Today is an anniversary of sorts. Thirty years ago today, I decided to be a writer, decided to “identify” as a writer, started calling myself a writer. Actually, I probably didn’t put those words together on October 30th, 1993, and I definitely did not put my occupation as a writer on a 1040 form until at least a a few years later. But today was the day this whole thing really started.
I’ve told the story before, in different permutations, different mixes of fact and fiction, enough that I don’t even know what is real anymore, what I would tell someone if I had to. I mean, I’ve always been a writer to some extent, even if I didn’t know it. I had a poem published when I was in grade school; I wrote a lot of short stories and papers and whatnot when I was in high school and college. I’d already published zines by that fall, written stuff in other zines, and put thousands and thousands of words into USENET posts and forums. I’d even published a story in a university newspaper at that point. But I’d never thought of myself as a writer, never considered it as a vocation, a career, or even a hobby. I always thought, “Someday I will write a book” but never put any more thought into it than that.
The actual story of how this started is somewhat trite and stereotypical. I was struggling in a deep depression in the fall of 1993 — that year, really — and had been abandoned by someone I trusted. And sure, it was all my fault, but it was at a key junction in my life when a maelstrom of shit was falling down on me. I’d been kicked out of school and was on probation; I was unable to continue in the computer science department; I’d lost the scholarship that was paying my tuition; I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for a degree anymore. Most of my friends were graduating, getting jobs, getting married, moving away. I was stuck, didn’t know what was next.
The abandonment thing, I won’t get too into that. I was in this relationship that I got far too invested in, and I messed it up, and she left. I’ve blamed myself for it for decades, and then recently, I read a lot about attachment anxiety and adult attachment theory and realized the fix was in decades before I met this person, and my problems go back much further than 1993, and I really can’t get into any of that in the scope of this dumb little story. Short story long, I was very damaged on October 30, 1993, and I desperately needed to find some way out.
* * *
In 1993, I lived at Colonial Crest apartments in Bloomington. (They no longer exist.) I did not have a car. I had a city bus pass, but the bus line was all screwy and didn’t run at night, so I walked, a lot. My apartment was 1.3 miles to the 17th Street office of UCS where I worked a few days a week. It was 2.2 miles to Ballantine Hall, more or less the center of campus. At the very least, I’d walk about two hours a day, every day. I would listen to a tape walkman for all of these walks, plus whenever I was sitting around campus, working on a computer, whatever. And I was spending a lot of time sitting around campus, because I’d have a class, then have 90 minutes of down time until the next class, half an hour in the student union, 20 minutes waiting for a computer, an hour eating Pizza Hut Express, whatever.
The gist of this: I spent a lot of time alone, in my head, beating myself up, in three different ways: long walks, dead time in public places, and of course the hours and hours I spent in front of computers, screwing around on the immediately-pre-web Internet. I needed some way to not do that, or do something productive with that time, and through strange kismet, this sort of fell into place.
Once again, this is horribly cliché, but my friend Ray told me I should check out the spoken word albums of Henry Rollins, who had not yet recorded “Liar” and shown up on Beavis and Butthead, but aside from the post-Black Flag Rollins Band, he was about six albums deep into the spoken word racket, and had published maybe twenty books or chapbooks. So a few days after the 30th, I bought The Boxed Life, a two-tape album of his spoken word and started walking and listening to it, memorizing it.
The whole thing seems stupid now. I think there are various machismo stereotypical male idols that men of my age back then latch onto, be it Charles Hemingway or Charles Bukowski or Joe Rogan or whoever else. In one sense, it almost pains me that I got so wound up with this thing. But I felt like I had nothing, no direction, and there were far worse things to get tangled up with. Even mentioning the male loneliness epidemic pisses about 50% of the population off, but there is a real phenomenon of early twenty-somethings not knowing what to do with their life, and turning to whatever idiot has the biggest mouth. Nobody has fathers; nobody can open up to male friends. So you’re going to have guys who get in that rut who suddenly find a Doors record and lock into Jim Morrison and start wearing leather pants and writing shitty poetry. It happens.
At some point, I thought, “Hey, this Rollins guy just talks about what happens to him and writes it in notebooks. I should get a notebook.” So I got a notebook, and I started writing in it, in those weird little gaps of time in my day, journaling from lunch or at a bus stop or late at night. I also hunted down all the Rollins books. I wasn’t a book collector at that time, and would maybe passively read a non-computer book a few times a year. But I read his stuff, then read everything he referenced: Henry Miller, Bukowski, Fante, Burroughs. That got me into the beats, which got me into postmodern fiction, which got me to experimental, which got me to a room full of books. I started hoarding, reading constantly. I’m embarrassed by my early influences, but they got me to my later influences, so what can you do.
* * *
The little 80-sheet notebook I bought at the campus book store for $1.39 turned into several journals, which turned into short stories, one of which became the start of my first book. I never healed the wound, but I filled the void. That particular relationship did not heal for years, but I now realize that it wasn’t the hole from the missing person, but a hole in my soul that existed since birth. She was just a symptom of the problem.
I wrote. I wrote badly, but it slowly got better. I slowly got better. I mean, I never got “better” like I was somehow cured. It took me years to stop thinking about her every hour of every day, how I was betrayed, how it was all my fault. It is mostly gone, and I can’t even remember what her voice sounds like. But last night I had a nightmare about her, woke up at 3:30 AM with my fight-or-flight fully triggered, didn’t even try to go back to bed and got up and hit the shower to start my day. There have been a half-dozen people who have done far worse to me since, and maybe the dream was about one of them. Anyway, writing was the one constant. It got me past this, until it didn’t.
* * *
The writing continued until 2021, when it stopped. There are a lot of threads to this story that recur: the wound, the loneliness, abandonment, frustration, emptiness, defeat. In 2021, I tried to tell myself I was no longer a writer, because the pain and frustration of my writing “career” caught up to me and I simply could not write anymore. So I quit writing, said I wasn’t a writer. The void remained. Nothing could fill it. Believe me, I tried everything. Nothing worked.
So, I came back. I think. Did I? Am I still a writer? Am I writing now? The void still remains, but maybe I’m making progress.
* * *
Bill James – the baseball statistics guy (you know, moneyball, Brad Pitt, whatever) – had a quote about writing that always stuck with me:
I learned to write because I am one of those people who somehow cannot manage the common communications of smiles and gestures, but must use words to get across things that other people would never need to say.
I always felt that I fell into writing because of that, because of my ability to get lost in words, in absence of being able to get lost in people. My frustration with love and life drove me to a universe of communication in a much deeper format. I don’t know what I’m doing now with writing, or what will come next, or what I need to do. But I know that it all started when I fell into this exactly thirty years ago today.