Twenty-five years ago this month my roommate and I received word from the Academic Advising office at our non-flagship state university that we’d both been placed on Academic Probation. They cited our poor showings over the last two semesters and poor showings they were indeed. Having enrolled full-time, we’d each managed to complete exactly two classes (both ones we shared—an art history survey on Renaissance and Baroque painting and a symposium on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics and Decadents of late 19th and fin-de-siecle England—we’d made As in both). The rest we’d dropped out of without formally dropping out, or, in at least one notable exception, never attended at all. Our continued presences at the university would only be tolerated if we agreed to attend summer classes and maintain a B-average.
We laughed at that. We were not, as we saw it, B-average people. To the world, we may have been miserable, broke sack of shit bums and procrastinators that reeked of cigarette smoke and sweaty punk rock shows. Amongst ourselves, we were misunderstood geniuses on the brink of great intellectual or artistic success, paragons of taste, and on the increasingly rare days that we liked each other, the closest of friends.
This misapprehension rightly doomed us. And I can’t even blame it on pure folie à deux. I knew that I was behaving like a lazy asshole. If there was ever a person that deserved failure for reasons of pure obnoxious self-regard and willfully squandered potential, it was yours truly. At the end of the semester, we broke the news to our horrified parents and enrolled in summer school.
Two weeks later, my roommate and I went for a ride around the scuzzy edge of Greensboro’s downtown and listened to droning electronic music and fantasizing about occupying condemned victorian mansions. My roommate let slide that a friend of a friend had offered hers a job selling phone cards at the Olympics. She would be leaving town ASAP. She hoped that wouldn’t be too much of a problem. It was a problem, not insurmountable, but in my surprise and surprising hurt, I got snippy; we had one of our all-too-common arguments. I couldn’t bring myself to beg her to stay, because I was pretty sure if I did she’d never come back. So I may have reminded her that the only reason I’d even applied to this shit college was to live with her. She said something painful but entirely accurate about my self-respect. I asked if she even liked me anymore. And when she didn’t answer, I told her I thought she was wasting her life by going to Atlanta. Then she said I was wasting my life period, and all signs indicated that I would continue to do the same. “You always talk about writing a novel,” she said. “I bet you a hundred bucks you never finish one.”
Two days later, she fucked off to Atlanta and left me living, for the first time in my life, entirely by myself. Eventually, all of us learn learn that life moves on and you can’t expect it to save a place for you, even if you are actually running to catch up. I most certainly wasn’t. At twenty and a few months with a couple shoeboxes of old letters and childhood knick-knacks liberated from the rubbish heap, I’d trudged through the predictable afterschool special disorientation of my my mother remarrying and the selling of the last house that could ever be described (even generously) as a childhood home and landed at a point when the only space for me in my hometown was on the living room sofa in my new stepfather’s condo, where my mother and sister had repaired while they waited for their new house to be built. I felt unmoored, adrift on a dead calm in the middle of the ocean with a broken mast and no tools
I took two classes that first summer session. One was Earth Science, a soft touch remedial course that allowed athletes and artsy types to fulfill a Science Requirement by coloring the tundra pink on a xeroxed map while a sweet-faced, baby-voiced professor asked us to raise our hands if we thought rocks were pretty. Why yes, Kevin! I think geodes are super neat too!
My other class was an Early American lit survey. It was taught by an aging, sardonic hippie named Jim who looked like a thinner Jerry Garcia and thought too much of Melville for my taste. I didn’t know then that Jim was the head of the Creative Writing program at the college. He most certainly didn’t know that the Creative Writing program was what I told people I’d come to the college for, because for reasons lost to time, I hadn’t even enrolled in a single workshop.
I had been writing. In those days I could write like I was on fire. Youth, perhaps, but also cigarettes and coffee. I regularly lost computer keyboards to nicotine sludge and spilled, scorched Café Bustelo. None of what I wrote in those days was good. Most twenty-year-olds write bullshit, and there is no twenty-year-old bullshit more bullshitty than twenty-year-old bullshit with literary pretensions. I had a stack of stories about lonely young women, more attractive than I, with excellent taste in music and the kind of unflappable cool that made them seem fashionably wry even in their heartbreak (and they were always heartbroken).
I didn’t talk to Jim about writing in his class. I just wrote puns about Edgar Allen Poe in the margins of a Norton Anthology and went from campus to job interviews at weird smelling offices and sleazy chain restaurants. A man at a contractor’s office asked me what sort of underwear I planned to wear to the office, and surprised and naive, I answered “probably cheap and unflattering.” I didn’t get the job. Obviously a blessing. But I was still pissed because it paid $7.50/hour which felt like a fortune in Greensboro, NC in 1996.
I didn’t have any friends in Greensboro. I’d lived there for nearly an entire calendar year and could not think of a single person, other I could ask for coffee, not even a person I could call who might even recognize my name. So I came home at night and read Ulysses with the TV muted, the college radio station playing in the background and stuffed my face with 99cent bean burritos and boxed Macaroni and Cheese consumed direct from pot.
All of this is the kind of sad and embarrassing that makes me squirm in retrospect, but it’s the kind of sad embarrassing at the time that prompted me to start writing down a weird dream and end up a few months and about seven hundred pages later with the seemingly completed novel my roommate had predicted I’d never write.
The book itself was some more twenty-year old bullshit. At least two times too long and almost hilariously melodramatic. When I gave it to one of my remaining high school friends, she skimmed and said something like, “You’ve really got to start hanging out with some more emotionally stable people and thinking about a more meaningful future.” Which I took as a back-handed compliment–look how edgy and transgressive she thinks I am . She meant that I needed help.
By then, my roommate was back from Atlanta, but our friendship was finished. I’m not sure I even told her I finished the book. Jim, by then my writing teacher, thought it would be instructive to send the book out. I did, and it was, of course, rejected, then rejected again, then rejected a few more times, but by then the credit card I used to buy printer cartridges and paper and send it off in the mail had tilted and I couldn’t even really afford to pay the credit card bills. So I quit sending it out and I started working on more projects. Rinse. Repeat. The uplifting self-help books about Art and Creativity and Story may discuss rejection (“Don’t give up! Keep putting yourself out there!”). What the uplifting self-help books about Art and Creativity and Story fail to note is that it costs money to submit things, and sometimes your bank account gives out before your will to succeed.
I rewrote that first book from scratch when I was thirty, on its ten-year anniversary. I don’t know why. Maybe because I was out of ideas. Probably because I have a problem letting things go. The eternal urge to tinker and improve is common to most creative people, I think, even/especially when grafted upon some seriously magical thinking. Like, if I could make that book work, I might not be able to rewrite my past, but it would at least make that past and all its attendant unhappiness feel worth it. And for the tiniest spark of a moment, it felt like it might actually work. But it didn’t. I quit sending it out. I started working on new projects. Rinse. Repeat.
I spent about fourteen months alone during Covid over the past year. I did not write a novel. I’m well off the cigarettes for years and years. The coffee after about 1pm just keeps me up all night in a dyspeptic, anxious, non-productive way. I no longer write like I’m on fire, unless it’s a work project and I’m under a deadline (and even then, hey, let’s see what’s happening on Twitter). I have stuff in the hopper, new ideas on deck, but it’s hard to summon up the energy to write them down, and even harder to imagine why someone else would be interested in a thing even I struggle to find the interest to do. Like, there’s a lot of noise in the world. A lot. Maybe the nicest thing I could do is to not contribute to the clamor and just shut the hell up for a while (she says after 1700 words).
Did I pull out the old book during lockdown? Oh yeah. Of course I did.
It had been about four years since I last read it through. The twenty-year-old bullshit turned thirty-year-old bullshit is now forty-five-year-old bullshit because even now, I have a file entitled “Old Book Fuck Around,” where I go on days when I feel unmoored to improve myself or find closure or save my soul through some kind of self-indulgent literary “Back to the Future”-ing.
Years ago, back in the 90s, someone asked me what it would take for me to get a tattoo. I told her I’d probably do it when I finished my first novel. Two and a half decades later, I don’t have any tattoos (you’re welcome, Mom). Maybe it’s because I can’t figure out what kind of tattoo I’d get. Maybe it’s because I’m not sure I’ve done anything worthy of permanent commemoration. Maybe it’s because there is always some ghost piece of me, still haunting that apartment in Greensboro, rewriting feverishly, and I know she’ll never be done.
(Picture is of Elsewhere, which is definitely one of the coolest things in Greensboro. It post-dates my local residency by a few years)/