Gap Year(s)

[July 2010] I’m doing something a little unusual today. Not with this blog—in real life. For two-and-a-half hours, I’m going to be standing in front of an audience of writers and other interested (hopefully) parties talking about my writing career trajectory in a presentation titled (though not by me): Skills Learned on the Path to Publication. It is sponsored by the Houston Writers Guild and takes place at the Sugar Land (Houston) library.

As I was thinking about my writing career to date I wondered: where should I start? Have I always been a writer? Well, yes and no. Because I grew up in a rural setting with few neighbors my own age and only one channel of television, I became a voracious reader. I probably would have been a reader in any setting, but who knows?  I think reading leads to the desire to write in many people. I certainly took my stabs at it at an early age. I wrote an Agatha Christie knock-off for an eighth grade English assignment. Along with two other stories, mine was cited by the teacher as “good enough to publish.” High praise, and completely untrue, but it was the sort of encouragement I needed. At least the teacher recognized some potential.

I remember tackling a novel one summer in my teens. I wrote it on a plastic-shelled manual typewriter, nothing nearly so romantic as the old Royals or Caronas of earlier generations, but it was mine. I wrote on mill paper, which was plentiful since my father worked in the paper mill. Rough paper about the same color of brown as some fast food chain napkins. My influences at that point were Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury and Charlie’s Angels. I remember very little about the plot except that it had to do with murder among a group of acquaintances who were traveling somewhere, one of them a Farrah clone described in Spillane’s lurid prose. Did I mention I was a teenager? I got at least a hundred pages into that book, typing a page at a time with no idea where I was going or what I was doing. Alas (or, perhaps, fortunately) that manuscript is forever lost.

When I went to university, I continued to write. Having discovered horror novels and stories, I began writing short stories in that genre. Most of them were handwritten in a blank journal with the university crest on the front. Story ideas were listed in the back pages, and the stories themselves sloped and slanted across the lineless pages. Many of them were completed and typed up, though some trailed off into blank space without resolution. I used to share these stories with some of my dorm neighbors, but I never considered submitting one for publication. I wouldn’t have had a clue how to go about doing such a thing.

Then I ratcheted things up a notch. Twilight Zone magazine was in its heyday and they announced a short story contest, which I decided I would enter. I can’t remember for sure if my submission was typed on white paper or on the mill paper I was still using for scratch. Somehow, I suspect the latter. I probably violated every manuscript rule under the sun, including stapling the pages together and failing to double space. None of my typescripts from that era survive.

The story was called “A Change in the Weather” and had to do with a young boy trapped in a country store by a particularly virulent and no-doubt supernatural storm. Peter Straub was one of the judges for that contest. I am very happy to report that he has no recollection of my story whatsoever. Dan Simmons won the contest. Did I mention I was way out of my league? Oh, well. Small steps. Live and learn.

Unlike my early novel attempt, those short stories still exist in holographic form. For a long time I couldn’t find them, but I finally turned up the journals a number of years ago. In fact, I’ve rewritten a number of them and even had a few published over the years. The core ideas weren’t all that bad, though the execution was amateurish. Some of them are hopeless, like a rip-off of The Mist crossed with “Trucks” that has a bunch of people trapped in a greasy spoon diner after all the dogs in a city (maybe in THE WORLD!) go mad and start attacking people. (Frankly, the story, simply called “Dogs,” isn’t as good as it sounds!)

Now we get to the gap years. If you aren’t familiar with the term, a “gap year” is a year someone (usually young) takes off between one stage of his or her life and the next. Between high school and college, or between undergrad and grad school. Usually the person travels or works.

My “gap year” from writing lasted from about 1987 through 1999.

I honestly can’t explain where my interest in writing went for all those years, and why it returned. I certainly didn’t stop reading voraciously. For two of those years, I was living overseas, so I traveled and worked, but I certainly had a lot of  alone time when I could have been writing if I’d been so inspired. For most the rest of those years, I was living by myself in an apartment in a foreign country (the U.S.!), again not writing. It simply didn’t occur to me that it was something I might want to do with my copious free time.

Then, the urge reappeared. At first, I was handicapped. I would dig my notebook computer out of its carrying case and set it up on whatever perch was convenient, write a few pages, and then return the computer to its hiding place where it would remain for days, weeks or months. The process of starting to write had a level of inertia that I could easily allow to overcome me. If I was going to write, something had to change.

My wife, bless her soul, asked me what I wanted for Christmas in late 1998. After some consideration, I answered that I wanted a place to write. Somewhere permanent, somewhere that could remain undisturbed, where I could sit down, turn on the computer and start writing without having to find a place to set up. She bought a lovely roll-top desk and we found a suitable place to install it. The roll-top was a stroke of brilliance on her part. I tend to generate piles of papers, books, and notes while I am working. At the end of a session I could just back up the day’s work, turn off the computer, pull down the cover and—voila!—my clutter was hidden beneath the handsome, dark, corrugated cover.

That really represents the beginning of my second career as a writer. From that point on, my productivity grew. By 2000 I was being paid to write both short stories and essays and I haven’t stopped since. Writing is now as much a part of my daily routine as breakfast and working out at the gym. I now have my own office, so rolling down the desk’s top is no longer a necessity (nor even remotely possible at the moment).

Sometimes I think I hadn’t lived enough to write when I was younger. What did I know about other people’s lives, let alone my own? I am constantly amazed by very young writers who have something meaningful and universal to say. I know I sure didn’t. Not at 21—not even at 31. Now that I’m in my (very) late 40s I think I’m starting to hit my stride. My necessary gap years are at an end.


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