Here’s my story:
In 1983 Kathy and I owned a mom and pop greenhouse in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We lived right next to the greenhouses, so both of us were involved with raising our two children. The lines between work and home disappeared.
We raised petunias, impatiens and tomato seedlings for spring. Even though our greenhouse was prospering, something was wrong. My life was planting seeds, growing tiny plants and selling vegetables and garden plants in the spring. I was becoming what I grew – a cabbage or maybe a petunia. My mind was dying and I knew it.
I started playing around with writing. After supper every night I would go out to my ‘office,’ a little added-on room between our house and the greenhouses. It had windows to the front and back and a space heater that was adequate for spring and fall, but not winter. I would sit down at the typewriter and follow my creative muse.
Whole worlds opened to me. I wrote about the area behind my childhood garage where I practiced pitching and dreamed of reaching the major leagues. I wrote a short story about a group of prisoners on an island. I wrote a poem about getting along with the Russians.
Hours passed. Suddenly, as I wrote, an alarm would ring in the house. The alarm meant I hadn’t turned the heat on in the greenhouses. I had to shut the door on the vibrant world that grew on the paper in front of me and hurry to the greenhouses to start the furnaces.
An hour later I’d be back at the typewriter. Type a sentence, stop, look at it, realize it wasn’t quite true and then search deeper. Layers of middle-aged half-truths disappeared, the comfortable maxims I had surrounded myself with – “Business is good. Don’t make any changes” and “Relax. You’re getting older.” The fires of my youth burned again – civil rights, world peace, a place in the sun for every person. The idealism that had lain dormant for eight years sparked back into life.
Isaiah was on scene again, reminding me of the words I read in the seminary:
- I have appointed you
- to open the eyes of the blind,
- to free captives from prison
- and those who live in darkness from the dungeon. (Chapter 42, 6)
As I wrote, I dug, I searched always deeper, trying to reach the truth. It might be easy to speak a lie, but it wasn’t easy to write one. I started to unravel the tangled skein that was me.
These revelations came, not from writing philosophy or self-help dictums, but from writing fiction. Put a man and a woman in a fictional situation. What does the woman really think? What does the man think? Is this real? Is this how people are? Where do I get my ideas? What is human nature all about? Who am I?
For example, as I wrote about the prisoners on the island, I got to know each one of them. How did they get into crime? Why were they different than me? Did they have religious education as I did? What did they think about God? Was God a mean father for them or a gentle parent? What did I think about God?
Amazing. When I was in the seminary, they had tried for twelve years to teach me how to mediate, and here I was doing it while I wrote.
What a wonderful gift this was. I talked to Kathy about it one day as we worked together in the greenhouse. It was February, cold outside. Kathy stood at a transplanting bench in the boiler room, moving little plants from seed flats to larger, sectioned containers. I shoveled dirt up to her bench and moved her finished product out to a greenhouse.
A fluorescent light hung over Kathy’s bench. The area was dingy and the temperature inside almost matched the outside. When the old boiler kicked in with a big whoosh, Kathy’s face lit up. “Heat,” she murmured. Soon hot water would flow through the pipes.
I took a break and stood by her bench. “I’ve decided to become a writer.”
She turned to me with a wary look. She swept her arm around in a half circle. “You’re not leaving me with all this, are you?”
“Of course not.”
“So? What do you mean? How can we work the greenhouse, if you’re off writing?”
“Like we talked about,” I responded. “We’re both getting tired. Maybe you should switch jobs, too.”
“Like you seem to enjoy volunteering at Kevin and Kerry’s school. Why don’t you become a teacher?”
“I’d have to go back to university and take more courses. Let me think about it.”
Kathy talked to our children and asked them what she should do and, without prompting, they both said she should be a teacher. So she signed up for more course work at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
And I signed up for my first course in writing. That was almost forty years ago and I’ve been a writer ever since. I’ve written five books and I teach writing in my community and in prison. It’s been a great life.
Now what’s your story of becoming a writer?
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