By Dick Cummins
Dick is a 1970 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
I lied. After a 32-year hiatus, I’m scribbling again for a few hours every morning, knee-deep in socially acceptable—if not so profitable—mendacities.
One reason is that I love putting words heel toe, burlesquing here, writing stories from the heart there, hoping my small ability with emotional language will work as intended on hapless readers, although (sound familiar?) I don’t know exactly where I’ll find said readers.
Of course the other reason I am back writing again is because life is short and then you die. At 68, and sliding down life’s razor blade into decrepitude, better get crackin’. If there is a Mobius Dick in me (millennium version of Ahab-obsessed search for cyber whale of course), it’s not going to just breech out of me overnight.
A third of a century ago I took getting dumped by my agent hard. Probably would have sobered up though, gotten over it, kept on scribbling, kept sending out queries and stories, chapters, maybe even tried another screen play. But something big got in the way.
It was business. Found out what “living well is the best revenge” meant.
I had a lab full of Apple II computers by 1981 and had written some language arts and story-writing software products that got good reviews. Then, mirabile dictu, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm called and asked if we’d like up to half a million dollars of other people’s money to expand our little part-time company into a world class educational software company.
“Writing Software International” they wanted to name it.
Considering I had never made more than $14K a year at the university we (Chair of the CS Department partner and I) said sure—and yes, actually $55K a year in salary sounded adequate, this the normal remuneration for start-up principals in the Bay Area.
Well, in Missoula, Montana, $55K a year was a godamned fortune.
The first thing I did was buy an airplane.
And I was still writing too, sort of, building software products around stories and the use of word processing and spell checking, all products getting excellent reviews: “. . . this is how all educational software should look in the future!” one reviewer said.
Sadly, software as a business model was not good then due to copying (piracy) by schools, and when our company ran out of cash, the big high was over. Stupidly I used my retirement and several credit cards to keep it going while we tried legal means to force school districts to pay up, but to naught. So I had to spend a few years getting on my feet again after that. No writing due to food-on-the-table tech work for years.
Anyway, so here I am, semi-retired and basically lying my ass off for a few hours every morning! Fun and scary. Maybe this time I can finish something good and then decide where to send it. Stand by there too, my novel-in-progress (semi-fictional memoir really) is about the Workshop a decade before your We Wanted to be Writers’ cabal.
A while ago I posted the agent’s rejection letter stuff in yesterday’s blog as a response to one of Eric’s comments about agents, (just love the annunciation “Awaiting Moderation” on comments, as life to date has been one long awaiting moderation.).
Cheryl E-mailed and asked if I would mind expanding on why, after such a long pause, I was inspired to start lying, er – writing “imaginatively” again.
How about just CAN’T SAY NO? Some OCDs wash their hands—others can’t stop lying— imaginatively. Your narrator is probably just a victim of the in-born psychoneurotic need to tell entertaining stories—for recognition and remuneration would be nice too.
It’s just in there.
In the summer between high school and college I was writing pieces for Aardvark Magazine, a humor and satire rag by students out of the U of Chicago. Home for Christmas, I ran into a neighbor kid who had joined the Air Force. He asked if I was the guy who wrote funny stuff for Aardvark, as it was in the canteen on base in Okinawa. Yep, that was me. I do crave recognition —atta boy—you make someone laugh or cry or just think about something is enough. It made me feel important and gave a little self-respect to a kid who flunked second grade.
When George Gershwin was asked why he kept on writing after Porgy and Bess was panned by an anti-Semitic and racist press in 1935, when it closed and he and his brother were dead broke, having put all they had into the musical, he said:
“Why keep on writing? Because I really want to be famous, that’s why.”
Maybe that’s it with me too. When I was writing a humor and satire column for the Daily Iowan in ’69, I used to go down to the Student Union and watch people read the paper. When someone laughed or grinned I would sidle up behind to see what did it. Often it was my column. Then I could head over to class and it didn’t matter so much that my story would get workshopped though one of Bill Munn’s kidneys—or both.
Then on the way out (not a bad guy when he wasn’t assassinating our stories) he would say, “Hey, nice throw-away in the DI this morning. Not letters of course, but pretty amusing. You have a knack for that stuff.”
Wish I could find Bill, tie him to a chair, then read out loud the over 12K words I’ve already got of The Nun, The Critic (BM) and The 80-Yard Run (or maybe Grizzled ‘60s Workshop Grad Tells All!) until that poor SOB passes out! He never would put up his own worksheet for class either; probably knew his hair would spontaneously combust and cook his brain in its own juice.
But I digress. On the third page of We Wanted to Be Writers, there is this:
“Many suffer from the incurable disease of writing and it becomes chronic in their sick minds.” Juvenal, c. 55 – 127. J was a satirist and wrote of his work “. . . indignation creates my poetry.”
I think that about sums it up for me too—the why I keep scribbling. It’s the “. . . disease of writing . . . sick (sick, sick) minds” too. So here I am, still crazy after all these years.