I did not feel destined to be a writer. I often did not know what I wanted to do in life and still often feel this way. My younger brother got all the decisiveness genes. From junior high on, he always wanted to work with plants. He started with my parents’ lawn, began working in a nursery in junior high, and today he works at a large commercial greenhouse.
I’ve been less decisive. I did very well in school: almost all A’s, almost top of the class (3rd), some scholarships for college. Somewhere in the ninth grade I got the idea to be an engineer of sorts. I spent three years looking at colleges, especially their engineering programs. When it came to decide where to go, I picked Western Michigan University. I had been accepted at every University and College I applied to, but picked WMU because I had nagging fears: What if I fail? What if I decide I don’t want to be an engineer? WMU also had a good financial aid package, and I went to a football game on a visit and had a blast, so in the fall of 1989 I packed up and moved to Kalamazoo, MI.
My nagging doubts turned out to be true. I did fail. I did not want to be an engineer. These events shocked me. I never failed. I was the smart kid. In high school, people came to me for help with their homework, or to do their homework. In fact, some of the only money I’ve made from poetry came from writing poems for hire for a huge poetry project we did in Senior English. Give me a dollar, a subject, and ten minutes, and I’d have a poem for you. My teacher, Mrs. Lamothe, said to me about writing, “It’s too bad we didn’t know this about you sooner. We could have worked on you.”
Writing wasn’t a real career I thought. On my many visits to colleges, however, I talked to lots of college students, and the English majors seemed the coolest to me. They had weird tastes in clothes like me–I grew fond of the all-black outfit as a senior. They had an easygoing way to them, and a detached curiosity about everyone else. They were also given to grand statements like “I’m never getting married; marriage is an oppressive, failed institution.” Way cool.
But I had been told repeatedly that I could succeed at whatever I wanted to, and engineers made top dollar right out of college. I took piano growing up, and loved playing with synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and sequencers, and I met a guy who graduated and worked for a speaker manufacturer as an electrical engineer, so I picked that. I did well in all subjects, but science and math came easiest to me, so the choice made sense.
I had this artistic bent, though, that kept surfacing, kept me from being too serious. I thought working as an electrical engineer in the music industry would be a good compromise: make money working on gadgets during the day, play with said gadgets in the evening. But I was wrong.
In one sense, my immaturity killed my first year of college. I did not handle the freedoms of living on my own too well. I gained nearly forty pounds. I spent a lot of money on clothes and vodka. I skipped a lot of classes. I found the engineering and science classes really boring. Big lecture halls, often first thing in the morning, no one noticing if you were sleeping instead of paying attention. Worse, many of my professors and teaching assistants assigned homework but didn’t check if you actually did it. My pre-calculus class involved lecture and recitation sections. The T.A. assigned us homework, and went over the homework problems the next day, but never collected them. If you didn’t do them, that was your problem.
That was my problem. I hated the tedium of work done as a mere exercise. So I didn’t do it, and I didn’t learn. I got low grades my first semester, a 2.75, and was in danger of losing my partial scholarship. My parents gave me a long pep talk in the garage after my grades and bank account were reviewed. We talked about strategies for doing better, and my mom wrote me all sorts of inspirational notes and hid them in my things when I went back to college. They bought me books and tapes too. The idea was that I could work really hard and get a 4.0 and save my GPA.
I did not get inspired. In fact, I got a 1.92 that semester. My mother pondered if I was a drug addict, because how else could a smart person do so badly in college? She tried to scare me and told me maybe I should go into the Army like my cousin. What had really happened was after a couple of weeks of trying hard, the old habits came back, much worse this time. I decided quickly that the problem was the wrong major. Whatever tiny spark of motivation or interest I had left in engineering totally died then. That made the classes even harder to endure. (But I did start a band!)
I did do reasonably well in one class. For my general education requirement, I had elected to take the Introduction to Literature course (interesting, after all the literature I read in high school, that I had to be Introduced to it again.) I had also done really well in the Industrial Communication class I had taken the first semester, without too much effort (true, I recycled a paper for the major project, but the teacher singled it out to the rest of the class as an amazing piece of research on fractal geometry). So I picked English.
That summer, I went off to Germany for eight weeks. My parents had hosted exchange students when I was in high school, and I went to live in Hamburg with one of them. I learned many things that summer. I spent lots of evenings on my own reading when Jan, my host brother, went off to work as a summer trip counselor for young kids for three weeks. I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I kept a real journal for the first time in my life. I learned to like beer, and I learned to enjoy beer like an adult, for its flavor and as a compliment to food (I really recommend learning to like beer in Germany). I learned perspective that comes with living outside of your home country. For example, the year being 1990, most young Germans I met weren’t so happy with Americans messing around in the Persian Gulf.
I also studied poetry seriously for the first time.
Way back in the 10th grade (it seemed way back at the time) I had my first visceral experience with a poem: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I related to Prufrock’s indecisiveness and middle-aged angst because it was angst. I too had those awkward and failed attempts at romance. I suffered through intense feeling coupled with crippling hesitation that I just called shyness. I felt indecision about how to be weighing on me, hundreds of options, no feeling about how to begin. I felt (in teenage angst) what Eliot and the other Moderns felt about the increasing fragmentation of Western culture. The opening stanza still feels electric to me, after dozens of readings:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’
Let us go and make our visit.
The tone, oh the tone! It had such a lovely desperation. A speaker who wants something, probably something dirty, and wants the listener to just comply. This speaker seemed embarrassed and awkward for the asking. These lines reeked of unfulfilled, embarrassing desire. Sort of like being a horny teenager.
I felt for the first time what Emily Dickinson famously said about good literature:
If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.
This is no embellishment. I remember getting chills reading “Prufrock,” despite reading it begrudgingly, only as an assignment. Literature was one of my least favorite subject in high school. I had a couple of uninspiring teachers. We would read something incomprehensible from another time and place (why do they not start with some contemporary literature??) and the teacher would ask us what we thought it meant and then would tell us we were wrong and what it “really” meant. We then took tests with multiple choice questions that had either nothing to do with interpretation and meaning (“In what year did Hawthorne write ‘Young Goodman Brown’?”) or treated interpretation as if it were a fact to memorized, like the boiling point of water (“What is the theme of Julius Caesar?”). In any case, there was no point to reading the literature because the teacher would tell us what it meant anyway and only wanted those notes regurgitated on an exam. I had a sense that the method was missing the point.
But damn, that Eliot poem grabbed me. His Selected Poems was the first book of poetry I bought. I took it to Germany with me and spent a lot of evenings reading it. The language had some kind of incantatory power that I loved; even when I had no idea what the sense was, the language, the imagery, the music was like nothing else I had encountered. Ever. The experience was like when I tried sushi for the first time a couple of years ago. I had an idea what it might be like, and I was totally wrong. It was new and exciting and eye-opening and often I can’t stop thinking about it. Textual wasabi!