I am The Wannabe Novelist. Yes, in title case. To one day drop the adjective (“Wannabe”) and simply be The Novelist or at least A Novelist is a goal on my corkboard of goals that is thumbtacked to the left hemisphere of my brain.
From Brad Listi’s “It’s Kind of Like Creative Herpes”:
I like to joke that one of the best things I ever did in my career was to tell everyone close to me that I was going to write a novel back when I was twenty-one and dumb and fresh out of college. I remember right after graduation I went to a family wedding and stood around all fresh-faced and boozy talking to aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, wearing the coat and tie, receiving congratulations and answering twenty questions about the future.
“So what are you gonna do now? What kind of career path are you gonna pursue now that you’ve graduated college?”
“I’m gonna write a novel.”
THE ORIGINS: From a Construction Site to the Classroom
It was at this age, 21, I, too, seriously began writing—though I did not know it quite then. I was not in college or fresh out; I was working a meager paying job in construction. A friend of mine by the name of Jeremiah, 23, had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was July 2003. The night of his diagnosis, I sat in my car at the basketball court across the street from my house and his. We were next-door neighbors growing up, and the basketball court, to us, had always been hallowed ground where memories of our youth together had been birthed on its very blacktop. The floodgates opened. I cried every salty tear I could accouch from my swollen eyes.
There was a green notebook in my car and an ink pen. I always kept both with me wherever I went. Although I had never written seriously in my life other than horrible love poetry to high school girlfriends, a handful of left-wing, anarchist inspired Letters to the Editor of the local newspaper, and rock ‘n roll lyrics (for the greatest cow pasture rock ‘n roll band to ever exist, Anti-Lou), I used to jot down fragments of thoughts and emotions, or whatever popped into this head of mine. It was a way of controlling all of what bounced around up there. Therapeutic writing, nothing more than emotive prattle.
I flicked on the dim interior light of my car and commenced writing. A little over a month later, I made the decision to enroll in a local junior college. Jeremiah’s sudden diagnosis urged me to think about my own situation in life. I had health insurance, not through work but individually purchased at the request of my parents, particularly my dad, who had not long before overcome his first battle with cancer, Stage IV Colon Cancer.
Could I financially afford to be sick? Jeremiah had a well-paying job with substantial benefits working as an accountant for a firm based in Charlottesville. Therefore, his company was, at the start, helping foot his medical bills, and could also afford him the time away from work while he recovered from the first of what would be his numerous surgeries and hospital stays, first at Lynchburg General Hospital, then the University of Virginia, and later, Duke University in Durham. If I were to get sick, whether from a more likely cause such as a car accident or injury considering my employment in construction, I simply would not get a paycheck. Although I worked with a company, I was considered self-employed, an individual contractor per se. Thus, I had zero benefits. No AD&D. No sick days. No vacation. Nada. If I didn’t work, I wasn’t paid. It was that simple.
Up until this point, I had never really thought about my future seriously, at least not more than a passing nod of what questions tomorrow would bring: peanut butter and jelly on white, or ham on rye. I was never engrossed with the idea of college while in high school. Neither of my parents went nor did any grandparent. Only one of my cousins on either side of the family had been to college and most recently, my sister; hence, college was never really up for consideration for me, never an ambition to attain.
I began college part-time, taking night classes while I worked full-time during the day. I studied on the carpool to work as we drove to our next job site and during my lunch breaks. If I could cut it in these night classes, I would enroll full-time the following year. I was petrified my first day of class having not situated my rear end in a classroom in over five years since high school. Nursing students, being that the class I enrolled in was Anatomy and Physiology, surrounded me. I had even enrolled a day before the add/drop date finalized, so I was already behind from day one by about a week-and-a-half. It showed in my first test. I flunked it miserably. I didn’t know how to study although I did try. Not only had it been half a decade since I last cracked open a textbook, I never once studied in high school. I winged it all. I did well then, but I winged it. There would be no winging it here.
I’m in over my head, I thought. I stared at the results of my test and hung my head. My professor, Mrs. Lisa Dunn-Back, approached me as I shuffled my way out the door.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can drop your lowest test score and lowest two quizzes. You’ll be fine. Take a look at your test. Do you see a pattern?”
“The questions you missed were from the first week-and-a-half of class when you weren’t part of the lecture. You didn’t miss a single question from the week you were here.”
She was right.
I picked my head up. Determined, I made it a point to read every single line on every single page in the gigantic Anatomy & Physiology book that was required for class. I’m going to ace this next one, and I did.
“I told you,” Mrs. Back said, stopping me again as I made my way out the door that day.
A few weeks passed, and with them a handful of tests and quizzes. I piled up A’s and suddenly found myself on the job site during the carpool and my lunch break so immersed in the class text, I knew that I had made the correct decision. I called Jeremiah on a weekly basis to see how everything was going. I told him about my plans to return to college full-time the coming year, but was hesitant to tell him my reasons why, his diagnosis being the wake-up call that made me realize how fragile life is at its core, even at such a young age.
Being that my first round of night classes were science-oriented, there were no creative writing assignments that propelled me forward in wanting to etch my way closer to becoming a writer. To be honest, I had not given it a second thought; to be a writer, that is. What did happen during the time I learned of Jeremiah’s diagnosis and throughout my first year as a part-time student was scribble down little scenes from our childhood. Nothing intact. Nothing literary. Fragments only: An adventure down the train trestles, through the woods playing a game of War as children, or what have you. I jotted down these scenes on scraps of vinyl siding and metal trim, on empty cardboard boxes that housed coil or downspouts.
By the end of my first semester, I had managed to achieve the highest average in Mrs. Back’s class, “the highest average of any student in any of her classes,” she alerted me; this, obviously, after dropping my first test which, due to its very low score (and I mean very low score), would have pulled me down a couple of points easily.
“Have you ever thought about the University of Virginia?” she asked me the last day of class.
Jeez, I had only completed my first semester of class and my professor was already asking me about a school I never in the world thought myself material for ever since I was a kid. I laughed a little, “Well, no not really.”
“You should,” she said, and that was that. My professor had lost her mind.
Then, after another semester taking the second part of Mrs. Back’s Anatomy and Physiology course, came the decision; not quite of LeBron James’ epic proportion, but an important decision nonetheless; and it was, though I had been mulling it over for quite some time, very difficult to make: to leave the job and the co-workers I had known for the last three years of my life, who I had become such great friends with, and return to school.
I loved my job. I really did. Yet I knew it wasn’t in the cards for me, not in my future at least. My boss knew it was coming. He could see the transformation I had made in less than a year’s time and how engaged I had become in the life I led in the hours after work, and he graciously accepted my resignation, and let me know that, should I need any hours to work anytime in the future, I would be welcome to them with his company.
I enrolled full-time at Southside on the John H. Daniel campus in Keysville, Virginia. One of my classes, College Composition I, an English course with Professor Judy Lloyd (then Stokes), would be the first class on my plate, beginning at 8:00 a.m., Monday morning. I had no idea then how much this mandatory course would alter the path I would travel from that point forward, how it would open a window into my creative soul. I was about to find out.