The Limbo Year.

When I came back to St. Bonaventure after my summer in Oxford, I solidified my process: legal pad for rough drafts, revise that draft, type it, print it out, edit, and turn in. All of which took about three hours.

My senior year, I wrote a thesis on celebrity journalists: profiling Katherine Graham, Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, and Tom Brokaw. We counted the days until graduation: 200 days and Halloween. 100 days and prom. (Yes, really.)

My roommates and best friends were going to graduate school—for masters of education or business, but all of my journalism advisors said that if I wanted to go and be a writer then I don’t need to be in a program to do it. That the only way to do it was go out and get a job at a rinky-dink weekly paper and write and write and write until my hands fell off sometime around sixty-years-old. By then, I hopefully would have made it to the New York Times—my journalistic goal.

So I didn’t go to graduate that school. Mistake #1. I spent my last semester interviewing at newspapers all over the state from as close as Alfred, NY to as far as Port Washington, Long Island. None of them worked out.

At graduation, Bob Schiefer of Face The Nation gave the commencement address. The power went out in the gym. I don’t remember much of the speech other than Schiefer saying, pointing at the stands where all of our parents and relatives sat, and saying “You won’t understand this feeling of success until you’re sitting where they’re sitting.”

My faculty advisor that upon graduation you work for the advertisers when you work in journalism.

So I went home to Lake Placid. I managed to get some freelance work. But I was a seasonal worker, working as a lifeguard at the beach, working in marketing at Whiteface Mountain, back to teaching swimming and taking Kenpo karate classes. The latter was probably the only good thing I was doing in my “limbo year.” That year between college and when your professional life started.

But mostly, I played with the cult of the personality of the writer. Mistake #2. The virus that spreads from the biographies of Hemingway and HST and so many others. I emulated it. I partied five days a week. My output was one novella, a short story, and I co-wrote a screenplay. A horrible year. I still think it’s a good screenplay and the novella turned into a novel that got me into Brooklyn College six years later. That’s my biggest problem: when I start a writing project, I dwell on it for too long. Refining, refining, rewriting, and rewriting. That’s still true. Mistake #3: I’m working on the fourth rewrite of my second novel, Emerson, and I’ve been playing with it for the last four years. This is the last draft and then in the new year, I’m going to write three more novels. Just to hammer them out. To break out of this habit.

Mistake #4: See, newspapers were already dying in 2003. Small newspapers were owned by corporations and didn’t cover things that were against that company’s business interests. That led to a lack of readership, a lack of readership led to a lack of advertising which was the way newspapers made money so more old timer reporters were not retiring after the age of 65 and that meant a lack of space for kids like me. At the same time, the internet and Blogger was rising so many of us who couldn’t get a job in newspapers went to blogs and the attrition continued.

But I didn’t realize any of this until the summer of 2004 when I decided to move to New York City.  

Timeline #3: Oxford.

[Continued from here].

(On top of the Loughrigg Fell in the Lake District of England. Sorry for the smudged scan.)

I was lucky enough to get into the Francis E. Kelley Oxford Programme with one of my junior year roommates and best friend. Junior year I lived in a garden apartment with five other guys.

We were ecstatic: six weeks in England studying British and American Media and Culture and taking classes on Shakespeare, Middle English and History, and traveling all over England and Europe. I’ve written about it before, because these six weeks were amazing for my growth as a person and a writer. 

I had just read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Word of Staggering Genius and I wanted to experience everything. Traveling is great for a writer—you’re always out of your personal context and forced to really pay attention to everything that is different or unfamiliar. It is ripe with stories. At the time I didn’t know how life-informing AHWOSG would be for me that summer, and why it’s still one of my favorite books.

I tasted real beer—not Labatts or Milwaukee’s Beast or Natty Sick—but Carlsberg, Strongbow Cider, Jupiler, and when I came home I could drink Lake Placid Brewery’s Ubu Ale like it was mother’s milk. Guinness was significantly different in England than the US. This was a badge of honor, a turning point in my life. Most of all I learned what it means to be the eldest child.

A classmate’s father was very sick. This classmate had to leave the program to say goodbye.

I’ll never forget the scene: it was raining and this classmate, head down, left the program director’s office and walked through the courtyard. No umbrella. I knew what was said to the Franciscan father who ran the program. I nearly wept in this classmate’s room. We’re still kids at this point, freshly 21, and the classmate asked me not to cry.

This is, eventually, the burden eldest children have to bear. A lesson Eggers illustrates in his first and best book. We replace the elder of the house. Most of us are out of the house by the time this comes. We’re well into our careers, our houses, our families. But this classmate had three younger siblings—the youngest starting high school that year. That’s an experience most of us don’t have to bear until much later. Fundamentally, I knew this is going to happen, but to watch it—the experience of it happen to someone else—is very different from intellectually understanding. To watch it unfold before my eyes, so young, my worst nightmare was an experience that July 2002 taught me about life and writing.

Timeline #2: High School & College.

[Continued from this post]. 

When I make a decision about something, I push forward with full effort. I rarely change my mind. I’m the same way about choosing beer and food, so when I make a decision I stick with it.

By the end of my sophomore year of high school, I was interning with the Plattsburgh Press-Republican. My first story was on Road Rules coming to Lake Placid.

I worked with a journalist who went to St. Bonaventure University. After junior year, I worked with the Lake Placid News. I was off to the races. St. Bonaventure was in my future and my writing education kicked off into high gear there. Throughout my high school experience I still read comic books. We were at the end of the Chris Claremont and Jim Lee era of X-Men and I stuck with the book because I loved Joe Madueira’s art.

I went to St. Bonaventure University with a need to tell stories. To work on the nuts and bolts of it. Still I knew that I wanted to be more than a journalist. This is when I started reading Transmetropolitan. I tried other Vertigo comics and indie books but none clicked with me.

It was hard to access comics from 1999-2003 when I was in college so my reading declined. I had Transmet and Hourman subscriptions my freshman year—and the internet.

Warren Ellis’s message board, the Comics Continuum, CBR to keep on things in comics. Making notes to check out particular books and learning how to write them from Matt Fraction’s Pop Life column and Ellis’s Come In Alone. All this time I was writing articles, sometimes as many as four a week. I got very efficient at drafting: handwrite a draft, type it up, revise. I wasn’t quite a five draft man, but I was a three draft man and I was fast. I could sit down and type a thousand to two thousand word article in an hour. The whole process probably took about two days. I would always take twenty-four hours between drafts to get some distance from it for revision purposes. Eventually, I realized, I had to do a little more than three drafts to be an A student.  

That’s when I fell in love with St. Bonaventure’s Library. Specifically the third floor that looked out over the ball fields, the Allegheny River, and Hart Mountain in the distance. The reason it was called that is there was a giant clearing in the middle of the hill in the shape of a heart. Thomas Merton lived in a small cabin on the other side of the heart. I would sit near the windows, writing a rough draft out on a legal pad or in a specific dedicated notebook to whatever class I was in. Then I would go back to the dorm and type it up.

The problem with the dorm was all I ever wanted to do was hang out, and that’s still true to this day. When I go home it’s time to be with my family. In my freshman year, I had a girlfriend early on—my first serious girlfriend, and this was at the height of my self-esteem issues. We broke up in February 2000, because I lied to her, because I didn’t think I was good enough for her so I had to make up stories that would show that I was good and worthy of love. My friends knew my bullshit immediately. They’re still my best friends. We broke up and I spiraled. It was all caused by lies, anxiety, and victim-thinking.

I liked making up stories that make me feel like I was better than I was. In a lot of ways that’s what I’ve been trying to do—prove to myself for eighteen years now. That I’m not a poser, or a wannabe, a hobbyist storyteller, or a pathological liar.

I’m a writer, a storyteller, and I learned the most important lesson of all in 2002, when I was accepted to Somerville College at Oxford University.

Timeline #1: Seventh Grade.

[From David Sedaris’s Diaries: A Visual Compendium]

I started writing every day in seventh grade. At the time I lived in Connecticut. You know when you read Walden by Thoreau and you get the assignment to keep a journal? Well, I kept doing that.

I was a nerd, an outcast because I was caught and shamed for reading the novelizations of Death of Superman and Batman: Knightfall. Event comics felt too big for me to keep up with. I’m still allergic to event comics. So I read the novel adaptations by Denny O’Neill and Roger Stern to catch up on what happened.

That’s when the idea struck me with The Flash and his big event—“Terminal Velocity”—to adapt that into the novel.

I started doing it on a typewriter, because this was 1993, and we didn’t have a functioning computer. Well, there was a functioning computer just not one I could use for writing purposes. It was an IBM that only ran DOS with a black screen and green type from the Matrix. Nobody in my family knew how to use it, so I used my dad’s word processor.

In eighth grade we got a Gateway 2000 and I retyped my novel adaption of Terminal Velocity into Microsoft Word. It was a breakthrough. Word was the only program I could figure out. That’s still true. It’s still my favorite word processing program despite the fact that I’m writing this post in Scrivener right now. But everything was started by hand in leather-bound journals that my dad brought home from overseas business trips. Adapting the Flash comics turned me onto many other teenage heroes of the early ‘90s like Impulse, Chamber, and The Ray (who was in his twenties but still acted like a teen.)  I would write journal entries in their voices. Rewrite captions and copy handwriting lettering that appeared in Impulse #1 by Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos. I was learning to write from comic books.

I had no friends. Ridiculed for my Flash trucker hat and my leather bound journals, I needed something to keep me busy.

At this time I told my mom that I wanted to be a comics and fiction writer. Like all parents, she casually suggested something more practical. Being a comic book nerd, I watched Lois and Clark (with Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.) The show focused on Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s burgeoning relationship than Superman’s adventures. It was their jobs as reporters for the Daily Planet. A memorable line from that show refutes Tarantino’s Superman thesis: “Clark Kent is who I am, Superman is just something I do.”  

So I said “journalist” to ease my mom’s nerves, but still—to this day—being a comics and fiction writer is what I’m passionate about. Journalism is something I do, but haven’t done in a year.