"I need your help... " said the email from the relatively famous writer that I have decided not to identify. "I'm having dinner with Kurt Vonnegut tomorrow night. What do I need to know?" I got this email at an artist's residency on an island off the coast of Maine in the dead of winter. I was the playwright-in-residency. The woman who operated this place insisted on using only a dial-up Internet connection in fear the artist would do nothing but play on the Internet and look at porn and hockey scores all day long. I would like for it to be known I don't look at hockey scores, and this web connection became problematic in communicating with the outside world. It would take four minutes and 20 seconds to send and receive a single email. Thus, brevity in communication became desired: "Read the last chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, and his eight rules of writing from Bagombo Snuff Box. In return I want to know what you eat for dinner."
I'm mostly a playwright (mostly), and I now live in Austin, Tex., where I teach, have a lovely dog, a banjo, and many vegetable plants. Oddly enough I don't "care" to read, and what I mean by this is that I've read something by just about every author you can name; from Judith Byron Schachner to old-dead-white people we all take too seriously. I just don't "care" for most of what I read. I find most writers to be boring and uninspired and arrogant, but when I do find an author I like, when I do find a voice that speaks to me, when I do find a writer that can hold my attention and inspire me to keep reading, that, ladies and gentlemen, is gravy.
The writers I "care" about the most are my "dumb" students. I teach a class called "developmental writing." This class features students admitted to college under academic probation. Most of them speak English as a second language, are the first of their family to attempt college, and many have never met their fathers. They write not to get a good grade but because they need to, or want to. They write stories just for me to read. And they write the most fantastic stories. I have a Chinese student who has written on how the mountain by her town "crumbled" and killed many children in an earthquake. I have a young man from Saudi Arabia who was struck by a car and lost the use of his legs. That was a hard story to read. And I have a student who has come to college by way of prison. He beat his cousin to a pulp after he found him in bed with his wife. He is in college to show his daughter that men can make changes in their lives. When these students write I can see anger and frustration. These students are the "losers" at the university, and they know it. Most people don't like being called "dumb."
I like my "dumb" students because I was a dumb student. When I was in the fourth grade I was sent to "special class" because I see certain letters backwards. That year my "special teacher" asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told her I wanted to be a writer. Although I had a hard time reading, I still enjoyed it. She told me I would make a good garbage man. This made me very angry and in response I refused to read anything for years. Then, in high school, my ex-girlfriend called me, randomly, and she had something for me. She had just read a book she wanted me to have, a collection of short stories called Welcome to the Monkey House. It was weird and wild and wicked. It was very inspiring. The author was something of a loser, like me. He had been to war, but never shot anybody. In fact he was quickly captured and put in the meat lockers of a slaughterhouse. This writing had anger in it. I learned this author had a teacher who thought he wasn't that smart either. And this author grew up only one hour away from me. It was as if he wrote these stories just for me to read, and no one else. For the first time since the fourth grade I wanted to be a writer again.
When my students ask me why I became a writer I tell them it is the only job I've had where I get to be "dumb." That, and I tell them I'm angry and I can't play guitar. But I'm teaching myself how to play the banjo. I only know three notes or chords or whatever you call it, but I play to amuse my dog and my plants. I'm dumb when I play my banjo, and it is rather nice. There is nothing wrong with being dumb and angry. You just have to be patient and pick and choose your words carefully to communicate. "Veal, peas, and a bottle of scotch." That was the email I received back the next day from the relatively famous writer. It took four minutes and 20 seconds to receive that email. And on an island off the coast of Maine in the cold of winter, little else needed to be said.
This essay originally ran as part of "Inspirations" on Nova Ren Suma's Distraction No. 99.