If You can Do Anything Else Besides Write, By All Means, Do

I started writing in 7th grade. Of course, you don’t aspire at that age. You just write. It was a story parodying an old Mennen Skin Bracer (male cologne) commercial. It was  short horror: a disembodied hand crawls up a guy’s shirt and then, at the last moment, slaps him in the face and says: Thanks! I needed that. You’d have to be at least 50 to get the reference. Mrs. Snelson made me get up and read it before the whole class.

I was encouraged. I wrote another story about a car that has a baby. Alright, that one wasn’t so good, but whatdya want? I was, like, 10. Miss Howell, I recall, the 6th grade teacher who graded it, shamed me for the sexual double entendre I unintentionally wrote into the story. Alright, I didn’t even know what sex was. I guessed.

In high school, I graduated to poetry, dozens of which I then tore up in a drunken act of self-destruction. “Those poems are a part of you, man,” Tom, this dude I grew up with, told me as we both swayed at the Hansa Clipper, a bar populated mostly by late-stage German alcoholics. Tom and me were well below the water mark for drinking age, but we’d found our level. I knew that, by tearing up the work, I was trying to tear up a part of myself. I didn’t really write anything besides those poems between the years of 13 and 23. Too busy working to get my drink on.

I was a poli-sci student and graduated somehow with a bachelor’s degree, which was about as useful as [fill in your own dirty metaphor here]. People kept asking: “What’re you gonna do after you graduate?”

“Oh, thinkin’ about going to law school.” I started giving so many people that bullshit, that I had to go to law school.

I knew before I took the bar that the law was not for me, but on the advice of counsel, I practiced for 8 years anyway. At the end of that period, in my little one-man office in the Monadnock Building in downtown Chicago, I wrote my first novel, a piece of sci-fi called The Last Ice Age. In those pre-Internet days, I’d cross the street to the Harold Washington Library and research social insects, since similar alien beings inhabited my story. It read like a long piece of adolescent fiction, but I had to cut my teeth on something.

I started writing screenplays for some reason. Probably because I always wanted to make movies growing up. From that Sam Spade law office with the water closet and the schoolhouse light over my cherry wood desk, I churned out 7 of them, taking every screen writing class, every traveling symposium, joining writers’ groups and going to workshops, obtaining and rejecting mentors, making friends, losing them to Hollywood.

I took acting, directing and production classes. Actors, I discovered, made natural dramatic writers because they understood stakes, the increasing dramatic tension in a scene made possible because somebody wants something which somebody else is trying to prevent them from getting. I liked acting so much that I decided to become an actor, and I was in all kinds of stuff for about two years. I discovered that to be an actor you needed two things: (1) the willingness to wait tables your whole life (or practice boDuiring appellate law) so you could audition, and (2) immense talent. I had some talent, but you needed to be really really good. I was just OK. So I dropped out.

During these heady days of acting in off off Broadway productions and writing unproduced screenplays, a traveling Hollywood creative exec introduced me to The Writer’s Journey, a Hollywood bible on storytelling written by Chris Vogler. That led me to the work of Joseph Campbell (beginning with The Hero with a Thousand Faces), and finally, to Carl Jung, who I’m still reading today. I finally realized that to be successful as a screenwriter, you needed to do two things: (1) move to Hollywood, and (2) give up all creative control, since, through a sad twist in cinematic history, screenwriters had relinquished their copyrights to the moguls during the studio era, which unhappily coincided with the Great Depression. Since I was unwilling to adapt the next superhero smash, I dropped out and returned to fiction.

But screenwriting taught me about stakes, dialogue, and the tight structure of a good story. Many fiction writers write cinematically today, even referring to scenes instead of chapters. We are, after all, visual creatures.

I finally extricated myself from my law practice and decided that I needed to do something useful with my life. I wanted to be a teacher. I tried substitute teaching, which was a real comedown for the ol’ ego. I taught some classes at a couple local colleges and even earned the venerable title of Adjunct Professor, which I discovered to mean no money and no job security. Off I went and applied for grad school in order to earn a teaching certificate. But I had an odd, powerful experience working with a friend’s memories, literally a few days before I started classes. So I switched my major to counseling. I was a healer. Psych was another useless degree  I felt drawn to major in during undergrad.

“I want to major in psychology,” I told my friend, John Harnett, back then.

“But Just, you’re too screwed up to be a psychologist.”

He was right. But by now, I’d cleaned up and considered myself semi-sane. To improve my sanity, I took a job as a case manager in an agency that worked with the severely mentally ill in the neighborhood which, due to IV drug use and a high concentration of pros, had the highest HIV rate in the nation.

I kept writing. Never had the guts to show anyone my work. But I adapted a couple of my screenplays into novels (I know, I know. It’s usually the other way around). I’ve always had quite the imagination and a love of science, so my ideas tended naturally toward science fiction and fantasy. My favorite writer growing up was Ray Bradbury. I also liked Asimov and Stephen King. So that’s what I wrote. But I had some mainstream ideas that bordered on literary fiction, so I write some of that, too. My taste for drama, I guess. I turned a couple small stories, as Hollywood would call them, into novels. And I wrote short stories in between larger projects, or when I felt blocked. Novellas, novelettes and short stories. If I live long enough, it’s all coming to this website.

I even got a book of short stories published. It was (and is) called Canyon Calls, published by Zumaya Publications out of San Antonio. It never sold much because I never bothered to market my work. That was beneath me.

I wrote nonfiction along the way. Growing smack dab North Side Chicago, not much nature. But as I developed the talent to drive an automobile, I made forays out into the wilderness of the Midwest (yes, I’m fucking kidding). And then, I went out to the Southwest, and I was hooked.

I started writing essays, mostly humorous, about my experiences with nature. You’ll find many of these available to read as blogposts. I’ve also always had a mystical bent. Can’t call myself a mystic, because if you do, you’re a friggin’ fool. But you can write about your experiences. Under the page Inspirational across the horizontal menu bar, you’ll find these posts. They’re mostly pretty short pieces, hopefully amenable to reflection for you.

That’s about it. I’ve chosen self-publishing because I have more material than I’ll be able to launch via traditional publishers in a lifetime. I’ve always told my editors that I just wanted to download my work to a website so then I could die. Only partly kidding.

Oh, and the title to this post. I once read a famous author who wrote that if one can pursue anything, feels called to do anything in their lives other than the call of writing, then please, he said, do it. For writing is an agonizing process. Perhaps for reasons other than he experienced, I believe he was right. I’ve only kept on this path for as long as I did because I felt called to do it, because I dried up inside whenever I stopped. Even when the practice of law or psychotherapy were pleasing processes for me, a voice deeper down teased, saying: There’s something better out there for you.

Years later, as I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, I was seized like a demoniac with a warning that came from nowhere, since I hadn’t even been thinking about writing: STOP WRITING! YOU’LL WASTE YOUR WHOLE LIFE DOING IT!

Maybe that’s the same warning as the one delivered by the famous author about doing something, anything, besides writing, if you can.

The problem is that I can’t.