The advice sounded too precious for words.
"When someone asks what you do for a living," announced the instructor. "Tell them you're a writer."
I was taking a night class in screenwriting. Now that I had decided to chase the writing profession it seemed appropriate to get educated. I would later learn that writing is learned through reading books, watching movies to get a sense of story, and more than anything, the daily discipline of sitting down in the chair and putting words on the page. But there were long years early in my career when I wished I had attended a proper creative writing program or endured the rigors of journalism school,
Nonetheless, the Introduction to Screenwriting at Irvine Valley College was the first and only writing class I ever took. The remainder of my instruction would take place through the rapping on the editorial knuckles provided by editors, good and bad. And also by comparing my work with other writers over the years, sometimes despairing that I could never be as good as the best — or gloating inside (never out loud) because I finally caught up with someone whose work I'd long admired.
This competition is real. It was only years later that I learned Hemingway did the same thing. Writers keep score. No matter how Kumbaya, no matter how much you hear someone talk about being Zen in their craft, we write to win.
Our teacher had sold a few scripts, so he was legit. The room was filled with students, housewives and working guys like me still in their dress pants and tie from a long day in the cubicle world. "Buy the ticket, take the ride," Hunter S. Thompson once wrote. That was us — a room full of would-be writers buying the lottery ticket that is the writing life. I have no idea how many of the students in that room ever made it beyond the semester as a writer. But that's where it all started for me.
There are many different kinds of writer — novelists, poets, sportswriters, magazine writers, narrative non-fiction (historians), technical writers, publicists, and on. I chose the screenwriting class out of practicality: Spec scripts were all the rage back in 1988. Writers were making millions of dollars. I, on the other hand, was making just enough money to pay the rent and car payments. So that was my plan: write a screenplay, bank a load of cash, retire before thirty.
I'm sure everyone else in the room had the same idea.
I had no conception about the writing life, no idea about the monastic allure of putting daily words on the page or the endorphin rush that comes with putting together a great sentence. And another. Then another.
I was timid and afraid of rejection, like all new writers. From the outside looking in, the writing life seemed fraught with the word "no," and the notion of "you're not good enough" which I'd struggled with my whole life.
And worst of all: "loser."
The romantic losers of Springsteen and Petty were my soulmates and inspiration, though I put the hard emphasis more on their failures than the faint glories that come from being an outsider — because I really did feel like a loser, barely holding it together, trying to make my way in a world with which I was hopelessly at odds.
Seeing life through this square-peg prism, I could never dream of putting my most personal emotions and ideas into a book. It took every ounce of courage I had to sign up for the screenwriting class and set foot inside that room. I felt like a pretender, and longed to retreat to the world of journaling, filling spiral bound notebooks with prayers and fantasies the world would never see. There was power in those private words, but there was also fear, for it's easy to write that which will never be read — and invariably, criticized. I did not honestly know if I could endure the strangers in that classroom reading my stories aloud, then picking them apart while I sat there red-faced in shame.
But I also couldn't imagine fleeing the classroom in a panic, returning home to tell Calene I couldn't go through with it. She would be angry. More than that, knowing how much I wanted to break away from the corporate world, she would be disappointed. To this day, disappointing Calene is one cross I cannot bear. I would swim across an alligator filled river to avoid it.
Then came that advice: "When someone asks what you do for a living, tell them you're a writer."
How pretentious. We had earned nothing. We had not been published. We had not even written a single word. Telling the world I was a writer meant that I truly was a writer — and on that day I most assuredly was not.
I muddled through the screenwriting class. The script I eventually wrote was horrible and predictable and did not get purchased for a million dollars. When I entered it in a screenwriting competition the rejection letter came immediately, as if the decision had been extremely easy.
One month later I saw a small advertisement in an endurance sports magazine. They were looking for writers. There was no money, just a byline. The work involved covering various triathlons and writing a short column detailing the results. Fifty words at the most.
I answered the advertisement.
So it was that Calene and I drove up to Big Bear one Saturday morning to watch a run-bike-run competition. It did not dawn on me to bring paper and pen for the postrace interview. So when it came time to talk to the winner, I literally stood there empty-handed, planning on having a conversation and memorizing all his comments. I was terrified.
"What should I say?" I asked Calene, unsure of which questions to ask.
"Tell him you're from Triathlon Today," she replied. "Tell him you're a writer."
And so I did.