Image Source: Alan M. Clark
How To be a Writer, “Sort of”, by Eric Witchey
“Eric is a writer… sort of.”
This is how a friend of mine, a New York Time best-selling author, introduced me to my local bookstore owner during one of her signings last year. No matter that I had been a full-time freelance writer since before she went to high school. No matter that I had known her since before she had sold a single story. No matter that I had been introduced to the bookstore owner at least five times in the past and he didn’t remember my face or name. None of that much bothered me. I’ve experienced that phenomenon over and over in my 26 years of full-time, freelance writing. I don’t look like dollar signs to the local guy, so he forgets me. However, the “sort of” bit from someone I thought was a friend hurt.
It spun me up. It made me stupid for the rest of that evening and part of the next day. It stuck in my heart and head for a long time.
Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend who was once one of my students. I met her while teaching technical writing, WR 227, for the local community college. I thought of that job as community service because I always lost money at it. The treatment of all teachers, and adjuncts in particular, is a topic for another blog. However, the experience was great for me. I met this woman and a number of other inspiring adults putting themselves through college and sharing the classrooms with kids fresh out of high school.
One guy I remember was struggling hard to get a C in my class. Most people who got a C from me didn’t work hard to get it. Most people who got a C (or lower) had to work hard at not getting a B. They drank too much. They played too many video games. They procrastinated themselves into half-assed work. This guy, however, was fighting a stacked deck. His parents had brought him into the US illegally to pick beans and strawberries when he was four. Because of their illegal status, he lived isolated in a non-English speaking community until he was old enough for grade school. He fought prejudice, language barriers, and local cultural politics to get through high school, win his citizenship, and establish a small business. Raising a family of his own, he was also putting himself through college and taking extra classes to improve his English.
Anyway, one day, I asked him, “Why are you going to college?” It was a standard “teacherly” question designed help the student find and focus their motivation for completion of a difficult final paper. I was on teacher autopilot. I expected one of the usual answers, “So I can get a better job,” “so I can go to X four-year school,” “so I can get a promotion at work,” or “so I can ….whatever…” Then, I would so cleverly connect the paper to his stated goal in a way that would, theoretically, allow him to buckle down and work while keeping his eye on the prize. In short, I was a cliché living out a script of clichés.
He was not on autopilot. He said, “Because my boys are 4 and 6. By the time they get to middle school, I want to have a degree.”
Okay, that wasn’t actually a full answer, but it got my attention enough to break my lazy teacher script. I said, “I don’t understand.”
He said, “I want my boys to know that it is normal to go to college, so I have to get a degree.”
Holy shit! I mean, the guy is struggling with English, a business, a family, and to get a C in my class. The cultural deck is stacked against him. His greatest goal in life is to teach his children that college is normal. In his position, he shouldn’t even know he could get a degree. Nobody in his family could even read. The cultural currency of his life should have constrained him to aspiring to be the foreman in a berry field.
My whole frame of reference shifted hard. This guy wasn’t there to get a better job, to make more money, to blah, blah, blah… He was there to establish a new bar of assumption for his family and the generations that followed.
He started in the Mexican highlands near Guatemala. His family didn’t even begin with Spanish. He had to learn that. At four, he traveled on foot to a foreign country to take advantage of an opportunity where, from my perspective, his family was abused, underpaid, and treated like shit. He learned a another language, fought tooth-and-nail to learn in that new language, created a business that generated jobs, married, started raising a family, and deeply and truly understood that what a person accomplishes in life can be influenced by the assumptions that surround them, cultural currency.
For example, if your parents or the people around you went to college, college seems like a thing you can do. If they didn’t, you don’t even think about it.
Back to my lunch friend. She and her family are about to move out of the area, and she wanted to say goodbye. She sat across from me in tears trying to express her gratitude to me for having helped her with letters of recommendation and other encouragements. She had finished her four-year degree and, having graduated at the top of her class, had been accepted with scholarships to a number of Ph.D. programs.
I kept deferring her thanks, reminding her that she did the work, that she got the jobs, that she applied to the schools, and such. I was on cliché teacher auto-pilot again.
Finally, through the tears she was fighting back, she said, “Just acknowledge my thanks.”
Well, shit. I did. I got all teared up. My heart got all hard-beating and warm. Crap.
I won’t go into her background here except to say that every time I think I’m working hard, I think of her to remind myself that my frame of reference needs to be adjusted. When I think of some amazing accomplishment in my life, I think of her and remember that I have a long ways to go before I will come close to true success.
Today, or maybe tomorrow, I have a new collection of short stories coming out. This coming month, that collection and a novel will be coming out in paper. Yeah! Will my local bookstore owner see dollar signs when he looks at me? Probably not. Both books are coming out through a small press. Neither is likely to become part of the pre-order, velocity marketing system that creates the New York Times list.
On the other hand, when I was in high school, one of my guidance counselors thought my eye-hand coordination would make me a good factory worker for the local steel mills. It did for a while. Later, when I was trying to break my drug addiction and get into college, an ivy league school Ph.D. at my ag school told me I had no chance of ever making it into school, and he said I’d die before I was 35.
So it goes.
On the other, other hand, in high school, a couple of my teachers looked at me, squinted a little, and said things like, “The way you look at things can take you out of this town,” and “this poem is really good.” In college, a couple of my professors said things like, “That’s an A, but you can do better.” Thank you Harriet Snyder, Jim Hunter, Barbara Lakin, and on and on and on.
And that brings me full circle to being a writer “sort of.” The woman who said that worked very hard to become the author she is, but she didn’t work sneak into a new country, learn a new language, be the first to graduate high school and put yourself through college while running a business and raising kids hard. She didn’t work surviving drug addict parents, prison, stolen children taken to another country, get them back, put herself through college, create social programs to help women, get a full scholarship to a Ph.D. program hard. She began with a loving family, middle-class education assumed, supporting love, and fulfill your dreams baseline. And, yes, she worked her ass off.
Of course, she worked hard. Of course, she overcame many obstacles. She accomplished many wonderful things, and I love her books.
That’s not the point. The point of this little essay is cultural currency. We know what we know. We don’t know what we don’t know.
When I was in that Middle America steel mill town, I didn’t know different universities had different reputations. I couldn’t even ask questions about that because I didn’t know I didn’t know.
I did know that if I worked hard I could go to college. My mother and father both did. My older brother did.
I didn’t know that I suffered from a birth defect that stunted my production of certain neurotransmitters that would eventually turn me into an addict and that kept me from ever working in the way that would let me actually go to college.
Nobody could know that back then. It wasn’t a known thing.
Now, I know it.
I know it because I learned it as part of breaking my drug habit. I know because I learned it as a result of reaching, searching, and trying to understand why the world looked the way it did to me and made no sense to others when I tried to describe it. I learned it from seeking help, getting tested, getting diagnosed, and working with a number of gifted doctors and therapists. I even learned to compensate and overcome. Lots of people do.
Now, looking back, seeing what I once thought of as pettiness and self-importance of so many people I have met over the years, I realize that all of us are limited by cultural currency, by what our world showed to us, surrounded us with, taught us was good, right, wrong, possible, and impossible.
Sustained presence of the New York Times best seller list is pretty much considered the epitome of success by many writers I know. It is one hell of an accomplishment. I’d love to do it. However, it is really only a moment, a symbol that represents a journey in life. It does not demonstrate how long the journey has been or the how far the distance between the understanding a person begins with and the complexity of the problems they must solve to move forward. It is only a badge, and it is a good badge.
Success, however, is not a badge. Success is standing in a dark room surrounded by nothing useful and deciding that something better must exist beyond what can be known. Success is the creation of a set of assumptions for a generation not yet formed and who will never know what you went through in order to create those assumptions. Success is the distance between what you could not know and what you learned. Success is neither a dollar nor a badge. It is the ability to know that what you have done was impossible for you and to have still done it.
I celebrate the success of my NYT best-selling friend. I don’t know what was and was not possible for her. Only she knows that.
I celebrate my own successes. Looking back over the road of my life, I do know what was and was not possible for me. I am inspired by the success of my tearful, grateful student-friend. Terrified, she has lived in the darkness and constantly sought to move beyond it, motivated only by her faith that more existed and that if she reached she might grasp it for herself and for her children. I am inspired by the man who began in the forest in an illiterate family who spoke neither Spanish nor English and who worked to create a new understanding of what is possible for his children.
We can all be petty. I know many writers, and we writers abuse the hell out of ourselves, and quite often we casually judge others for what they have done or what they have not done.
Writers have all read at least one book and thought, “Well, that sucks. My work is better than that. Who’d he sleep with to make his book famous?”
Writers have all justified their unfulfilled hopes with statements like, “My last three well-respected agents turned out to be liars and thieves. She was just lucky. Her first asshole agent got her a three book deal.” or “That guy campaigned to win his award. He’ll never know if the story was really any good or not.”
Writers convince themselves of their own superiority with thoughts like, “I wish she’d stop coming to our critique group. She’s flooding the group with stories, and she makes the same mistakes over and over.” or, “If he worked harder, he might be as good as me.”
Writers are people. Most people engage in this kind of personally limited judgment of others. Even the people who are reading this right now and thinking, “I don’t do that,” or, “So-and-so does that all the time,” do it.
All of these casual judgements are a demonstration of cultural currency limiting us. None of them are demonstrations of sneaking into the country, learning a new language, creating a new frame of reference for a new generation success.
Only reaching out from the darkness with faith and fear creates that kind of success. Only creating the next story, a story that lets the people who are reaching in the darkness believe that they will grasp something wonderful creates that kind of success. Only gratitude, love, and respect can create that kind of success.
The badge would be nice. It’s pretty. I want a badge like that. The recognition of my author friend for my journey would be nice. To some people, my accomplishments are many and amazing. To others, like the bookstore owner, they are small and not worthy of a handshake.
To me, they are my life.
Today, I cannot know what I do not know. I can, however, reach outward from my darkness and take action. I can learn. I can meet people where they are and listen. Sometimes, I can teach. Most of all, I can remember that no matter who I meet, no matter where I meet them, the fact that they are with me in that moment means that we are sharing success within the knowing we have inside the lives we are living. When I introduce them, no matter what badges I might wear or want, I hope I can demonstrate my respect for them and what they have survived and accomplished. When I look at myself in the mirror, I hope I can demonstrate my respect for myself and what I have survived and accomplished.
Today, I am a writer, sort of. I wrote this.
To reach out from our darkness is to succeed.