Monday, September 30, 2013

Memoir Monday: Into the "Real World"

Memoir Monday this week takes a look at that difficult period in a person's life when they graduate from college and the job they thought would be waiting for them at the end somehow does not materialize.  I'm sure there are a few Millennials out there who can relate!  So here it is, the next chapter in my forthcoming memoir:

Chapter Three – Into the “Real World”

It didn’t take long after I picked up my bachelors degree before I began to realize that the social contract I had believed in was in many ways an illusion.  From the time I was a small child I’d felt that my life was on a track.  I knew more or less what was expected of me and where I was going next.  Life seemed to come with some guarantees.  Like everyone else, starting in kindergarten I moved from one school to another.  When I finished elementary school, I knew that middle school was waiting.  After high school, a college education was a foregone conclusion in my family.   All of my life this was the track that I knew I would take, and it came with the expectation that a high-paying job and secure future lay waiting at the end.  That’s why a person goes to college in the first place, isn’t it?  To secure their future?  Despite my lingering questions about where I really fit in to this scheme and what my future might actually look like, I still had this expectation that having played by the rules gave me some guarantee of success.  Instead, when I did finally graduate I found that all of the guarantees were suddenly over.  For the very first time I was confronted with a vast emptiness.  When I started applying for jobs near the end of my senior year in college I came up with exactly nothing.  No calls, no interviews, no job.
With my parents no longer supporting me, I had real bills to pay and for the first time in my life I began to feel desperate.  When autumn rolled around I still had no prospects at all.  Instead of finding a “real job,” I gave up on that idea temporarily and headed to Vail, Colorado where I found work as a ski lift operator for $5.35 per hour.  I shoveled snow beginning before dawn in temperatures reaching 30 degrees below zero.  I roamed the happy hour circuit for cheap food in the evenings and slept on friends’ couches at night.  When the season wrapped up in the spring, I was no closer to a solution for my lack of direction.  I still dreamt of the writer’s life but with no way to earn a living from it I moved in with an old friend in San Diego, so broke that I was living off the money I’d saved in a change jar. 
My next job was working as an usher at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, the famous racing track “where the turf meets the surf.”  Again it was only temporary, but there was something magical about being at the track, especially early in the morning as the grounds crew watered the infield and a cool breeze blew in from the sea.  There was so much history here you could just feel it all around.  Most of the ushers were men in their 70’s who had worked this job for their entire adult lives. When the spectators arrived, we dusted off their seats and pinned their tickets to their shirts.  Occasionally someone handed me a dollar or two.  At first that meant I could eat.
Two months later, this season wrapped up and the only work I could find was as a general laborer at a large construction site.  I was a college graduate digging ditches.  Was this the “real world” I’d been warned about for so long?  Most of the other workers on the site were Vietnam vets and at lunch I listened as they swapped combat stories.  Ambushes, booby traps and life in the jungle, fighting to survive.  Kill or be killed.  Things could be worse than they were for me now, I realized.
“Yeah, those were some good times, some good times,” said Frank, a black man with silver “F” engraved on one tooth and a star on another.  He enjoyed his time as a medic so much that he volunteered for a second tour of duty.
“I had these wings pinned on my uniform so they thought I was an officer, and I’d get in the officer’s club,” he told me happily.  “Yeah, that was the best time of my life.”  The fun subsided toward the end when his best friend was sucked out of a helicopter and blown up by a grenade right before his eyes, he told me somberly.
Another co-worker was a large white man in his forties who they called “Hollywood” because he claimed to have worked as a scriptwriter in the porn industry.  He told war stories, too, about how his whole platoon was annihilated except for him and one other man.  How he took a .50 caliber machinegun round in the side of his helmet and threw a grenade at a VC soldier just ten feet away.  While we were working he seemed to think he was still “in country.”  He eyed us all warily and kept to himself as he walked around mumbling, “Buck up soldier, that’s no way to carry a gun!”
The only other guy my age drove to work in a battered and lowered VW bug with a big tailpipe sticking up at an angle out of the back.  He wore black concert T-shirts with the sleeves cut off and told stories about his own sordid life.  “The last job I was on was at a hospital,” he said.  “I stole a skin stapler.  I use it to pierce nipples.  I charge guys $50 and girls $25.”
“Why the difference?”
“Because I like to do the girls.”
“What kinds of people get their nipples pierced?” I asked.
“Strippers, usually, so they can dangle stuff from them.  The only problem is when I mess up, because you can’t really do it again,” he said with a twinge of guilt.
At least I was meeting some real characters.  People I might write about some day.  Yet still, after a month digging holes and busting up concrete I was at the end of my wits.  I finally got my first call about a “real job” I’d applied for.  It was a writing job at that, for a national magazine catering to small businesses.  I asked my friends if I could borrow a tie for the interview.
“Sorry, man, I don’t have a tie,” they all said. 
I asked my roommate, Barry.  “Yeah, I have one tie.  It’s got little surfers on it,” he responded.  I put on my best slacks and shirt and stopped at a discount store to buy my own tie on the way.  It must have been good enough, because I managed to get the job.  I showed up on the first day and settled in to my cubicle.  I had my own desk!  And computer!  No more digging ditches!  It took less than a day to realize how much I was going to hate it, chained to my seat under fluorescent lamps and forced to write drivel. 
As we walked out to the parking lot on my first Friday after work, one of my new colleagues pumped a fist in the air.  “Yes!!!  I live for the weekend!” she exclaimed.  To me, this seemed like a terrible way to spend a life.  Miserable for five out of seven days each week?  Was this what most working people went through?  Having their souls slowly sucked dry as they tossed their principles out the window?  I can’t say that I was particularly surprised.  In many ways it was exactly what I’d expected.  It was what my mother had seemed to want for me, and a concept I’d struggled against.  What I also realized about this magazine in particular was that they were not really selling business advice, as they claimed to be.  They were selling a fantasy.  It was a magazine for all of those other poor saps out there stuck in their own cubicles as their souls were sucked dry.  It was for people who desperately dreamed of something better and had nowhere else to turn.
In college I’d had a naïve notion of something called journalistic ethics.  Now I was trying to write even-handed articles with reliable information, yet my editors would have none of that.  The final straw for me came after a year of agony.  My editor sent back a draft of an article I’d written.  Circled in red ink was the word recession along with a note that said, “Come see me.”
I went to the editor’s office and she confronted me immediately.  “You can’t use this word in our magazine!” she said angrily.
“Why not?” I asked.  “This is actually putting a positive spin on it.  This business can do better in a recession.  You know, like a shoe store suffers, but a shoe repairman prospers.  It’s like that.”
“How do you know we’re in a recession?” she demanded, apparently not hearing a word I’d said.
“Well, everyone’s talking about it,” I replied.  “It seems pretty obvious.”
“Take it out,” she decreed.  “Never use the word ‘recession’ in this magazine, understand?”
I gave my notice two weeks later.  This life of stability wasn’t worth the emotional trauma I’d been forced to endure.  It was not a tradeoff I could live with.  At least I’d managed to save up enough money to buy a used Jeep pickup truck.  That vehicle would end up being the only real stability I’d have for the next two decades.  It was the only major possession I had, and I’m driving it to this day, 23 years after I bought it.  Time and again I’ve thought about ditching it when I’ve gone off and travelled the world, but somehow I just can’t bring myself to part with this truck; a sentimental side to me I suppose.
Six months after I quit working for the magazine I saw an issue on a newsstand at the airport.  The cover headline; “Top Ten Recession-Proof Businesses.”  I had no regrets about leaving.  I was going to be a fiction writer.  I would start out making a living by writing short stories and selling them to magazines.  I knew I could do it.  Plenty of the greats had done it this way.  Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dickens.  Once again my optimism was based on ignorance.  If I had known then what I know now would I have even tried?  If I had known that in the next year I would get three stories published and be paid a grand total of $20 would I have bothered?  Not likely. 
When I left the magazine I moved back home with my parents and wrote stories.  I tried to write one per week.  I wrote about the beach community I grew up in.  About growing older and watching the world change.  About loneliness and alienation in the modern world.  I sent my stories to every conceivable publication, from The New Yorker to the local rags.
I soon learned one of the most difficult lessons of being a writer.  So many people want to do this for a living, with so few outlets, that editors will gladly pay you nothing for your time and think they are doing you a huge favor.  Editors understand that struggling writers are so desperate to see their names in print that many will do anything to be published.  The truth is that writers are among the most exploited people in the world.  If you won’t give your work away for free, there are a hundred other poor saps lined up behind you who will.
Early on I submitted a piece to a small local paper.  They never responded.  Several weeks later a friend congratulated me on seeing my story published.  Not only had the paper not paid me a cent, they hadn’t even bothered to tell me they were publishing my work!  Shortly thereafter a local glossy magazine called to tell me that they wanted a photo of me so that they could publish it along with another one of my stories.  “Great!” I said, and stopped by their office with the photo.  At least I knew this article was coming out in advance.  I waited to see how much they would pay me.  I was afraid to even ask.  It was a good thing I didn’t hold my breath.  Again, not a dime.
Later a small surfing magazine asked to publish one of my stories.  This time I made sure to ask for money up front.  I was learning, slowly.  They were shocked that I actually wanted compensation for my time and energy.  So many editors had the same response.  They seemed to think I was doing this simply for the love of my craft, and that the fame they offered was payment enough.  They didn’t seem to understand that work without pay leads to a very hungry boy.  I told the editor of the surfing magazine that I had to be paid, if on principle alone.  We settled on $20.  That was all I earned in six months of fiction writing.  If I had worked an average of 25 hours per week, or 650 hours total, this meant I’d earned a whopping three cents an hour.  This didn’t even count the paper, ink cartridges and postal expenses.  It did not take me long to realize that this was going to be one hell of a business.  Did I really want to go through with this?  It was a question I struggled with.   Maybe changing the world though my writing just wasn’t in the cards after all.  In the meantime, I needed to earn a living however I could.  I took a job as a substitute teacher, heading off to different schools each day for temporary assignments in classes from kindergarten to 12th grade.  There were good days and bad, but overall this was absolutely not what I wanted to do for a living.  It was merely a way to pay the bills while I continued to dream bigger dreams.
On the weekends I went fishing with a friend who had a small boat.  Andrew’s 22-foot cabin cruiser was docked at his grandmother’s house on Newport Bay.  Small and fast, his boat could make it all the way to Catalina Island in an hour.  We fished for Bonita and Mackerel, but what Andrew really loved to catch were sharks.  When we gassed up at the fuel dock before each trip we also bought packets of squid for bait and a couple buckets of chum; frozen fish blood and guts.  Then we motored out of the harbor and roared across the sea until we reached a promising spot off the coast.  Andrew would stop the boat, cut a few holes in a chum bucket, tie it to a line and toss it overboard.  We’d drop in some fishing lines, take off our shirts, grab a cold beer and wait.  It was always just a matter of time before the sharks started circling.  Usually this meant six-foot blues.  We’d watch their sleek, silvery bodies swim around the bait and bump it with their noses while they worked up their courage.  Eventually a shark took a bite and then off it went, the reel singing as the line spun out.  All we had to do then was reel it in and fight the shark up alongside the boat to release it.  One of us would use a gaffing hook to hold the shark along the boat while the other reached over with pliers to twist the fishhook from the jaws.
Eventually these trips became the basis for a short story.  Two friends fishing off Catalina catch a shark with human remains inside.  Was this murder, or a horrible accident?  In the story, the two protagonists eventually find out that a band of thieves is preying on private boats in the Catalina channel.  The remains in the shark are from a couple who were sailing home when they were attacked, tied to an anchor and thrown overboard.  At least in my story the victims were dead before they went over.  Years later a true story dominated the Orange County headlines when just such an incident actually took place on a private yacht off the California coast.  Only in the true version, the couple was still alive when they were tied to the anchor and thrown overboard.
My own short story turned into my first novel, Blood in Blue Water.  This wasn’t the type of project that would change the world in any way, but maybe it was commercial enough to give my fledgling career the boost that it needed.  I clung to that hope as I sent samples to hundreds of literary agents and publishers.  I never got anywhere.
At one point my dad tried to make me feel a little better about it all.  “You know, the guy who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected about 160 times before a publisher finally bought it,” he said.  This didn’t do much to brighten my spirits, since I had already been rejected by more than 200 agents and editors at that point.  Finally an agent agreed to represent me.  He wanted $250 up front to cover his costs.  It sounded like a scam to me and was more than I could afford anyway, so I turned him down.  When he sent the manuscript back it smelled so badly of cigarette smoke that I had to throw it away.
What I was learning the most during this period was how to live with rejection.  How to eat, breathe and sleep it.  How to revel in it, even.  No matter how many rejection letters I got, they still couldn’t stop me from being a writer.  Nothing could.  I was a writer, damn it, and I was going to write no matter what!  My favorite painter, Vincent Van Gogh, was only known to have sold one painting in his entire life.  Did that make him any less of an artist?  Of course not!  At the end of the day, the only thing that can stop a writer from being a writer is himself.  The only failure is in giving up.  That’s what I had to tell myself, anyway.  As for food, clothing and housing, that unfortunately was a separate, albeit intensely frustrating issue.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Memoir Monday: What I Learned in College

It's that time of the week again...  Here is another chapter from my forthcoming book about my life as a struggling writer, Memoirs of a Starving Artist.  This week I take a look at some of the darker aspects of the college experience:

Chapter Two – What I learned in College

The University of California at Los Angeles was the college experience writ large, with a beautiful campus of classic brick buildings and an atmosphere of promise and possibility.  Besides the solid academic institution, there were football games, a vibrant social scene and a terrific sense of optimism among the student body.  After transferring from the comparatively moribund UC San Diego campus, I felt lucky to be there.
As for the extensive Greek system on campus, I hadn’t actually expected to join a fraternity.  Not right away at least.  When pledge week came along I went to some of the parties with an old high school friend.  Why not?  I’d have some free beers and see what the fuss was all about.  We stopped by one house just long enough for my friend to say hello to someone he knew there.  This wasn’t one of the top houses in the social pecking order.  It wasn’t where the chiseled blond beach boys or the varsity athletes hung out.  It had more in common with the Animal House of movie lore, filled with a mix of hard-charging party types, average Joes, and the occasional misfit.  There didn’t seem to be any common theme amongst the brotherhood, but a few of the guys that I met were nice enough.  Three days after I made that first fateful visit I was a pledge there myself.
The house was up off the street at the top of a small knoll; two-stories high, cream colored with green trim and a large wooden deck out front.  Inside, everything was just a little bit worn.  A living room had couches with a big screen television and an elk head on one wall, pilfered from a local Elk’s Lodge.  A large dining area had long tables where the brothers ate their meals, prepared by a professional cook in a big kitchen of questionable hygiene.  Two wings out back framed a patio, complete with a basketball court. 
My pledge class consisted of nine fresh-faced young men, all eager to take part in the longstanding college tradition that was Greek life.  Four of the guys lived in the dorms together and pledged the house as a group.  Joe was a tall and lanky guy from the San Fernando Valley with a bright smile and an easy-going air.  Stewart was an ace guitar player from Long Beach who studied accounting.  Ron was the comedian from the central coast with a wickedly dry wit.  Bruce would go on to win an Emmy award for his reporting on the local PBS affiliate.  Then there was Roger, a stocky stoner, and Ted, who studied biology on a graduate level and barely had time for the house at all.  Bright and cheerful Greg played in the marching band and always had a smile on his face, despite the occasional abuse he took for his effeminate demeanor.  Lastly there was Stan, the good-looking banker’s son with the bright red sports car and the laid-back air.
It was only a week or so in that I began to see the downsides of the social hierarchy of which we’d all become a part.  Pledges are chosen in a fraternity much like they are in movies about fraternities.  They go to pledge parties, meet active brothers and have their pictures taken.  During house meetings, those pictures are flashed on a screen and all of the active brothers shout out their opinions, sometimes brutally, on whether the prospective pledges deserve to be invited into the house.  Then the brothers take a vote.  Of course I hadn’t experienced this scenario at that point.  I’d been asked to join the house and accepted the invitation, and that was it.  I found out afterwards that if the brothers later decide that they don’t like one of the pledges for any reason, they can “ding” the pledge.  This means they can retroactively revoke their invitation.  They can call in the pledge and say, “We’re sorry, we changed our minds and you’re no longer welcome here.  We don’t actually like you after all.  The door is right over there.”
One week after we pledged the house, one particular faction of brothers decided that they didn’t like Bruce.  He simply wasn’t “cool” enough, for whatever reason, so they “dinged” him.  Now I didn’t really know Bruce very well.  I’d only met him the previous week, but it seemed particularly cruel to simply cut him loose like that.  Bruce was a nice guy.  There was nothing off-putting about him.  As far as I could see, there was no reason to ding him at all.  The moral dilemma, however, came to his three close friends, who still lived with him in the dorms.  Would they stand for it?  Or would they walk?  I knew that if I was in their shoes I’d have walked.  At least I liked to think so.  But they stayed, all three of them, and it put a serious wedge in their friendship that I believe lasts to this day.
As for me, it was a glimpse into the darker side of group dynamics.  That lesson would be reinforced in spades when initiation came along a few months later.  We were told we’d be going on a camping trip of some sort, and to pack accordingly.  It ended up that our bags were confiscated as soon as we arrived at the house and for the next three days we wouldn’t actually leave at all or even change our clothes.  In fact, our initiation was basically indentured servitude, living in the house, being treated like dirt and made to constantly clean.  Our pledge chairman, Ron Jenkins, was charged with running this fun fest.  Ron was tall and thin with short sandy blond hair.  He presented himself as a typical fraternity type, with an over-confidant, cocky air.  Underneath it he had the maturity level of a self-absorbed twelve-year old.
The very first day of our initiation, those of us pledging the house were each assigned our own squares, side by side on the checkerboard tiles of the foyer.  When Ron blew his whistle at any time of the night or day, we were required to run with undue haste to stand at attention on our squares.  Ron’s eyes lit up with a wild fervor as he tested his power for the first time.  A small crowd of active brothers screamed and yelled at us as we scrambled into our places.  Moving down the line, Ron did his best impression of a drill sergeant, getting right up into our faces to berate us.  We could only speak when spoken to and any questions had to be answered with a resounding “Sir, yes sir!” or an equally enthusiastic “Sir, no sir!”  After these instructions came the beer, as brothers moved up and down the line pouring it onto our heads, down our backs, in our socks.  The only clothes we’d wear for the next three days.
After half an hour of push-ups, sit-ups and verbal abuse, we were broken up into work groups to start cleaning up the devastation that was the house after our big annual party, the Sailor’s Ball.  “Work makes you free,” we were told in a chilling reference to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.  “Before I let you get to work, who needs to use the bathroom?” Ron asked.  Stewart and Ted raised their hands.  “All right, everyone take the hand of the pledge next to you and follow me.”  That seemed a little strange, but we did as we were told and were led as a unit into the small bathroom downstairs.  “Now to promote unity, when any of you need to go to the bathroom you have to tell me first!  Then we’ll all go together and you all have to be holding hands!  Understand?”
We shrugged and nodded.
“Do you understand!?” Ron bellowed.
“I don’t hear you!!  I said, do you understand?!!”
Stewart was up first.  Despite all of the attention, he managed to squeak out a leak.  The next set of instructions came as he was finishing up.  “I want you all to sing to him, just to make sure he gets rid of that last drop!  You’re going to sing the following song!”  And then he proceeded to share the lyrics, to be sung to the tune of KC and the Sunshine Band’s Shake Your Booty.  Only in our case the lyrics went:

Shake shake shake,
Shake shake shake,
Shake your schwanze…
Shake your schwanze…

Of course it was silly, but humiliating all the same.  When Stewart was finished and we’d sung with enough enthusiasm, Ron called for the next victim.  “All right, who else has to go?!” he demanded.  None of us said a word.  I was standing next to Ted and knew he was the one, but I wasn’t about to rat him out.  “I know someone else said they had to go!” Ron continued.  “Who was it?!”  More silence.
Ron thought this over for a while.  “All right, but you better not let me catch any of you guys trying to go on your own!”  He led us back to the foyer and then sent us on our way to perform our cleaning tasks.  I was assigned to clean up the living room, along  with Ted.  It was full of empty beer cups and the assorted detritus of a wild night of bacchanalia.  As soon as we were alone, Ted took a pouch of chewing tobacco out of his pocket and inserted a pinch of the stuff behind his lower lip.  Next he picked up the nearest beer cup, shook out the last of the contents and unzipped his fly.  Holding the cup between his legs, he filled it to the brim, then held the cup out and dropped it into the nearest trash can without a word.
For dinner we were given some gruel that was dyed a vibrant shade of green.  It was the house’s official color, and all of the food we’d eat for the next three days would have the same dye, until by the end what went in and what came out was the same color.  When it was time for us to go to bed, the brothers arranged four couches together into a square in the living room.  The eight of us were made to sleep on the floor inside, which was perhaps enough space to sleep four.  Again, it was all down to bonding and unity.  It was nearly impossible to sleep.  Even if we did doze off, we were jolted awake every two hours by Ron or a surrogate blowing the whistle and summoning us to our squares as brothers hollered more abuse.
Even more fun was in store for us during the next few nights, with activities like lying on our backs near the stairs while brothers dropped raw eggs into our open mouths from the second floor.  Or being led blindfolded into the bathroom one at a time and made to kneel on the floor by a toilet while one of the brothers pretended to take a crap.  When we heard the splash we were screamed at again, this time to “Kill the foe!  Kill the foe!” until we reached in barehanded and pulled out the banana they’d dropped into the water.
It was all a lesson in human nature and it became clear pretty quickly that there were three types of people in the house.  First were those who wanted nothing to do with the hazing and stayed away the whole time.  This actually made up the majority, as far as I could tell.  Next were the ones who stopped by on occasion mostly out of curiosity just to see what was going on.  Finally there were the true sadists, reveling in their ability to inflict suffering and humiliation on others less powerful than themselves.  This last group was never short of justifications.  “This is what brings us together as a brotherhood.  We’ve all been through it.  Initiation is what makes the bond between us so strong.”  It was all just BS to sooth their guilty souls as far as I was concerned.  Having such weak characters that we allowed ourselves to be abused is what drew us together?  The truth was, I saw the look in their eyes as they worked themselves into a euphoric frenzy.  They were getting off on it, pure and simple.  This insular social setting not only allowed, but actually promoted their ability to inflict cruelty.  Plenty of them were ready to take full advantage.
So why didn’t I just quit?  Why didn’t I walk out the door?  I could have done so at any time and I was constantly tempted.  Putting up with this hazing meant setting aside all self-esteem.  Allowing them to treat me like this left me with a sense of shame, but still I stayed.  I’d become close friends with some of my pledge brothers, as well as some of the other guys in the house.  It wasn’t that I wanted the respect and admiration of those who were hazing me.  I wasn’t desperate for their approval, though that was definitely part of the idea behind it all.  I was supposed to want to be accepted by them so badly that I would let them do what they wanted with me.
The truth was, I would never respect these guys who abused us, not then and not ever.  The house was truly divided for me; there were those who I considered to be friends and those I would never want a thing to do with.  While my friends in the house never came by that week to haze me, they didn’t do anything to stop it either.  Apparently they just didn’t have it in them.  It was easier to simply stay away and ignore the whole thing.  I made a vow to myself that I would stick it out, I would make it through this senseless hazing, but once I was in the house I would never let it happen again, to anybody.  Somehow I would put a stop to it.  That vow was what enabled me to retain some sense of my own dignity.
On the second night of initiation, I was so exhausted that I managed to fall asleep, sandwiched into the space on the floor with the rest of my pledge brothers.  I was startled awake again, this time by some sort of commotion down on the street below the house.  One of my pledge brothers risked punishment by leaving our confines to look out a window nearby.  “It’s a fight, it’s a fight!” he shouted, upon which all of us ran to see for ourselves.  Down below, a mass of bodies moved as one, back and forth, up and down the street.  Maybe 40 guys in all, and in the center they were pushing and shoving and punching each other.  I followed my pledge brothers out the door and on down.
It was obvious at once that this was brothers from our house in a massive brawl with brothers from the house next door.  The reason for it, however, was a complete mystery.  I didn’t see much point in getting involved.  Instead I stood on the periphery, watching the spectacle in awe.  After few minutes, one of the bigger guys from our house grasped the most agitated guy from their house in a bear hug from behind and pulled him to the ground.  Johnny was just trying to calm the situation down.  He was trying to put an end to the whole thing.  “It’s over, relax!” he shouted as he held the guy tightly in his grasp.  The entire crowd gathered around to watch and a strange, uneasy peace settled over them.  It seemed that the fighting was indeed over.  Somebody moved past me from just behind to my right.  It was Ron Jenkins.  I watched as he weaved through the spectators, right up to the front.  He took a quick step into the center circle, facing Johnny and his captive on the ground before him.  Ron lifted one leg and delivered a powerful blow with his heel square into the face of our helpless, incapacitated neighbor.  Then just as quickly, Ron turned and weaved his way back out of the crowd as if nothing had happened at all.  The guy on the ground began to convulse uncontrollably.  His face went blank.  His body shook as though he’d been possessed by demons.  Johnny let him go and stood beside him as the crowd gasped.
Within a few minutes, police in full riot gear showed up followed shortly afterwards by an ambulance.  The guy on the ground was lifted onto a gurney and an oxygen mask was placed on his face before they loaded him into the ambulance.  No charges were filed.  To the police, it was just another night on Fraternity Row.  Back in the house, I asked some of my pledge brothers if they’d seen Ron kick the guy.  Somehow, nobody had.  They’d all been too distracted.  It had all happened too fast, with too much commotion going on.
Before we were escorted back to our confines on the living room floor, Ron Jenkins himself pulled me aside.  “I heard what you’re telling people,” he said.  “I didn’t kick that guy.”
“I saw you!” I replied in astonishment.  “You walked right past me!  You kicked him right in the face!”
“I didn’t kick anybody.  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
In the end, neither of us had anything more to say about it, but I know what I saw and the image remains with me to this day.  The heel to the face, the immediate spasms of the prostate victim, and Ron Jenkins slinking away through the crowd.
By the end of our initiation period, I was so exhausted I could barely stay awake but the brothers did everything they could to make sure we didn’t sleep.  In the wee hours of the last morning, some of them loaded us into cars and drove us out to a field somewhere in the San Fernando Valley.  This was to be the initiation ceremony itself.  I was dreading it as well, but in the end it wasn’t so bad.  The hazing part was over.  Most of our tormenters didn’t bother to come to the ceremony at all.  Without the hazing, the entertainment for them was finished.  When we arrived at the location, active brothers escorted us into the field, said a few words, and that was it.
“We usually don’t go out to the field for that,” the house president told me later.  “It was the first time we tried it, but we figured it would be fun for you guys.”  I appreciated the thought, but at that point, sleep was the only thing that sounded like much fun to me.

By the following spring another group of young, fresh-faced guys pledged the house.  I felt a rising sense of anxiety as their initiation drew near.  Would I live up to my vow?  Did I have it in me?  When their initiation came around I stayed away for the first day but the guilt nagged at me.  I knew that by not doing anything about it I was complicit.  On day two I came by and pulled a few of the pledges aside to check in on them individually.  One of these was my “little brother,” a pledge I’d been assigned to mentor.  He broke down in tears as he told me what was going on.  Not only was the hazing in full swing, it was even worse than before.
One stunt that was legend in the house but which hadn’t been performed in decades was called “The Circus.”  It was based on the carnival game in which players have a high pressure water gun and spray water into the mouth of a clown figure.  As long as the water is on target, a balloon on the top of the clown’s head inflates.  Whichever player’s balloon pops first wins a prize.
In the hazing version of this game, the pledges are led into the large upstairs shower room and stripped naked.  They are then made to line up facing one of the walls and grasp their ankles.  Balloons, which have been sabotaged with pin holes, are placed in their mouths.  Brothers with hoses line up on the opposite side of the shower.  To the sounds of recorded circus music, the brothers with hoses spray water across the shower and into the pledges’ butts as they try desperately to blow up their leaky balloons until one pops.
This was the kind of human degradation I’d vowed to myself to put an end to, and here I was, allowing it to go on.  I tracked down the brother who was behind it all and confronted him in the upstairs hall.  “I think this has gone too far.  I don’t agree with this.  I think it should stop,” I told him.
“But you don’t understand!” he implored to me, that same manic gleam in his eyes that I’d seen before in the others.  “This is where the bond of brotherhood comes from!  We’ve all been through it!”
I tried to reason with him but he wouldn’t be dissuaded, as if this raw power over another human being was an addiction that he wouldn’t be denied.  I found my roommate Ben and spoke to him about it.  “We’ve got to do something to stop this,” I said and Ben agreed.  We decided to call the alumni control board, the group of alumni tasked with overseeing the house.
Ben managed to get Lance, the president of the board, on the phone.  I didn’t hold out too much hope from this group.  After all, these alumni could just as well have been the same ones who came up with “The Circus” in the first place.  Perhaps they had matured by this point in their lives.  I could only hope.  A group of them showed up a few hours later and talked to the pledges in turn, none of whom would admit what was actually going on, for fear of retaliation.
When the alumni left I flagged them down on the sidewalk outside the house so that I could speak to them alone.  “It seems like everything is in order to us,” said Lance.  “None of the pledges complained about any hazing.  We’ll check in again in a day or two and see how things are going.”
“That’s not good enough,” I said.  “Maybe they were afraid to talk to you guys, but my little brother was in tears when he was telling me about it.  I can’t stand by and watch that.”
The alumni looked uneasy.  “Ok, maybe we’ll stop back by again tomorrow.”
“Do you know what ‘The Circus’ is?” I asked.  From their worried expressions, the answer was obvious.  “Did any of the pledges tell you that they had to do ‘The Circus’ yesterday?”
“No, they didn’t mention that.”
“Because they’re too afraid to say anything,” I answered.  “They don’t want to be punished for telling you the truth.”
“I see,” answered Lance.  He was clearly taking this more seriously now.  He thought about it for a moment.  “We’ll be back in a few hours.”
True to his word, Lance returned that evening with a larger group of alumni, all wearing suits and ties.  They came in and immediately shut down the initiation and held a small ceremony to welcome the pledges into the house as full-fledged brothers.  The hazing was over, not just for that year but for good.  From that point on, no pledge was ever hazed in the house again as far as I know.  I’d managed to fulfill my vow, but that didn’t mean I was about to share that information with any of the other brothers.  I decided that it was best to keep it to myself.

By the time my tenure at UCLA drew to a close I was already hard at work on my first big writing project.  It was a movie script about social pressures and cruelty in a college fraternity setting.  I’d heard the old maxim, “Write what you know,” and this is what I knew.  Not that I necessarily agreed with the maxim.  I wasn’t even sure exactly what it meant.  Did Ray Bradbury know what life on Mars was like when he wrote The Martian Chronicles?  Did Jack London have firsthand experience of life as a dog when he wrote The Call of the Wild?  The obvious answer to these questions is no, but they did both have an understanding of human nature and man’s place in the world.  That was what they knew, and what they were ultimately writing about.  In my case, I would not be straying so far from the source material.
My fraternity experience left me with many good friends that I would keep for life, but it also taught me something about the darker aspects of group dynamics.  I could see what might happen when the social norms that held us all together were allowed to break down.  Sometimes those norms were the only things that kept us from descending into chaos.  Most films about fraternity life were of the low-brow comedy variety.  There was Animal House, for example, and Revenge of the Nerds.  I loved those movies, but my script was going to be more of a serious drama.  I wanted to write something that might broaden people’s perception of the darker sides of human nature.  Like another of my literary heroes, Joseph Conrad, I wanted to portray that primeval Heart of Darkness that still lurked in modern man, hidden away behind a façade of civility.  Do all of us have this cruelty within us, on some level?  Is it part of what makes us human?  These were the types of questions that, in Kafka’s words, might “bite and sting.”  In a life that would be henceforth devoted to the concept, this script was my first real search for meaning.  In hindsight, I was terribly naïve.
When I was finished my script I sent it cold to five or six Hollywood studios.  Not even agencies, but straight to studios.  The scripts came back unopened.  Studios don’t read unsolicited scripts.  Agents don’t either, I soon would learn.  This was going to be harder than I’d thought.  How was it possible to break into this business if nobody would even read your work?  I started entering my script in contests, one after another.  Maybe if I placed well I might get some traction that way.  Perhaps then somebody in Hollywood might take notice.  Unfortunately, I never placed at all.  A big part of the problem was that the script wasn’t very good.  It didn’t have the depth or complexity that I was aspiring to.  It was also a tough sell for another reason.  Movie studios didn’t want serious dramas about college fraternities, they wanted raunchy comedies.  They wanted Animal House.  At least this script was a start.  I’d finished something and I was learning.  Surely my next project would fare better.  In the meantime, I’d graduated from college.  That was something to be proud of, though my next step in life was still entirely unclear.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Memoir Monday: The Meaning of Life

Time for yet another installment of Memoir Monday!  This week's excerpt from my forthcoming memoir, Chapter One: The Meaning of Life.  Enjoy and as usual, any comments appreciated! 

Chapter One – The Meaning of Life

I was standing in the kitchen at my parent’s house making a sandwich the first time I remember my mother asking me what I wanted to do with my life.  It was the summer after my sophomore year in college and I’d somehow managed to mostly avoid the topic to this point.  I’d begun my studies with my major undeclared, explaining that I needed some time to explore my options and discover where my interests and my talents intersected.  Now as I spread some mayonnaise across a slice of toasted bread I felt like I was being ambushed.  Obviously it wasn’t easy for my mother to ask the question either.  Otherwise, why would she spring it on me like this, when my back was turned?  I considered an evasive answer, but then after a moment of thought I decided that I might as well tell her the truth.  “I think I want to be a writer,” I admitted, turning to face her.
“What?” my mother spat back, eyes opened wide, panic sown across her face.  “You can’t do that!”
“Why not?”  I was stung.  I’d known this idea wouldn’t go over easy, but her reaction was far more severe than anything I’d expected.
“Because…” my mother stammered.  “That’s very hard to do.”
“I know it’s hard!  I don’t expect it to be easy, but it’s what I want to do!  Other people make it as writers, why can’t I?”
“Because, those are other people!”
My heart sank.  To have my hopes and dreams repudiated by my very own mother…  I’d grown up in a world where children were told that they could achieve anything they dreamed of if they simply set their minds to it and worked hard enough.  And here was my mother telling me the exact opposite.  It was a complete and utter lack of faith.  If even she didn’t believe in me, then who would?  Over time I began to understand that she’d rather I take a job that made me miserable than risk failure at something I loved.  Not that she wanted me to be miserable, per se.  I’m not sure she understood that for me this was the trade off.  For my mother, it was about earning enough now, despite the personal cost, to provide stability down the road.  It was sacrificing the present for a more secure future.  I saw things from a different perspective.  How was I to know that the future would even come?  What was the point in living if you couldn’t follow your dreams?  To me the present was what mattered more than anything.  It was the only thing I really had, and I was determined to make the most of it come what may.
My dad had a more hands-off approach when it came to the question of my career choice.  He’d been pressured by his own father into a career in medicine, and while he was not dissatisfied with it, he’d always wondered what his life might have been like if he’d followed his own dream to become an architect.
“You don’t want to be an architect!” my grandfather persuaded him.  “You’ll just end up designing doorknobs for a living!”  My dad never completely got over his own father’s lack of faith.  He didn’t want to do the same thing to me.  Ironically, my grandfather did have a great respect for art and architecture.  When the famous Louis Sullivan-designed Guarantee Insurance building was demolished in their hometown of Buffalo, NY, he went down to the work site and collected as many of the doorknobs as he could salvage, all designed by a young Frank Lloyd Wright.  One of these still hangs on the wall as art in my parents’ home.  An identical one hangs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
It should also be noted that my mother had a great respect for books and authors.  In fact, she was the owner of a popular children’s bookstore.  She hosted authors for readings on a regular basis, but meeting these writers didn’t instill any confidence in her that I might be able to join their ranks.  In hindsight I can see that my mom’s fears weren’t altogether unjustified.  Chasing this dream would prove to be much, much more difficult than I ever could have imagined.  In the ensuing decades I would struggle with rejection and poverty, constantly asking myself if I’d made the right decision.  Was living in the present just massively irresponsible, after all?  Over time it became clear that choosing to be a writer wasn’t the best career move, but I don’t necessarily feel that it was a choice.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that it was the only choice that I felt I could live with.  I was drawn to write and nothing else but full submission would ever satisfy these creative urges.  The most important lesson that I did learn from this conversation with my mother was that I couldn’t rely on anybody else to believe in me.  Despite this lack of faith from her and countless others, I had to simply believe in myself.  As long as I held onto that, I felt sure it could be done.
I’ve always felt that some of the best art comes from a place of bitterness and frustration.  The artists themselves have something to say about injustice in the world.  They are natural born rebels, fighting back with the only real weapons they have available; their art.  It is why repressive political regimes have always considered artists and writers to be at least a little bit dangerous, because they hold the power to inspire change.  The best writing is that which challenges our most basic assumptions.  Franz Kafka touched on this in a letter he wrote to his friend Oskar Pollak in January of 1904:

Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

From the writer’s perspective, this instinct to create something that kicks people in the teeth is really born of frustration at what passes for “conventional wisdom.”  It comes from a desire to shake people from their stupor.  It is a desire to lash out, at the masses, or a certain mindset, or ruling ideology.  Maybe happy people write happy novels, as Kafka alludes to, but true artists are inherently unhappy.  Inherently frustrated.  This frustration and unhappiness is born of suffering, which is the true basis of the human condition.  Everyone suffers, but artists channel that suffering into their art, tilting at windmills in an effort to fight back against ignorance and injustice.
When I was in high school I didn’t yet realize that I wanted to be a writer myself, but I did know that books with grand themes and aspirations were those that inspired me.  In the early 1980’s, Cold War tensions still ran high.  Our assigned reading list included the works of authors who warned of the oppression of totalitarian social systems.  George Orwell’s 1984 was a particular favorite of mine, as were Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.  These authors had something to say because they saw a potentially dark and dismal future and they wanted to do whatever they could to warn the human race against it.  They wanted to smash that frozen sea within all of us before it was too late.  These were the authors I considered to be my literary heroes, and I felt like I, too, had that rebellious spirit inside of me.  If only I had been born in a different time and place, I’d have been a rebel myself.
As it was, I came into this world as an American in the latter half of the twentieth century, a doctor’s kid in a solidly middle-class California town.  As such, everything came easily; a car to drive, nice clothes, an allowance.  Family trips to Europe and Hawaii.  Growing up I knew nothing of struggle.  I had no firsthand knowledge of what it took to really earn these things that I had.  Instead there was an expectation that the rules were stacked in my favor.  If I played by those rules my future would be more or less assured.  I knew that my family would send me to college.  I would get an education, graduate after four years and by then my path would be clear.  I would fall into a career, get married by 28, have some kids and that would be that.  It was just the way the world worked.  My world, in any case.
I suppose it was one simple question that actually changed everything for me.  I was a student at the University of California at San Diego when I signed up for a class in creative writing.  It counted toward my general education requirements and sounded like easy credit.  We would make up stories, type them out, and then sit around in class and discuss them.  What could be easier than that?  I didn’t think too much about the class in broader terms until the end when I stopped by my instructor’s office to pick up my final project and find out my grade.
“Are you going to make a career out of fiction writing?” my instructor asked.
“What?” the question caught me completely off guard.
“Will you continue writing as a career, or is this it for you?”
Looking back now, I can see how that one question completely changed my life.  Maybe it would have been better for me if he’d simply never asked, but he did, and it got me to thinking.  If this person, this creative writing instructor, thought that I had what it took to make it as a writer, then why shouldn’t I think so too?  It was a revelation.  I never ended up taking another creative writing course in my life, but from this one innocent comment the wheels in my head were set in motion.
Writing seemed to offer everything I wanted in a career.  There was independence from the normal dictates of society.  No nine-to-five clock punching.  As a writer I would work on my own terms, when and where I wanted.  There was the respect afforded to successful writers.  After all, writers were among the people I’d always admired the most myself.  There was the potential to earn a good living.  Perhaps most importantly, there was the prospect of having an intellectual life, and thus the chance to wrest some greater meaning from my existence.
The way that I saw it, certain professions really did allow one to change the world.  Good teachers could do so, by broadening the world view of their students one at a time.  Scientists could expand upon our understanding of the universe.  Journalists could expose corruption and strive toward keeping our political system honest.  Most jobs did not afford this opportunity to work toward the greater good in a larger sense.  The vast majority of people had jobs in which they could help their fellow man on a micro level, but their actions wouldn’t change anything much on a grander scale.  A plumber, for instance, might be very good at cleaning pipes.  This ability would pay the bills and afford some respectability in society.  It would be of great service to the client, whose pipes needed cleaning, but it wouldn’t contribute anything at all toward the greater good.  It wouldn’t change society in any way.  The same could be said for shopkeepers, restaurateurs, bankers and builders.  Accountants, pilots and policemen.  All provided useful, necessary services.  All of them could rightfully take pride in their work.  None of them were likely to change the world.  But could a writer?  Few writers do, that much I would freely acknowledge, but the answer to the question of whether or not they can is a definite yes, they certainly can.
As the novelist Scott Turow pointed out in a New York Times editorial, writing is one of the few professions singled out in the United States Constitution for special protection.  Copyright laws are so important, Turow wrote, because “a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.”
Literature is essential to democracy because abuses of power can only be held in check by a population that is cognizant and aware of those abuses.  This is the service that writers can provide.  It is why tyrannical governments work so hard to censor the media, oppress writers and manipulate artists.  Russia has one of the greatest literary traditions in history, with the likes of Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky among their literary giants.  These writers were all political to one degree or another, yet when I was growing up no novelists in the U.S.S.R. would dare to challenge the state.  If they tried, their works would never see the light of day and the writers themselves would be risking prison or worse.  The same held for the artists, who were relegated to producing re-creations of Lenin statues or paintings in the style of socialist realism glorifying the ideals of the working class.  When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about his days as a political prisoner in The Gulag Archipelago, he lived under constant fear of re-arrest.  The book itself was eventually smuggled on a micro-film to the West, where it was published in 1974.  It wasn’t legally available in Russia until the U.S.S.R. was on the brink of collapse fifteen years later.  This was the kind of writer I admired the most.  This was a writer slaying dragons with his pen and proving the maxim that it was indeed mightier than the sword.
Of course most writing is not so overtly political.  Even writers considered literary are often concerned with more intimate issues, involving a closer look at human nature and our interactions with one another.  These writers are not examining the world on a macro level, but are looking at what makes us tick as individuals, our relationships, and the commonalities that we share as human beings.  One might consider James Joyce in this category, or perhaps William Faulkner or Virginia Woolf.  These writers find themselves concerned with themes of alienation and familial tension.
When I compare a writer like George Orwell with a writer like Joyce, I sometimes use an analogy relating to how different people are interested in different types of news.  The way I see it, there are really three types of hard news.  There is local news, national news and world news.  Some people are primarily interested in local news.  They can relate to it because it concerns issues in their daily lives that affect them directly.  Maybe the story has to do with the school where they send their children, or the mayor who they met at an event a few months earlier.  Other people are more interested in national news.  They pay close attention to national politics and the issues that connect and divide us as a nation.  Still others don’t care as much about local or national news, but are drawn to world news.  These are people who take a step further back and look at the bigger picture of what connects us all as humans.  These people tend to consider themselves citizens of the world more than just citizens of a nation or of a community.  I see Orwell as one of these types.  It is why I relate to him.  I also consider myself a big picture kind of person.
By this analogy, Joyce, for all of his brilliance, was a local news kind of guy.  That doesn’t mean he wasn’t describing the human experience, because he certainly was, only from a much closer view.  Perhaps a better analogy is that of a simple watch.  Joyce has the watch open and is closely examining the gears and how they interact with each other.  Orwell is looking at the watch as a whole, and maybe even considering the concept of time itself.
One thing that connects these differing perspectives is that all novels must be personal at their core.  Orwell’s 1984 is not just about an authoritarian government run by a nameless entity.  It is about Winston Smith, a naïve everyman caught up in the government’s web of lies, deceit, and ultimately torture.  Orwell uses this prism to extrapolate larger social truths from the experiences of one man.  All literary writers do this in one way or another, using their characters to make broader points about humanity.  Unlike popular novelists, who are primarily trying to entertain, literary novelists have what they consider to be important insights to share.  It is through sharing these insights that their lives are given meaning.
When I chose to pursue a writing career, I only had a vague notion of the concept of finding meaning in life.  I knew that I wanted it, and I thought that writing might provide it, though my flirtations with the idea were mostly on a subconscious level.  What I did suspect was that most people find little or no meaning in their jobs at all.  Or at least I wouldn’t find meaning in the jobs that most people had.  I needed that prospect, however slight, of making some difference in the grand scheme of things.  The way I saw it, few jobs provided that opportunity.  An airline pilot might be able to find some personal meaning in safely transporting passengers from one location to another, but just as with the other professions I alluded to above, he was not likely to change the world.  I needed at least that sliver of a possibility that my work actually might.
Philosophers have long considered the concept of meaning in life and whether it is really even possible to achieve.  The general consensus among them is that, no, it is not.  There is no meaning in life.  The conflict between man’s innate desire to find meaning and the impossibility of actually finding any is known as absurdism.  This school of thought posits that the universe itself is meaningless, thus there can be no way to find meaning on a human level.  This ideology hasn’t stopped mankind from constantly striving to for it.
Looking around at my fellow inhabitants of planet earth, I do wonder how many people actually search for meaning actively.  I don’t think it is something most people consciously think about at all.  This isn’t to suggest that they aren’t still searching, though I suspect it is more often on a subconscious plane.  Most people, it seems to me, search for meaning through personal relationships, providing for their families, religion, acquiring material wealth, or in a host of other ways large and small.  Some find meaning through helping others.  Some find it through being successful in whatever is their chosen career.
For me, the moment I decided that I wanted to be a writer signified the beginning of my own lifelong search for meaning.  This, even though I tend to agree with the philosophers who claim that the universe is without it.  Whether it truly exists or not, we still must live our lives in the world in which we find ourselves, and a world without meaning is a cold, dark prospect indeed.
Some absurdist philosophers recognize the incompatibility of searching for meaning in a universe that has none, yet advocate that search nonetheless.  Albert Camus, for instance, claimed that the only way to approach this conundrum was to first fully embrace the concept of the absurd.  In other words, one must acknowledge that finding meaning is impossible.  Once this acknowledgement has been made, the person should continue in the search for meaning, though never losing sight of the fact that it is impossible to really find.  If this sounds a bit absurd, well, I suppose that is why the term itself is used to describe the problem.  Camus argues that once one has confronted the concept directly and rejected the prospect of objective meaning, a person can still create subjective meaning in their own life, which in turn can make their life worth living.
When I decided that I wanted to be a writer, I was a long way from confronting the concepts of absurdism.  All I knew was that I wanted a career that would provide some meaning, subjective or otherwise, and I thought that writing might be it.  If I could make my own small difference in the evolution of social understanding, then perhaps my life might be worthwhile.  I knew it was a tall order, but it seemed one worth aspiring to nonetheless.  I suspect that this is a goal shared by all literary novelists throughout the ages, whether they are more of the big picture, political type writers that I aspired to be or the more tightly focused authors like Woolf and Joyce.  When the novelist Jonathan Franzen was asked by the New York Times what he considered to be the best thing about writing a book, he answered, “The meaning it temporarily lends to my existence.”
Perhaps that meaning really is only subjective, but it is undeniable that an author’s work can change the way people see themselves and alter their understanding of society at large.  Novelists with literary aspirations are ultimately trying to changing the world.  Anything less would leave them feeling as though their time on this planet was wasted.  It is through the pursuit of this goal that the novelist finds meaning.  I figured that at the very least this put me in good company.  My next question was, what exactly did I actually want to write about myself?

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.