock on it.  Twenty-five years with hardly a paycheck is awfully persistent.  Of course, perhaps I’m not mediocre enough…  Whatever the case may be, the life of a starving artist has been an interesting ride.  So far my career has barely sputtered, yet in some ways I seem to be the envy of all of my friends.  Those tied down by responsibilities look with romanticism upon my life.  People often tell me, “I dreamt of being a writer myself, but I didn’t have the courage to try.”  Through me they see all of the fantasies of the writers’ lifestyle.  They see the freedom, the wealth of experience and the prospect of changing the world on some small level.  It’s easy for them to overlook the downsides.  They forget about the challenges that frightened them away in the first place.  They overlook the loneliness and isolation of a writers’ life.  They don’t know what it is like having to justify oneself in a society that considers wealth and success to be synonymous.
Despite these challenges, I don’t regret following the path that I chose.   For me the benefits still outweigh the costs.  For those who pushed their own dreams aside for the security and stability of a more traditional life, perhaps my journey will shed some light on what the alternative might have looked like.  This is the type of book I would like to have read myself at the beginning of it all.  Part cautionary tale, part celebration of life, it is in the end the story of one man doomed by the compulsion to write.

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