While my forthcoming book Memoirs of a Starving Artist currently being proofed, I'm about three weeks away from release. Once the book comes out I plan to give away a few paperback copies, but in the meantime I've decided to give away one pre-release e-book copy per week for the next three weeks. Winners will be chosen in random drawings from people who are signed up on my "New Release and Giveaway" mailing list. This mailing list is only for new release and giveaway notifications. No spam, no unwanted newsletters, no sharing e-mail addresses with anyone else anywhere. So if you do want to be entered into the weekly drawings, you can sign up below. If you are already signed up for the mailing list, you're already entered in the drawings. I'll announce the winners here each week starting next Monday. Good luck!
As for this week's installment of Memoir Monday, today we take another look at life in our nation's capital for an idealistic young scribe:
As for this week's installment of Memoir Monday, today we take another look at life in our nation's capital for an idealistic young scribe:
I sat on a stone bench near the capitol building in Washington, DC, feeling frustrated. After two years of effort I had my master’s degree and I was back in the nation’s capital. Surely this time an interesting job would be there for the taking, right? A graduate degree was bound to move my resume to the top of the pile. Unfortunately I quickly realized that in Washington, a master’s degree from San Diego State University was hardly worth the paper it was printed on. I had a good understanding of international politics. I could write well. I was smart… Yet if the degree did not have an East Coast stamp, it didn’t seem to do me any good at all when it came to finding a job.
I’d already applied to nearly every government agency I could think of and failed across the board. Nobody wanted to hire me, or even talk to me at all. I still couldn’t even get an interview. I gazed up at the stone and marble dome of the capitol hovering above me, so imposing as it reached for the sky. I felt as though it were mocking me. I’d played by the rules. I’d studied hard. Here I was, offering myself as a servant to this government that wanted nothing to do with me.
At that moment I felt like I just wanted to blow that dome sky high. Maybe not literally, but figuratively at the very least. I started to think about the illusion of permanence in our system of government. I was small and inconsequential but this government of ours was a solid, enduring edifice, just like that dome. It was larger than life and would last forever. That’s what a solid government building like this was supposed to symbolize, anyway, just like all of the imposing memorials all around the mall. I realized, though, that there really was no permanence to any of it. Every government fails eventually. The ancient Roman Empire was full of solid, imposing stone buildings. Many of those buildings endure to this day, but the empire is long gone. Someday our system of government would be gone as well. When might it happen? And how? It wasn’t something most people ever considered. Just like they probably didn’t think much about it in Rome, either. Or the Soviet Union. But what if I wrote a novel chronicling the disintegration of the United States, and made it actually believable? Maybe that would get people thinking.
It is these moments of inspiration that can lead me to spend years plugging away at a fiction project. I realized that some people would think that just writing this novel was a traitorous act. It was a little bit like burning the American flag. Not that I had any desire to do that, but to me the freedom to burn the flag was what this country was all about. It proved that we were solid enough in our convictions to not feel threatened by a mere symbolic act of dissent. This was equally true of the freedom to write whatever I wanted. I decided to title the book Flag Burning. It would be my own symbolic act of dissent.
In a strange twist of irony, I ended up spending long hours working away at this new novel in the Library of Congress, which I lived near once again. As I started writing I felt a kinship with some of my old literary heroes. Perhaps I was a bit of a rebel after all. My story followed a U.S. Army general who uses the ensuing chaos of two concurrent wars as an excuse to take over the government. I felt like I was finally writing the type of story I’d been meant to write all along. It had a fast-paced plot but was also subversive and it had the substance of thought behind it.
For research I rode my bike to Arlington National Cemetery and spent several days wandering the grounds. My General Harrison was from the South and would have felt a connection to Robert E. Lee, whose former property the cemetery encompassed. I lingered in Lee’s house, where he made his fateful decision to resign his union commission and support the confederacy. It was here in the same spot, looking over the Potomac at all of Washington spread before him that Harrison would lead his final assault on the capital. To Harrison, “The South Will Rise Again,” was more than a cheap slogan on some souvenir confederate flag. It would become a vendetta against all of the perceived sleights on his family, his Southern culture, and the civilian political establishment’s abuse and misuse of the armed forces.
At the very back of the cemetery I found a small confederate section. Surely Harrison would have relatives buried in this plot. The area consisted of concentric circles of graves surrounding a Confederate war memorial in the center. There were perhaps fewer than a thousand souls buried here, and while the markers in the rest of the cemetery were rounded on top, here they came to a sharp point. It was said that this was so Union soldiers would not commit the indignity of sitting on top of them.
The monument in the center consisted of the figure of a woman in robes standing atop a 30-foot tall column. She leaned against a plow and held a wreath in one hand. At the base was a relief of Confederate soldiers in battle, holding each other up as they marched across a field. One side bore the following inscription:
“Not for Fame or Reward
Not for Place or for Rank
Not Lured By Ambition
Or Goaded By Necessity
But in Simple
Obedience to Duty
As They Understood It
These Men Suffered All
Dared All – And Died”
- Randolph Harrison McKim
I worked away at this novel and finished a rough draft, but it was nothing I was ready to send out to anyone. In the meantime I found work as temp. Despite the master’s degree, here I was, back to the daily drudgery that I knew would sap my soul bit by bit, day after day, until before long there would be nothing left. I kept applying for better jobs, but no matter how many resumes I sent out, the results were the same. Nothing.
Even though I struggled professionally, there were still things that inspired me about DC. I loved living in the same Capitol Hill neighborhood as before. I spent evenings in the neighborhood pubs, where my new roommates knew everyone who came through the door, and soon so did I. This was a lifestyle I’d never experienced on the West Coast, but it appealed to me. The bartender began pouring our brews of choice before our butts even hit the barstools and the conversation flowed faster than the beer. Now I realized where the idea for the television show Cheers came from. This was one big family, as tight-knit as any I’d seen. When the weather warmed in the springtime, we spent afternoons in one backyard or another grilling out or mixing up big pots of gumbo. Weekends occasionally found us playing softball on a diamond near our house.
I also loved living in a city with such history. According to the owner of our house, John Wilkes Booth had stopped there after shooting Lincoln to change his horse at a stable that once stood in the backyard. Sitting in the Hawk and Dove pub I could look out the window and picture the British forces camped out on Pennsylvania Avenue, laying siege to the Capitol during the War of 1812. Most of the brick row houses lining the street were built during that century and many had no doubt hardly changed since.
When the temp job I had at an engineering company eventually turned permanent, I settled in and made the best of it. This wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life, but at least it paid the bills. I polished my Flag Burning novel at night. I sent my movie scripts to agents and kept entering contests. I was nowhere near to giving up on this dream.
In the meantime I began playing for another amateur soccer team, this time in Virginia. I still dreamt distantly of playing as a professional. A new league had just formed in the U.S., called Major League Soccer. A guy from a pickup group I played with was signed by D.C. United, the best team in the country at that time. A group of us went to RFK Stadium to watch his first game, where he held his own during 20 minutes of playing time. He was being paid $30,000 per season, which was a pittance for a player on a major professional sports team, but even so I would gladly have traded places with him. I would have played for free, but how would I even go about it? Spend the next several seasons trying to work my way up from amateur to a minor league and then hoping to get a shot at a tryout? I was already 30 years old; far too old to be signed as a rookie. Besides, I’d always aspired to make my living in the intellectual world, not the physical. Chasing after this secondary dream would have meant taking time and energy away from my writing.
The regrets were hard to banish completely. I still lived the fantasy every weekend, tempering my disappointments by playing as well as I could. One Saturday, I was at my usual position as a forward when a teammate lofted a cross into the penalty box. I launched into the air and was flying toward the ball when my skull was violently knocked sideways by the head of a leaping defender. I landed on my feet and wobbled toward the sidelines. My legs felt like rubber and the whole world seemed to spin around me. My eyes closed and my consciousness faded to black. When I opened my eyes again I was lying on my back on the grass looking up at the heads of my coach and teammates as they gathered around me in a circle above. “You passed out,” the coach informed me. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, afraid that if I admitted otherwise he might not let me back into the game.
“I think you better sit out for a while and take it easy,” said the coach.
“Yeah, all right,” I agreed. My mind was in a fog. Some teammates helped me up and led me to the bench. As the game continued I looked around at the field, and the leafy deciduous trees surrounding it. Where was I? After some time I realized that I was in Virginia. I was playing in a soccer game in Virginia. That was the only thing that I remembered. The rest was a complete blank; near total amnesia. Did I live in Virginia? I didn’t think so. But where did I live? I had no idea. I came from somewhere else far away, I was fairly certain, though I had no idea where that was. I started to worry, wondering if I had any health insurance. Maybe if I had a job, I had health insurance. Did I have a job? Again, I had no idea.
I sat on the sidelines for the rest of the game, trying to piece everything together. After thirty minutes I remembered that I lived in Washington, DC. I remembered that I had a truck, and that I’d driven to the game. I could drive myself home, if only I could recall where my apartment was. My teammates knew that I was in bad shape. They offered to call an ambulance. They told me that I had a serious concussion. They said that it was dangerous to go to sleep and that I should see a doctor. By the end of the game I remembered that I had no health insurance. I managed to drive myself home and then went to sleep.
A week later I was back on the field, still dreaming of what might have been. Instead of a professional career, the legacy of that concussion is what stayed with me over the years. My memory began to seem a bit muddled. In recent years especially my short-term memory has begun to fade and I’ve had a harder time focusing. I struggle at times to remember what I did in the days or weeks before. Perhaps even worse for a writer, I often have a difficult time coming up with the best word to fit into a sentence. Words that would have sprung to mind easily in years past now escape me. Le mot juste, as the French say, is hard to come by. A thesaurus helps, but the trend is worrisome. Are these really symptoms of that concussion? Some years earlier, playing goalie on a team in California, I’d also had a concussion when an opposing player missed the ball and kicked me with full force, square in the head. Whether these incidents are to blame for any impaired cognitive function is unclear, but the prospect that they might be makes me decidedly uneasy. If I am going to finally make it as a writer, I feel that I’d better hurry up about it before my abilities degenerate any further.
Some weeks after my Virginia concussion, I got what seemed to be the biggest break in my fledgling writing career to date. A family connection became an agent at one of the biggest, most powerful agencies in Hollywood, the William Morris Agency. She agreed to look at my Mandate of Heaven script. If she liked it, I might finally be on my way. For the next few months I was in regular contact with Lesley’s personal assistant, Myles. He seemed like a nice guy, always eager to talk to me if I called on the phone and responding quickly to my e-mails. When I planned a trip back to California to see my parents, Myles suggested that I come in for a meeting to discuss the script. I wasn’t sure what there was to talk about yet exactly, but getting a literal foot in the door at a major agency seemed like a good idea. On the day of the big meeting I tried not to get my hopes too high. Still, I put on my best approximation of a Hollywood writer’s outfit, with khaki pants and a button down shirt. I drove into Beverly Hills and dropped my beat up old pickup truck with a valet. I made my way into the office and then sat in the waiting room along with a famous Olympic gymnast and a few mid-level actors that I recognized.
When it was my turn to meet with Lesley, I was escorted up the elevator and down a hallway by another assistant. Myles was home sick that day, I found out. His replacement showed me into Lesley’s office where I sat in a chair and waited for a few minutes until she came in to greet me, her arms clutching a stack of manila folders that she placed on the desk. I stood and reached out to shake her hand.
“It’s nice to see you,” Lesley said. The two of us went to the same high school, but because she was three years older than me I’d hardly known her there. What I did know was that she’d been Homecoming Queen, and one of the most popular girls in the school. More than ten years on, her beauty and charisma were intact. In fact, all of the people working for this agency seemed to be extremely good looking. They were the beautiful people, from the bottom on up. This was Hollywood after all, where image was everything. “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Lesley added.
“Yeah, it has been a while,” I agreed. We launched into the customary chit-chat about our home town and common connections, but I could tell that these pleasantries were causing a bit of a strain. Lesley was a busy woman.
“About your script,” she finally cut to the chase, looking somewhat embarrassed. “I have to admit that I haven’t read it yet. I don’t really handle writers anyway, I work with actors, but I might be able to pass it along to somebody.”
“Ok,” I replied. “That would be great.”
“To be honest, I’m wondering why you arranged to come in for this meeting in the first place,” she went on.
I was too embarrassed to tell her that the meeting wasn’t my idea at all. It was Myles’ idea. He was the one who suggested it. He was the one who scheduled it. Was there some ulterior motive on his part? “I just thought, since I was going to be in town anyway, it would be nice to come in and say hello.”
“Oh. Well it’s too bad that Myles was sick today. He was looking forward to meeting you.”
So there it was. I’d suspected it all along. Myles only scheduled this meeting as a pretext to meet me. The joke was really on Lesley and me both, sitting here across from each other due to the misguided romantic whims of her absent assistant. Lesley didn’t have the time or inclination to give me anything more than a quick courtesy visit, and even that was pushing it.
“I’m sorry about the script. I’ll try to take a look at it when I can,” Lesley said. And that was that. I flew back to Washington a few days later. Eventually she passed the script on to another agent, who showed no interest. My best connection to the business so far was a total bust.
In DC I managed to stick it out at the engineering company for a year until finally I couldn’t take it anymore. I was struggling with $18,000 in student loans to pay off, but when my grandmother decided to give $5,000 to each of my sisters and me, that was all I needed to throw in the towel on what was seeming like a failed experiment. There was still the Foreign Service as an option. I signed up for the written exam and marked Canberra, Australia, as my closest test location. Then I put my truck in storage with all of my belongings locked in the back. As the falling leaves of autumn signaled the coming of winter, I hopped on a plane and headed south to summer down under. To hell with my life’s plan. I’d work that out later.