Baby Steps

By Brian Kaufman

Think of a long road trip. Mostly, the road spools under your tires, but you may remember gas stops, bits of scenery, or a driver that cut you off. Those moments don’t define the trip, but they are valuable for remembering the journey.

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I’ve been writing seriously for three decades now. For those of you who trust statistics, that’s less than half of my life. The first forty years were a different kind of writer’s journey. I thought it would be fun to recount some of the mile markers that led to the moment when I took the art seriously.

When I was five, I drew comic books. I couldn’t write words yet, so I had to explain the stories when I “read” them to the neighborhood kids. My tales mostly involved my stuffed dog Lipoo (pronounced “Lee-pooh,” a child’s mispronunciation of Winnie the Pooh). My stuffed dog was a superhero who battled monsters and fought wars. A favorite plot involved battling a tank with a flintlock pistol. (I suppose this raises questions, but I can’t answer them.)

I’m told I sold the comics for a nickel apiece, which was a lot of money, it being the age of penny candies that actually cost a penny.

In junior high, a friend gave me a few pages of a story that she’d given up on, asking if I’d finish it for her. In the story, our seventh-grade class went to an island for a picnic, only to be captured by nefarious forces. That’s where I stepped in.

At the time, the national boogeyman was Russia, so the nefarious forces became Russian soldiers bent on conquering the United States, starting with our seventh-grade class on this island. Luckily, we stopped them. (If you find this plot absurd, you should revisit the Patrick Swayze movie, “Red Dawn.” I was ahead of my time.)

Our English teacher saw the story and asked me to read it for both of her classes, something I did with great relish. It was my rockstar moment. I mesmerized everyone. Until then, I’d only considered a career in professional baseball, but after that experience, I began to consider writing as a possible fallback career.

In high school, I wrote short stories. Some of them were a dubious effort to woo female classmates by putting them in the story—because high school girls love reading about monsters and gore, right?

I entered college when I was sixteen. Back then, Ohio attempted to address the dropout problem by allowing people to graduate early. I took advantage and moved to Colorado, where I enrolled at Colorado State University.

I was a math major, but my first elective courses focused on creative writing. That’s where I met James Crumley, the author of The Last Good Kiss and The Mexican Tee Duck. Crumley taught at CSU (1971 to 1974). I took his 300-level workshop class as a seventeen-year-old sophomore.

A word about finances. I worked my way through school, logging full-time hours at a fast-food joint. Crumley was a regular visitor to my drive-thru window after the weekend bars closed. He was the same man after hours as he was in class. According to my research on the web, he ate, drank, and drugged himself to poor health, and eventually, death. Crumley’s classes were casual and irreverent. Class critique sessions could be brutal. He was often rude and obnoxious. He was everything I wanted to be.

I submitted a novella about the Alamo to class. My fellow students savaged me, and Crumley gave me a mediocre grade. Cut to the fast-food drive-thru, he grabbed my arm when I tried to give him change. “I’m from Texas,” he told me. “The world needs a good Alamo story.” Then, he drove away with his Jumbo Jack and fries.

My first published novel was about the Alamo, told from the Mexican point of view.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I continued to write fiction. When my first marriage ended, my ex-wife cleaned the house while I was at work “to help me out,” tossing nearly 300 typed pages of short stories. She also threw out my baseball cards, including twenty or so Mickey Mantle cards. (The cards were worth much, much more than the stories.)

Now we enter the post-divorce phase, where I spent years playing heavy metal bass (thump, thump) and drinking beer. I had a bit of Crumley’s formula down, but I was missing the critical part of the equation. I once asked Crumley how many words he wrote a day. He quoted a figure that still astounds me—4,000 words.

Writing was on my mind, but my butt was never in the chair.

Then, I met my second wife. I presented myself as an author-to-be, but she was a smart gal, and she recognized my nonsense. One year into our marriage, I offered the wishful observation that I would soon be writing again. She asked if I “meant it this time.” 

If this were a story, I’d tell you that I began writing that night. No, but I’d been nudged. When they produce the movie of my life (starring John Goodman), they’ll skip the next nine years, including the three failed novels. The film will start in the adult education night class, where I wrote my first piece of poetry that was published.

My little reminiscence ends with that first acceptance. I had just turned forty then, and I decided that if I wanted to write, really write, I ought to get serious. 

That’s thirty-five years of baby steps, going from wishes to work. Still ahead were writer’s conferences, a return to CSU for a degree in English Literature, multiple critique groups, and Hemmingway’s million words. I met Clive Barker, Anne Rice, and a dozen unknown or unpublished writers who inspired me. Six novels, a dozen textbooks, and study guides later, I’m serious. For realsies.

The chances are good that most of you reading this have a story about your own long and winding road. Take a moment to reflect on the mile markers. If you’re still looking for the moment you turn wishes to work, make one up. You can do that—you’re a writer.

And start thinking about who plays you in the movie.

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