Around the year 2000, I felt like I had a crummy life. I understand that this feeling of crumminess was very relative. The world is full of people whose struggles were much deeper than mine. I was divorced, an experience that caused for me to for a certain length of time to believe that God didn’t care much about what happened on the earth, or else He wasn’t about to do anything about what was right. I didn’t believe other people’s promises and I didn’t believe my own word. I went out to bars too much and woke up too many mornings exhausted. I thought I was bummed out from getting divorced and because I was lonely, but upon reflection, I was too filled up with the depressant alcohol and suffering from not enough sleep.
I lived in an ugly cycle until I was sick enough of it to be moved to action. I decided to run a marathon, move to someplace where I didn’t know anyone, and write a book. Right, pretty random. I thought myself a warrior of sorts. I’d heard people talk in terms of running a marathon or writing a book as a kind of pinnacle of human achievement. I read this book by Paulo Coelho called The Alchemist. It was a journey/adventure story and I thought I could go on one. That was my move from Indiana to Charlotte, NC. That I thought writing a book and running a marathon was such a unique achievement is kind of embarrassing now given the number of people I know who take on both experiences. Go to any major city in the United States and you’ll see ten to forty thousand people run a marathon. I will say the marathon cleaned up my life. I couldn’t keep being a person who ate bar food and drank beer 3-4 nights a week. If someone wants advice on how to deal with a divorce, I’d say to abstain from alcohol and exercise every day.
I can’t point to one event or idea that caused me to begin writing. There were a couple impulses firing all at once. I enrolled in the M.A. program at UNC Charlotte and got a degree in English Education. I met a man named Dr. Sam Watson who loved to write. I caught his fever. He and Dr. Lil Brannon pushed me towards what is called the National Writing Project’s Summer Institute. I didn’t want to give up two weeks of my summer, but in the end, the 6 credits persuaded me and the experience changed my life. I read Donald Murray’s Write to Learn and Stephen King’s On Writing. Both of those men made me feel as if writing a book was something I could to. I didn’t think very hard about why I wanted to run or write. I just thought both acts would be better than drinking and not sleeping.
During the summer institute, I found that I liked it when most of my days began with writing followed by reading with lots of conversation mixed in. The world often annoys me with its fluffy conversations: Nice weather we’re having? Did you see the Bears got Peppers? I heard gas will go up to $3 this summer. Of course I say many of those very things, but I like something more complex too. The people at the summer institute—those I was reading and writing with—helped my mind to open up and relax. That summer, I was slated to go back to Vance High School, where school started at 7:15 and I taught up to 180 students. As much as I wanted to make good on my personal promise to start writing, I knew myself and knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep it if I kept my current job, and so I quit and got a job working where school started at 8:30 and where I would teach 100 students.
As fall came round, every morning I sat down and tried to write down everything I could remember about my divorce. If I would have known more about what I was doing, I would have called my pages a memoir, but I didn’t have much understanding about that word. That’s another embarrassing admission for an English teacher to make, but let’s be honest, I got into the profession to coach basketball. I changed a few names and called what I wrote fiction. I wrote a page or two a day, tried to stick somewhat to the subject of divorce, and in less than a year, I had about 300 pages. Even I could see that what I had written was not a book. It was mostly a long summary with very short or nonexistent scenes. I knew I needed help, and I decided that I could get some in an MFA program for creative writing.
I want to leave you with the title of an essay I really enjoyed. I think if you have grieved deeply, or if you liked the first Rocky movie, or have run long distances, you ought to track down Jeremy Collins’s essay “Shadow Boxing.” It originally appeared in the Georgia Review and I came across it in the 2009 Pushcart Prize Best of the Small Presses collection. Also, if you’d care to comment, I’d love you to tackle the title question of this entry: Why do you write? Or perhaps, why don’t you?