Image: “Daughter of The Circus” (detail) by Michael Garlington. © Courtesy of the photographer.
AT A VERY EARLY AGE I knew I wanted to be a writer. At six or seven, I wrote stories about dancing hot dogs (paging Dr. Freud ...). For a long time, being a writer meant being a journalist. My parents, both freelance journalists, were anti-models. I saw them as "frustrated writers"; hope deferred maketh the heart sick. They saw themselves the same way. They were always keeping the wolf from the door, if that is the expression, by writing yet another article they didn't want to write. They worshipped "real writers," i.e., writers who wrote books. Thomas Wolfe. Saul Bellow. Joan Didion. Joseph Heller. I wanted to write books.
My mom died during my junior year of college. She read a few of my early short stories (e.g., "A Few Words About A Wall"), which she over-praised. My father died a couple of years ago at ninety-eight. I once asked him what he thought of my writing, and he said, "Too bad you didn't become a pro athlete. You had some physical gifts." I sent him a galley of my book The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead, in which he plays a major role; he sent me back a list of errata.
I was the editor of my junior high and high school papers. In high school I worked at McDonald's. Got fired. I worked at a fabric store. Got fired. My freshman year of college I wrote for the school paper and also worked as a custodian. From the latter position, got fired. Wasn't too good at the physical stuff. (I've never learned how to whistle, dive, somersault, rope-climb, swing on a swing.) One of my fellow student-custodians asked me if I was so bad on purpose or whether I was really that uncomprehending of the relation between soap and water. I also worked as a proofreader at the Rhode Island Historical Society. I worked as a TA at Iowa. Then I house-sat a lot of houses for people. I got a lot of grants. I made a very small amount of money stretch a long way.
I first started teaching at a private high school for the children of the rich and semi-famous in LA. The kids at the LA private high school would be, say, the daughter of the comedian Flip Wilson. Or the girlfriend of the son of Elizabeth Montgomery. Chad Lowe. Branches in Santa Monica and Malibu. The kids, needless to say, were not interested in schoolwork. I would sit in front of the class and pretend to have answers to their questions about geometry, history, science, etc.: "Who wrote The Scarlet Letter?" Maybe look at the spine of the book; might be a clue there. Where was Google? This was 1985. The entire day would go by like that. During recess and even during class, they would be running to the bathroom to drop acid and I'd be madly working on revisions of my autobiographical novel about a kid who stutters so badly that he worships words.
I'd show the kids the manuscript I was working on. They'd laugh at my autobiographical woes; no way this book is being published, dude. They were beyond charming. For the graduation ceremony, I wrote brief, satiric profiles of all of the seniors; these profiles rece...read more