Two women approached my buddy Todd and me at the 2016 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
One of them asked, “Are you writers?”
In nanoseconds worthy of a Cray Supercomputer, I was trying to calculate how to answer with integrity, trying to imagine if I was or not. I proffered, “Yeah, um, sort of.” I mean, I write. Within the last few years I have had two essays published where I was paid (one of the awards was a pile of books, which is better than a check, to be sure), finished an alpine 175-page dissertation for my Ph.D. in Educational Psychology, blog weekly at Bierkergaard, and self-published a book on the college transition called On the Edge: Transitioning Imaginatively to College. Current Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,185,077. Clearly, the book is on its way to the best-seller list (or projects itself scaling that heap, higher and higher).
However, I’m not sure all that makes me a “writer,” as in, paying-the-bills-with-writing sort of writer.
But Todd is a writer. Moving to L.A. from Central Pennsylvania Dutch Country about a decade ago to pursue his bliss, he is a rarefied one who is making it professionally, has penned a best-selling book, Something Startling Happens, and sold several screenplays. Todd is embodying Stan Lee’s advice offered during his presentation at the festival: “Try to do things that you like doing.”
And Todd looked the part at the book festival, too. His longish blonde hair, parted in the middle in an artsy coiffure, his leather jacket and skinny jeans, his hipster shoes—all were accoutrements singling him out as artist, as word-maker. Me? Eddie Bauer ball cap, University of Montana t-shirt, cargo pants minus the marsupial multitudinous pockets, and Nike jogging shoes. My hair, cut short, face unshaven. More a middle-aged ex-jock look. All markers singling me out as, well, me.
Going to the L.A. Festival of Books was our Super Bowl. We share a love of books and writing. I occasionally peer at my “Book Hall of Fame” as I sit here and type at home, gazing affectionately upon them as a parent would his children. God in the Dock by C.S. Lewis holds a special place on the shelf of my heart.
At the Festival, the two women were representing The Emerging Voices Fellowship, sponsored by PEN, a “literary mentorship that aims to provide new writers who are isolated from the literary establishment with the tools, skills, and knowledge they need to launch a professional writing career.” One word in the description of that fellowship does nail it in regards to me: isolated. I live in Columbia, Pennsylvania, a hard-luck town along the Susquehanna River that missed becoming the nation’s capital by a vote or two.
The fantasy of forgoing my full pension (I am a high school counselor by day), which is about seven years away, growing my hair long, parting it down the middle, and moving out to L.A. tempts me in my less sane moments. Todd quit his graphic design position, sold his cottage in Mt. Gretna, PA, and left family and friends to pursue his California dream. I admire and even envy his daring. I respect his talent and how hard he has worked.
Central Pennsylvania folk are hard-workers and Todd embodies this attribute mightily, even though he has jettisoned most of his history. In his California incarnation, he consumed Subway $5 Footlongs for years; he broke his arm skateboarding and couldn’t go to a hospital to have cast put on because he had no health insurance; and, of course, he ran out of money. Family and friends who believed in his dreams fronted him some buffering cash to get him back on his feet.
I am not as brave as Todd; I’m more risk-averse. Jerry Stahl, in a panel discussion about memoir, said, “Heroin made [him] forget there was no net.” I need the net of steady income. Yet, I have drafted off of Todd’s courage. When he co-wrote The Milton Hershey Story, a play which premiered at the Whittaker Center over a decade ago, I spent the time before the play perusing course offerings at Temple University’s Harrisburg campus and came across a brochure about a master’s program in Educational Psychology.
Although I already had a master’s degree in a related field, the brochure opened my eyes to a new direction. Philadelphia’s main campus offered a doctorate in Educational Psychology, and I was toying going back to school to earn a Ph.D.
To see Todd pursue his dream inspired me to pursue mine but in a more calculated and cautious manner. The courses listed in the brochure like Cognition and Learning Theory struck a chord in me. Two years later, I was on sabbatical and enrolled full-time in the Educational Psychology program.
After a long, hard, eight-year ascent to Ph.D. attainment in 2010, I had my mountain-top revelation. After all that ridiculous research about college preparation and transition, the developmental issues associated with both, my discovery has been a simple one: imagination, not information, is the biggest cloud-breaking, sun-bursting clarity-bringer.
While I may totter around on the hard trail rocks of reality that I’m not a Successful L.A. Todd or a nascent Emerging Voices Fellowship recipient, imagining myself moving toward them, becoming them in shifts and conversions, is far more powerful to me. Imagination gives me the integrity to say my Yeah, um, sort of with a little more certainty.