Shaddup and Write
In 2004, almost exactly two years after my Uncle Mike’s death, he gave me some excellent advice.
I’ll explain. We’d set up a scholarship in his name at my college, and I’d just announced the second annual recipient at a ceremony. I’d told the audience the scholarship honored my uncle, who’d dedicated his life to advancing the causes of the deaf and disabled. I didn’t say anything else about him. A week or so later, one of my Honors students, Becca, came to see me during office hours. All I knew about her was that she was a good student, smart and hard-working. And she was a super-talented singer. So much so, in fact, that I’d recommended her for the interlude entertainment at the scholarship ceremony. So she’d been present when I gave out the first scholarship, and she heard my brief remarks. Becca knew nothing about me, except what I might have revealed in my class, which is not usually too personal, except some glancing comments about Cody, my foster kid, when they were relevant. I certainly never mentioned any details about my dead Uncle Mike.
Yet Becca now sat across from me saying she’d been vacillating on whether or not to tell me something “weird.” Finally, her fiancé had encouraged her to come clean: “He says you have a right to know, to decide for yourself.”
“Umm. OK. Know what?”
“I had a dream about your uncle,” she told me. I was confused. “Your uncle that died, the scholarship guy.”
Of all the real, deceased, and dram people, how did she know it was my uncle in the dream?
“I just knew. He was your uncle, and I was supposed to give you a message from him.”
“OK, let me stop you right there,” I said. “If you’re about to tell me to avoid the number forty-two or stay out of Western Pennsylvania or something—I just don’t want to know.”
“No, it’s nothing like that. It’s a good message. I think. Important, at least.”
“All right then, tell me.”
“Well. First of all, he was in a wheelchair,” she said.
I interrupted to set her straight. “My Uncle Mike never used a wheelchair,” I said. “He just wobbled a lot. I mean, just because he was disabled doesn’t mean he was in a wheelchair.” But in fact, I’d completely forgotten that he died in a fucking wheelchair! He sat there for hours with my father and my cousin Leon before the coroner’s goons finally whisked him away. I hadn’t seen him there myself, hadn’t watched my father put him daily into the wheelchair from the bed and move him to the window, though my father had told me all about it during the phone calls, and then later after I arrived. Leon had told me it took the coroner so long to arrive that eventually they had to order lunch while my uncle was still there propped up in the wheelchair by the door. As Leon took orders, he asked my Uncle Mike what he wanted, and my father cracked a smile. When I got to California, I folded up the empty wheelchair and made the call to the supply company to retrieve it. So … score one for Becca the psychic.
“And he was kind of in drag,” Becca said.
“Well, that’s interesting,” I said. She would have had no way of knowing he was gay—not that he ever did drag.
“But it wasn’t a gay thing,” she said. “Not exactly drag. But he was wearing a sort of not-so-pretty dress, like a flowing kind of house dress.” This did not compute. But my mother reminded me later that my father had put him in a multicolored hospital gown, in which he died a few days later. “And I say ‘drag,’ too, because he had all this hair, this long hair, and it was all askew, like he wasn’t really comfortable with his wig.”
Now that erected the tiny hairs on my earlobes. The long hair and the pony tail he’d had for 40 years, the hair my father had to ceremoniously chop a few days before his brother died. I told her this, and she nodded sagely.
“So what was the message?”
Here Becca leaned over my desk toward me, and said, “Now, you’re sure you wanna hear what he had to say?”
A few days later, out of necessity, we had our first serious college talk with Cody, who was barely surviving the tenth grade. This in response to his recent hints and queries about a future in cammo and MRE’s. Of course we pretended to be encouraging – a boy’s dreams and all that – but c’mon—no pseudo-son of ours would wind up on some godforsaken wasteland warfield to get his bits blown off by an explosive-belt aficionado. But Cody was convinced he needed to know for sure, right now and for ever, exactly what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. I tried out Zelda Fitzgerald’s line on him: “By the time a person has achieved years adequate for choosing a direction, the die is cast and the moment has long since passed which determined the future.”
“Damn, what was that bitch smoking? And anyway, aren’t you supposed to be a writer? Is that supposed to happen only after you get home from your real job?”
It was clear Cody had some talent for targeting.
That night, after advising Cody, I got to change roles, a great piece of good fortune in my life. I went out for my weekly dinner with a good friend and mentor. Long before I discovered his sociopathic tendencies, I considered him a tremendously excellent professor, a powerhouse of literary, critical, and political acumen—and he almost always gave me ideal advice. But that night I told him I’d recently felt trapped in my tenure, afraid I’d wake up in 20 years to find I was still teaching the same monotonous classes to the same mostly undistinguished and indistinguishable students,i without having “broken through” in my writing career. And I realized to my horror that all that time and energy I spent line-editing papers – Kill Passive Voice! – and evaluating new textbooks didn’t finance – but rather cut into – my writing career, my calling. “It’s not like teaching Milton and Melville for the State University of New York is some kind of death sentence!”
No? Time’s a great teacher, as Berlioz said, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils. Would I die before I left my literary legacy? “The thing is, I only really feel alive when I’m writing,” I told my mentor. “And I know I’m no Milton or Melville—”
“Right. Thanks. But I’m willing to suffer for it, as long as it takes. That’s got to mean something, doesn’t it?”
“Look, writing’s fine if you want to be a cobbler all you life.” He popped a mozzarella stick. I didn’t get the reference right away, but our friend, the writer Bud Koenemund did, and looked down at his plate of fries and gravy. The world’s doors were not opening for a 21st-century sonneteer. My mentor meant that a writer’s life comprises working for piecemeal, “freelancing,” with no security, no consistency, not to mention no union, no tenure, no summers off, no three-day work weeks, no automatic raises, no 403b retirement plan. Well, all that certainly had and still has its allure (which is why I often consider it a classic pleasure trap).
I didn’t wish to exist as a cobbler. But the quest for a writer’s life was never optional for me. For the record, I didn’t think I would become a cobbler, because I knew that I’d always show up, keep at it until I was good, and then quest for even better. I believed my mensch, the language maven Leo Rosten, who said the only reason to become a writer is that you can’t help it. And I liked to think that major life decisions like this tend to work with no little karmic influence. If you “follow your bliss” the way Joseph Campbell proposes, all the material—but mostly the spiritual—fortune you need will fill your little cobbler’s shop.
I had always written, ever since I was little. And I’d published widely by then, at least relatively. I’d even made a decent living. But had I ever taken the real plunge, the dive one’s parents advise against when you’ve got so much to “fall back on?” If I didn’t do it then, would I wind up like Sinclair Lewis’s Mr. Babbitt, whose tragic last line is, “I’ve never done a single thing I’ve wanted to in my whole life!”
“But you’re a born teacher, Ian,” my mentor proclaimed above his spicy wings. “Don’t be stupid.”
Being a grownup sucks sometimes. “Being good” at something doesn’t mean it is the something you should do until you die. I had to remind Cody of this, and as many of my students as I could. I didn’t want them to find they’d just fallen into something the way I fell into teaching, without ever intending it. I fell into leadership in the college newsroom, fell into journalism ethics, into children’s literature and my other “specialties.” I got offered the chair of the English department, then the chair of the Humanities, Behavioral, and Social Sciences division, and fell right into those. My mentor was right that I might have been pretty good at all that, but someone else, when I was young, once told me I’d probably be good at any career I threw a dart at. And when I was younger, I was good at managing a rental car company in a Hassidic ghetto; good at coordinating volunteers for a US Senate campaign in Colorado; good at nearly-naked gay bar tending in Manchester, England; good at teaching junior high school Yeshiva boys in Monsey, New York; good at commercial real estate appraising in New York City; good at lecturing on war reporting in the former Yugoslavia; good at stringing for suburban newspapers; even good at my plumber’s apprenticeship (in all its facets and faucets) when I was 11, 12, 13. But none of it was what I really wanted to do, or who I really felt I was. I was and still am certain God put me on the planet to accomplish something else. To write. And it turns out, that’s what my dead Uncle Mike thought, too.
That afternoon in 2004, I sat in my office with my student, Becca, who’d dreamt about my uncle. “So what did he say? What message did he have for me?”
“You know how you taught us in class that people never ask questions they don’t already know the answer to?”
“Then, OK. Here goes, and I hope this doesn’t piss you off. He said, ‘You’re not a teacher, Ian. You’re a writer.’”
So. I said a hasty adieu to Becca, shut the door on her, told my secretary to “hold my calls” (the chair comes with privileges) and I began to write my first blog about writing. As instructed. Two years later I sold my first book for two hundred thousand dollars and change. Thank you, Joseph Campbell, and thanks, Uncle Mike.
i *Not ALL students, obviously. Just most. They can’t all be gems. If you’re reading this and you’re one of my students, ask yourself in which group you belong—and why.