The incurable itch

A high school senior told me recently she intends to pursue creative writing in college. I mentioned this to her father, who sighed.
He is trying to talking her into something else, he said.
Something more practical with more job opportunities.
Good luck.
I was that girl.
I fought it.
I lost.
The forces of my childhood pointed me toward a career in writing.
I won a local poetry contest in elementary school. I wrote radio commercials for our small, always-broke Catholic school. I wrote short stories for a short-lived junior high school publication.
Writing was my therapy when I sensed trouble between my parents, when my parents finally separated and when they later divorced.
(Okay, writing and alcohol, if I must be honest.)
But I’d grown up with no money and I wasn’t about to grow into the same situation.
I didn’t even consider majoring in English or creative writing.
Instead, I chose geochemistry when I enrolled at SUNY-Oswego. I loved rocks. I loved chemistry. I was strong in math and science. I could work for an oil company like my cousins. It made sense.
Until I took the first course and realized it was (gasp) work!
At a loss for a major, I enrolled in an interpersonal communications class because I wanted to become more confident. At the same time, I registered for a fiction writing workshop just for fun. An elective, I told myself.
Even as I grew more interested in interpersonal communications and declared it my major, I continued taking classes in creative writing through the English department: ficton, poetry, journalism.
Why not take a few literature courses as well, I thought.
I even enrolled in summer sessions so I could take more classes in both fields.
I told myself my involvement in the college newspaper — first as a writer, and then as an editor — was simply communications-related. Same with my internship at a Pennsylvania television station.
Then my advisor enlightened me: With just another course or two, I would have a double major in interpersonal communications and English/creative writing.
A newspaper journalism internship was among the creative writing courses I needed, so I tracked down the regional editor at the Syracuse Newspapers and asked whether I could write for free. The free work became a paid internship and the paid internship led to a full-time job when I graduated.
And there I was, writing for a living.
Great, right?
End of story?
Of course not, because that itch is incurable, that desire to write fiction.
It lay dormant for several years, satisfied with the human experiences journalism afforded me and the opportunity to grow within the craft of writing nonfiction, but I missed voice. I missed character. I missed plot.
I missed it all too much.
So what did I do?
It took me six years of working full time and driving two hours each way, twice a week to Binghamton University to get my master’s degree in creative writing. But the need to scratch kept me in motion.
A degree still wasn’t enough though. Just before I graduated, my husband and I made a deal: We would move to Arizona to pursue his dream job. When we were settled enough financially, I would pursue my dream of writing fiction.
It hasn’t been easy.
Kids came along (Yay!) and finances dictated that I bring in some money, forcing me to set aside plans to write fiction full time. I have worked part time as a college English instructor, a magazine freelancer, a book editor, a website moderator and a taxonomy specialist, trying to balance work with family and writing.
So far, that has resulted in three published short stories and four unpublished novels that are in the hands of my wonderful literary agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli. Two more novels and a couple more short stories are in the works.
I have come to terms with my passion for fiction and my need to constantly scratch that itch (I suppose I could come up with a more pleasant metaphor.). It’s been a long and complicated road, but that instinct, passion, itch — whatever you want to call it — never let me stray too far.
I am not alone.
I know so many other writers who also went to war with their natures and lost.
Some are best-selling authors. Some are mid-list. Some are still looking for publishers. Many gave up lucrative careers in other fields — interior design, law, education. Why? Because the forces that drive us to create in such a way are simply too strong.
Fighting it leads to depression, and who wants to be depressed?
So don’t be surprised, my friend, if your daughter ignores your advice and majors in creative writing anyway, or if she heeds your advice and later gives up her financial stability for the pursuit of the written word.
She’s not being disrespectful or trying to mislead you or acting out of youthful ignorance.
She is simply abiding by her nature.
She’s scratching that incurable itch.

No college reunions for me

My college alumni magazine arrived in the mail today with big headlines about the university’s 150th birthday. The issue featured photos of a recent reunion where people who had graduated before me locked arms for photos, grinned and looked genuinely thrilled to be there.
All those years and they still feel so connected.
Why don’t I?
I loved college.
I had lots of friends in college, some of whom remain my friends even now.
I was always involved on campus as student supervisor for the college catering service, an editor on the student newspaper, a participant in intramural basketball, a sound person (whatever that is) for the college television station and in various other activities.
I even double-majored.
I was part of the community as well, more so than most students. I became a year-round resident the summer after my sophomore year, working in local restaurants and taking summer courses. I interned in the local bureau for The Post-Standard in Syracuse, where I eventually landed a full-time job.
I would love to go back and visit someday, stroll around the campus, see how it’s changed and soak in that atmosphere one more time. I have great memories there. I love college campuses in general and, if not for my fear that it would distract me too much from my family and my writing, I would probably be teaching on one right now.
But why don’t I feel that pull toward a reunion, the pull that those people in that photo clearly felt?
It had been bothering me all day, but I think I’ve finally found the answer.
For most people, college is the first taste of independence. It’s the first time they’ve ever lived away from home and that experience in itself is thrilling. Yet, they still know they can afford to make mistakes. Even if they are paying for it themselves, they can always go home again should they fail.
College becomes a place of firsts, firsts without fear.
It becomes romanticized, and that romantic feeling remains even 30 or 40 years later.
For me, college was the most financially and psychologically stressful time of my life.
For reasons I won’t go into, I’d been on my own since my senior year of high school, sharing an apartment with one of my best friends. I’d been working full time as a waitress since my junior year and in part-time jobs for years before that.
I’m pretty sure I was the only person in my dorm who arrived with boxes full of baking pans, spatulas and frying pans. I didn’t want independence when I got it and I didn’t want it in college. I just wanted to survive and get a job, a good job that would pay plenty of money and ease my stress for good,
Of course, that didn’t happen.
Those crazy people at SUNY-Oswego persuaded me to pursue my dreams, which didn’t pay a heck of a lot. They convinced me to follow my heart and soul instead, and find something called real happiness.
Unbelievable.
Those people.
So I think now I understand now how it’s possible to think fondly of my days at SUNY-Oswego, to treasure my friends, my experiences and my memories, but to still have no desire to attend a formal reunion. For me, everything about college was real.
Nothing is romanticized.
The faraway smiles in that photo bring back memories I would rather not drag up. They bring with it that tightness in my chest, that feeling of barely keeping my head above water, that fear of drowning in debt and stress with no one to throw me a rope. The feeling that I was somehow different from everyone else even though I was good at pretending that I was the same.
I am sure now, so many years later, that plenty of other almuni struggle with those same feelings, that I wasn’t alone even though I thought I was. And I know now, with certainty, that even people who barely knew me would have thrown me a rope anyway if only I had told them I needed it.
Maybe even some of those people in that photo.
I will probably go back someday.
But I will return quietly.
Maybe on my own, maybe for a conference or another kind of celebration.
But not for a reunion.
Not me.

The Canadian professor from Sri Lanka

I knew the small man with the smooth dark skin the moment he walked in the door.
This was The Canadian Writers Festival at the New York State University College at Oswego.
The year was 1987.
I was the student director (and the bartender).
As far as I knew, only one author was not native to Canada.
A Sri Lanka-born professor.
A man I’d never hear of.
A poet who’d written two novels.
I served this man a drink and spoke with him briefly.
I don’t remember much except that he seemed kind, humble and thoughtful.
I bought his latest novel and got his autograph.
Despite my heavy class load, despite two part-time jobs, despite my editor position at the college newspaper, I read Coming Through Slaughter in two days.
It was unlike anything I’d ever read and anything I’ve read since.
A blend of poetry, fiction and interviews, all telling the story of Buddy Bolden, a real-life musician said to be the originator of jazz. A genius whose career was cut short by madness.
It was and is beautiful.
For more than a decade, I pushed that book on professors, friends and acquaintences with little luck. I just couldn’t get them to understand. This wasn’t just a novel. This was art. A multi-dimensional work of art.
Except for the woman I met in Arizona.
She understood. She was from Sri Lanka and her daughter attended preschool with my son. One day, she brought me a novel. Anil’s Ghost by the same author as Coming Through Slaughter.
I devoured it.
And I wanted more.
But I got busy.
And I forgot.
Until one day, in 1996, I was perusing the movie section of the newspaper.
I spied a review for a new movie, The English Patient.
The movie was based on the book by a Sri Lanka-born writer named Michael Ondaatje.
The man whose drinks I poured.
The man whose novel, published two decades earlier, was a masterpiece.
The man who forever changed the way I think about fiction.