I was born on April 9, 1943, in Roanoke, Virginia.
At age four I began telling stories by drawing pictures, some of which still live in my memory.
My mother, an English teacher who graduated college at 18, thought her baby had been switched at birth. The woman lived in a classroom. Her child had been born with borderline autism. I did not learn to read until I went through the 4th grade twice.
I was small for my age, and dumb, but did not tolerate bullying. My two-hour wait after school for the bus home was spent in the principal’s office. Maybe I was a little worse. Nobody sent any bullies to that office. One could read magazines but not draw, so I drew inside the magazines until after a few months nobody noticed me openly drawing. The ride home was spent sitting on the heater beside the bus driver for fighting a high-school student. But it wasn’t the high-school student sitting beside the bus driver.
Meanwhile, in the principal’s office, I drew pictures along a roll of adding machine paper. For Christmas I had been given a projector with a light and a mirror that threw images on a bare wall. A crank was devised by me that drew the adding machine paper under the projector, such that my drawings could play out as a motion picture. To this day my writing is described as “cinematic” by readers.
At age 11, my parents sent me to military school to “learn to fit in.” I read slowly, but enjoyed reading everything, particularly a family medical book from the 1930s. Inside were beautiful color plates of the human body which had held me spellbound when I was four. Cadets came to regard me as an authority on medical problems, in the Lower School at Fork Union Military Academy. I did strange things like that.
What’s a guy gonna do?
I was sent to prep school, having been kicked out of military school. On a dare I wrote a short story at fifteen, which proved useful two years later in a class requiring a short story. The Note was read aloud by the Master, positively guaranteeing that every boy in that room would hate me.
I was not allowed to return my senior year at Christchurch School because I possessed only a D average. Public high school proved to be a blessing. A girl whom I admired worked on the school literary magazine. By then I had been composing serious short stories, dark dramas with strong sexual content, lavish colour, and usually a cruel twist near the end. Maybe the story written at age 15 would be more appropriate, the thought occurred to me. Someone sent it somewhere, and The Note won first prize for the best short story written by a Virginia high-school student that year, 1962.
But I still had not learned “to fit in.”
I flunked out of college and worked in Alaska, hitching a ride with a bush pilot to Anchorage in 1963. I returned to the Lower 48 and was kicked out of two more colleges, one for starting an underground newspaper. I endeavored during this time to drink as much liquor, fight as many fights, and be tossed into as many jails as was humanly possible. The joke was that I learned more in the jails than in any college I attended, but that isn’t nice to say, so we won’t say it. I joined the Marines.
From 1966 to 1972, I crop-dusted in the Mississippi Delta; other states too, but primarily the Delta. I stated something like the following in one of my memoirs: I knew cadets in military school who were really intelligent. Personally, I never engaged in a lot of it. The years crop-dusting were the happiest in my life. Real people doing real work. My sin was not appreciating them enough. This sin haunts me still.
Crop-dusting paid my way through college, this time as a premed student. I had seen the deep need among people, particularly rural people, for good doctoring. Wealth and social position mean little to me, but making a difference does. In 1972, I graduated with a degree in Chemistry and was accepted to the Medical College of Virginia on alternate status. That same year DDT was outlawed. The fall-back chemical was methyl parathion which is dangerous to pilots, and I was one of those that crashed the summer of 1972. I was hospitalized 2½ years.
The first year was the most colourful and creative time in my life. My memoir Mossbackdragon recounts my writing of poetry during that year. The first six months I was blind and paralyzed four ways, arms and legs. Emerging from blackness into brilliant yellow-green, orange, red and maroon provided an intensity of experience difficult to describe; it was like living in a lighted aquarium. My sister Suzy encouraged me to consider poetry which could be written one word at a time as I regained my eyesight and the use of one arm. I underwent surgery 25 to 30 times that year at the University of Virginia Hospital, visiting many floors, and writing poems for many nurses. Eventually I married the prettiest one, Sarah Lee. Some of my poems were published in magazines. It was all rather exciting!
Upon leaving the hospital after a couple of years I re-applied to medical school in 1975. The disapproval of crop-dusting by some on the admissions committee had always been a stumbling block. Now they had me dead to rights. Not only was my past darkened by crop-dusting—I was confined to a wheelchair! One of the doctors of the two who interviewed me was distressed that I did not wear a prosthetic to disguise the absence of a leg. I was tossed out on my ear! One is reminded of Mark Twain who wrote, He had but one eye and the popular prejudice runs in favor of two.
I applied to pharmacy school at the Medical College and was accepted, provided I grow wings and hop up the two steps into the school building. Never mind the 1973 Rehabilitation Act which forbids such discrimination. But, then, let’s be honest: I was never quite…socially acceptable. The established order is particular. We don’t want one of our “young doctors”—euphemism for medical students—to be someone chasing boll weevils in an airplane up and down cotton fields.
What’s a guy gonna do?
I received a Master of Science Degree in Counseling Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.
In 1976, during this time, I was appointed to the Advisory Board for the Virginia department of rehab and served as chairman two years. Previously the board had met and talked, but henceforth subcommittees were appointed by me to inquire into every facility in the state responsible to the department of rehab. We met with patients directly. In Baltimore in 1978 the Board received an award—created just for that one board—for its innovative approach to consumer advocacy. I came in second for the most outstanding disabled person in Virginia that year, which is an apt example of the power of celebrity. The LAZIEST disabled person in the state would have been more apt, since I do not identify much with disability. We dare not put my thug-like reputation in jeopardy!
Back to the “not engaging in intelligence thing.” I neglected my physical needs in my traveling around the country as an activist, egregiously. Much surgery was required which resulted in limited sitting from then on. If one could adapt to living on the floor one could avoid many problems.
I had written a thesis, the final report for a year-long investigation, and endless position papers followed usually by a vivid speech. A stack of a thousand papers would disappear before my speech came to an end. Does this count as “writing?” People began telling me YOU’VE GOT TO WRITE!
Sarah Lee’s aunt became my friend during this time. Jean Ann Marks was an editor at Simon and Schuster, the first editor to work with John Kennedy Toole and his book A Confederacy of Dunces, which was later turned down by another editor. So I embarked upon writing, on the floor, typing with one hand.
Does this bizarre tale ever end? Oh, no.
As luck would have it I entered upon another array of afflictions. Let’s just say I was dead for twelve years, and when I came out of my passage through no man’s land, I had given up my remaining leg, lost nearly half my body weight, and breathed through a trach. Brain damage had been suffered for which I am medicated.
During those years most of our “friends” had abandoned Sarah and me; my writing contacts were gone. We had survived into the world alone.
Here’s the thing about disabilities. If you have one or two, you are commended by people for your “courage and determination.” If you add two or three more, someone will yawn and say, “I think I’ll go walk the dog.” If you have as many as I do, it’s funny. No one can possibly have that many things wrong with them. It is silly; really, it is. Human nature is less kindly disposed, but human nature is the first thing you learn to ignore.
January of 2014 I entered the hospital dying of congestive heart failure. Too many problems afflicted me to consider corrective surgery; my condition was critical. I was content to go home and die. Finally, at long last, my journey would begin, a new journey. Home is the sailor, home from the sea; the hunter, home from the hill!
Where’s the damn journey?
It has been two years now and no journey. Yes, the flame flickers. Living life, though, with Sarah Lee is fun. And writing illumines the very large world in which I live.
My work—crafting prose to bring to life characters—energizes me. The ongoing drama keeps me alive. Like an old snapping turtle, encrusted in mossy growths at the bottom of a muddy swamp, scanning the murky depths with an ancient eye, I clamp down on what I want and never turn loose. I survive because my brain never lets go. Thus my brain has adapted to the most primitive level of existence. It does one thing well: it survives.
Since 2009 I have published seven books. Written, designed, formatted, and published by me on Amazon. (To see quality of book, please click the link below.)
Writing fills my heart with joy. So as long as no journey is forthcoming, I shall continue to write books.
What’s a guy gonna do?
THOUGHTS ON WRITING
An artist is very different from a writer. The writer wants to be loved. Approval by the establishment is essential, for it is nice to be loved. The artist doesn’t give a damn. The writer as artist does not care.
Says Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Originality comes at a price: not everyone will love you.
Conventional mediocrity is the enemy of the artist. Avoid cliché; despise it. How many trees must be sacrificed for trite language? The use of “first and foremost” in a book should be grounds for capital punishment.
The writer as artist has only 3 obligations: To—
honor the craft,
remain true to the vision, and
celebrate those who do the same.
The readers who are worth having will find you.
Never compromise. NEVER. Under “needing to be loved”…take the work seriously. Never yourself seriously. Be patient with people, but discriminate. I quit listening to fools fifty years ago.
BEYOND THE WORDS
The number one criticism of my writing is that I do not use enough words. Or that the prose is too spare. As an artist, I am far too subjective to evaluate myself objectively, though I feel I am a competent author. My fancy is to write with clarity and grace, but I will settle for plain.
People say that reading one of my books is like sitting in a movie theater: the drama moves; it is vivid and immediate. A certain demand is placed upon the reader to participate. Not all readers view reading as an active endeavor.
Words are clutter. Words are no more important than the pigments applied by a painter. Words and pigments may be lovely, but they convey no perspective. A literary work is one that offers a perspective beyond the medium, a unique perspective that can be experienced in no other way.
Elmore Leonard says, “If it sounds like writing, I throw it away.”
Do you want to know the real key to creating perspective? Understatement. You will never write prose as strong as what the reader may imagine. What you suggest is always larger.
Everyone asks me this. No longer am I able to sit up in a wheelchair. Well, I can sit up a little if I am leaning against a table or wall. My left arm has been rebuilt, but that arm and a pillow brace me on the floor, while typing is performed one-handed. I lie on “geo mats” spread around the house moving across a trail of sheets to the desired room.
Brain damage poses complications; I am unable to sleep more than four hours. Three times a day I sleep after writing, in various rooms, moving around a lot. I sleep in the front room at night, our living room next to the kitchen, Sarah Lee sleeping on the couch above me. (In view of my imminent demise, it is good to be close to the front door!) We rail against politicians on TV until the wee hours.
On my back I move like a snake along a sheet. Sarah says it used to take five minutes for me to travel from the front room across the house to the work area. Now a half hour is required. The snake has become a snail.
Never had it. My characters are screaming to be heard!
ABIGAIL: When are you going to write about me?
Didn’t I write about you several years ago?
ABIGAIL: Many years ago.
LYNN: What about me?
Can’t you see I’m busy?
ABIGAIL: Doggone it, I’ve waited long enough!
BRIDGET: Look at me. You’ve never written about me!
My beleaguered brain cannot handle this. Get back up in there you all.
CLARK: Don’t forget me!
My word count is going to hell.
CLARK: I want to be a psychologist.
CLARK: You wrote about a physics professor.
CLARK: And I want a brunette.
CLARK: As the love interest; a brunette.
BRIDGET: I’m a brunette!
LYNN: I wanna be a painter.
Enough! Be gone with the lot of you!
Silence. A door closes in my brain. Where were we?
A FINAL THOUGHT
We live in a shallow society distracted by superficialities. The world is becoming one of artificiality.
BRIDGET: I would make a lovely—
Get back up there!
Before I die I would like to say this. Passion, empathy, curiosity, and imagination do not change across time. Physical chemistry may be ignored, but it does not change. Remember this too. Stories are not told in a classroom.
They are told in the human heart.