All of my writing life has been a series of identity crises. What sorts of things shall I write? Into which craft genre should I settle? Why write, and for whom? And significantly: Who am I to presume to write in the first place? What is the basis of my authority? Psychologist Erik Erikson would probably suggest that a person ought to have resolved many of these life-path queries by the end of adolescence. In my case, they merely began then. I turned fifty this last year, and I’m still asking myself the same things.
Like many writers, I believe I was born with at least a nascent inclination to express myself in written form—a driving spirit, something James Hillman referred to as a “daemon.” And when inclination finally met up with cognition and budding ability, there was no other way for me. It is what I do most competently. This is not to suggest that I am always prolific, though. Prolific is another thing entirely. My creative droughts have been numerous, and often lengthy. I can be lazy, procrastinative, or flat-out terrified to embark on some new project. I often struggle with completion. My sense of commitment wavers.
Nevertheless, writing is my station. I will always return to it eventually; this is no longer even a question.
My earliest memory of penning something significant is that of a brief manuscript, titled, Book about Me, by Ricky B., composed at some point during my early elementary school years. I have no idea what happened to this “book” in the years since, or even what it contained in terms of prose, though I suspect I relied heavily on illustration to support my points, employing the time-honored medium of crayon on wide-ruled notebook paper. I do recall one production specific, however: I bound the flimsy pages together with safety pins. Why I didn’t think to use staples remains a mystery.
By fifth and sixth grade I had teamed up with Bill, a school friend, to write comedic skits that we performed in the classroom, during social studies. We lampooned aspects of the American Revolution, the election process, westward expansion, and other topics covered in the curriculum. This was the early 1970s, so SchoolhouseRock! certainly exerted a major influence on our work. But so did the British journalist Alistair Cooke, whose television documentary series, America, was playing at the time. In many of the productions, I was the straight-man, “Al Cookie,” while Bill played the gags, usually in the role of some historical figure. As you might imagine, the skits we put together back then were never terribly sophisticated, but they generated laughs.
This was a major formative period in my creative life: I’d flashed upon the notion that words combined with imagery can entertain. And in my immature understanding of things, “to entertain” chiefly meant: “to make people laugh.” Not only that, but the notoriety I now enjoyed, such as it was, allowed me to chip out my own niche in the precarious, pre-adolescent social hierarchy—no small matter for a dorky kid who, up until that time, had considered being chosen second-to-last for kickball teams a personal victory. It is also not surprising that my first writerly aspiration, to become a humorist, developed at this time.
My reading tastes evolved accordingly. By junior high, I had discovered the autobiographical romps of funnyman Jack Douglas. His prose could be a bit racy, and the references sometimes overshot my ability to comprehend. But the parts that I did get caused me to bust out laughing at my desk during free reading time, and Douglas’ books taught me much about comedic delivery and pacing. Another influential publication from that time which comes to mind is Woody Allen’s instructive autobiography, On Being Funny.
I took to writing what I thought were screenplays, often collaborating with a new friend I’d met who shared my sense of humor and belief in possibilities. One afternoon during seventh grade, I even made my first pitch to a potential backer when I called a local public broadcasting television station to describe a short piece that I’d written and to inquire whether they might like to produce it. What hubris! But the man who answered the phone was a good sport. He could have ridiculed me into a state of mortification, laughed, or simply hung up. Instead he listened patiently as I rattled off the details, and my excitement grew by the second.
When at last I’d finished talking, the man cleared his throat, then explained in the gentlest possible terms that, regrettably, the station wasn’t currently interested in taking on a project of this nature. And in a parting gesture that will forever rank high among the kind words I’ve received in life, he encouraged me to press on with my creative efforts in spite of this rejection.
I did, but it wasn’t long before my writer’s ambition turned from comedy to song lyrics. I’d entered high school, taken up the bass guitar, formed a rock band, and fell to the lure of mind-altering substances all in the same short span: 1978 through ‘79. Many of the songs I wrote at the time reflected my drug use, and perhaps it goes without saying that the quality of my lyrics was not always assured. But something else was afoot. I’d discovered political activism by that time as well, and it influenced my songwriting immensely. Politics and left-wing ideology also spilled over into the essays I wrote for class assignments. I read everything I could get my hands on that had anything to do with the Left, particularly books about or by the Sixties radicals Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin—who became my heroes ten years too late—or movement organizations like the Yippies and Weatherman.
But there were also current issues that drew my attention and ire: the nuclear arms race, social inequality, El Salvador, Three-Mile Island, and something that hit close to home for me: the reinstatement of Selective Service registration in 1980.
I toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, and soon joined the school newspaper, which became my platform for further rants against the system. In my youthful exuberance, I didn’t always appreciate the value of revision, however, and I rarely checked my facts. This became apparent one day during my senior year, when I was working up an article on the return of draft registration and what it meant for people my age. Among my interviewees was an erudite economics teacher whose opinion I coveted. When I asked him to comment on the issue, he told me that a return of the draft was, in his opinion, “a necessary evil.”
Up until that time I had never been exposed to this particular phrase; and in my ignorance I jotted down the statement just as I’d heard it—or more accurately, how I wanted to have heard it. I walked away from the interview wringing my hands with delight at what I considered a fitting indictment of this new law. But when my article ran some time later, I heard from friends in the hallway that the teacher was incensed over what he’d read, and had been cursing my name in every class he taught that day. Turns out I had misquoted the man as stating that draft registration was “unnecessary evil.” Quite a different thing.
My phase as a Leftist writer lasted quite a while—continuing through my first, unsuccessful, attempt at college; and then again, later, the flame reignited when I returned at the age of twenty-seven to finish my undergraduate studies. But ultimately, the revolutionary path was not mine to travel. I lost my radical vision for the world during the mid-1990s, while attending graduate school—the very place where so many others consolidate and strengthen their own. Bit by bit I became increasingly aware of the hypocrisy that lay beneath my ideological veneer; and, for me, it truly was a veneer. Everything I knew about class struggle I had learned from books, rather than direct experience. My parents might have originated in the working class, but by middle age they were each successful business owners, members of what Karl Marx derisively termed the petite bourgeoisie. And by way of familial extension, so was I.
In fact, everything in my life that I valued up to that point—my education; a ready access to creature comforts; indeed, the leisure time necessary to formulate radical ideas and put them into words—I owed to my parents and their success as participants in the capitalist system I so distrusted. Frederick Engels might have been able to carry off this double-duty without reservation during the nineteenth century, but the more I thought about it, the less I was able to reconcile myself with the contradiction. It is hard to be a convincing Marxist when you benefit from a stock portfolio, after all. So, over time, I fell away from that extreme.
Then too, there was the matter of ego. As a writer, I began to recognize that the motivation which drove my political pen had always been twofold: to serve the cause, but also to serve the self. And all too often that balance tipped unfairly toward the latter. To be sure, I believed in the issues I railed against at the time—or at least I believed that I believed in them—but in the final analysis, my ultimate satisfaction derived from any public acclaim that came my way over the skill with which I might have delivered the message. I am, and have always been, mercenary in this respect.
So I turned my hopes to fiction and poetry, and began sending my stuff out to literary magazines instead of radical sheets and newspapers. I had a few hits, but not many. Once a small poetry mag published a piece of mine, which otherwise might have gone without mention here, except that the issue also featured a poem by Charles Bukowski, whose work I devoured. None of the short stories I wrote in those days saw publication, however. One memorable rejection came my way, around 1992, in which the editor confessed that she liked my cover letter better than the story I’d sent: a derivative piece about a divorced newspaper writer who comes home for a high school reunion. Eventually, I stopped sending stories out altogether. Each new rejection called my ego to the carpet, and I wasn’t up for that. What I didn’t realize at the time, or at least didn’t acknowledge, is that I knew practically nothing about story construction, characterization, or other essential matters of craft. I was a history major. And similar to the case of my brief flirtation with journalism back in high school, I also assumed I knew more than I actually did, and didn’t allow myself the benefit of mentorship or further study.
But a lot of us act that way in our teens and twenties, right? And sometimes well into our thirties, too?
No? Well, anyway, that was me.
So where am I going with this essay? I wasn’t quite sure when I began earlier today, and I’m probably not much farther along in developing an idea now. I suppose that I just want to affirm (if only to myself) that while I may have always been a writer of sorts, I am principally a writer-in-progress, and will always be. It is a realization that many practitioners of our craft happen upon early, especially if they are open enough to seek guidance—and admit to their immaturity, their youthful ignorance.
I, on the other hand, have arrived at this stage only in the last ten years, a transformation that included a return to graduate studies, this time in field of writing, which culminated in my MFA from Spalding University. I now welcome the criticism of fellow writers, and am in the process of developing a thicker skin against the inevitable rejection. It’s not always easy for me, but few things that truly matter are ever simple, or free of pain.
I have also recently come to accept that there is probably no single direction for me as a writer. Like most other areas of interest in my life, I will not likely settle down and stay put. Right now, for instance, I’m developing a new appreciation for personal essay, creative non-fiction.
So does this mean that I’m conveniently ignoring the novel manuscript I started years ago, abandoned, and then returned to briefly during my MFA program?
It might. I do that sort of thing sometimes. But it doesn’t mean that I won’t pull that file up again, reacquaint myself with the characters and storyline, and, one day, render a finished product that I’m proud to call my own. I understand my tendencies better now, well enough to say that it’s a likely outcome.
But until then, here’s to writing personal essays.