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20 September 2008

Transformation

Oddly, I’ve had a rash of questions lately from aspiring writers, some young, some old, as to just when I gave myself over to the full-time pursuit of the novel. How and when did I abandon the Ozzie-and-Harriet grind and plunge into the free-fall of freelance fiction?

When indeed? I’ve found that there is no quick, satisfactory answer. The transition was long in coming, having built slowly under the pressures of myriad inner contradictions and the unrest that accompanies the old square-peg-in-a-round-hole syndrome.

But that said, I can name with precision the situation, the day, and the time when it happened. When I left one life and entered another.

The Viet Period student protests were at their zenith, so it was no surprise that those filling the meeting room included a gaggle of young men sporting sandals, shoulder-length hair, and scraggly beards. The young women seated among them seemed to favor granny glasses and Mother Hubbards. They all smelled bad.

The day outside the tall windows was full of sunny October, crisp of air and brilliant of color, and it silently condemned me — a not-so-young man in horn rims and suit of corporation gray — for having been suckered into this malodorous room for still another writing symposium.

Writers love to meet. Aspiring writers love to meet even more. Any newspaper anywhere is likely to carry an announcement somewhere in its bowels that local literary hopefuls will gather at Gismo Hall from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. next Saturday to discuss Writing the Blockbuster Novel or How to Find an Agent (Box Lunches Available). The session will invariably have a main speaker, or keynoter — a Someone who has actually had something published.

And so it was that Shorty Yeaworth, CEO of an independent film production company and a man who had given much of his life and treasure to assisting talented waifs toward warmth under the creative arts sun, was hosting still another seminar — this one for writers seeking careers in various public relations venues.

As a child, I had survived a great economic depression that had demoralized, disrupted or destroyed the daddies and mommies of most of the kids living on my middle-class block on the hem of Buffalo. Later, as a tad studying journalism in a 75-dollar-per-semester land grant college, I’d been invited to attend what was being advertised as World War Two. Much to my everlasting astonishment, I’d survived not only the war but also a subsequent period of poverty-level newspapering, a wild ride through Capitol Hill politics, and, worst of all, a benumbing two decades as an upper-middle-management oarsman in the advertising and PR bireme of a giant manufacturing company. On the surface and all along, I’d been telling myself, with the grim earnestness of an evangelist who has come to doubt his faith, that I was happy with my career, that its predictability and financial security — commodities for which I had yearned so hard and long — had been worth the suffocation that provided them.

Yet a virus of discontent had penetrated my defenses, infecting me with a mid-life need for something I defined, absent a better term, as “broader expression.”

The resultant restlessness led to a moonlighting affair with fiction, a hobby-like dalliance which, much to my surprise and to the dismay, embarrassment, and envy of my corporate MBA-type colleagues, had fathered four novels and two movie sales deriving from my military salad days. In the office, and virtually overnight, I’d gone from one of the guys to have lunch with to “that SOB in Company Publications who wants it both ways.”

Shorty was a rare bird for one in his trade, having never felt personally diminished by the success of others. So he was more benign, seeing my after-hours literary amour not as adultery against the institution of corporate marriage but as a genuine triumph of the will over boredom — a coup to be celebrated by all reasonable souls who toiled in the capitalistic vineyard. So for this occasion, he thought, I, as the archetypal switch-hitter, might have something seminal to say to his seminarians — both the PR wannabes and the closet novelists. “Just make yourself available,” Shorty pleaded, “and if the discussion leader asks for your comment, tap your experience and wing it.”

I was reluctant. I liked to help my fellow afflicteds whenever possible, yet I was uncomfortable in the role of token hotshot. But Shorty was a great wheedler, and so there I was in the smelly room, prodded to the lectern by the discussion leader, and winging it on the unanswerable question: What makes a writer?

I did the best I could, suggesting that writers, be they journalists, novelists, ad copyists, PR pitchers, poets, screen scripters, or lyricists, must be storytellers at heart, spinners of yarns whose ideas come from the life all around and the hopes and fears that are inside all humans. That kind of artsy-cliché stuff.

As I attempted to animate the thesis with the defining elements of my own life — the boyhood passion for airplanes, the months of nail-biting as an American agent among the nastiest of German Nazis, the years of journalistic peonage, the horrifying look at the viscera of American national politics, the eons of boredom and frustration as a corporation PR man — one of the bearded young men in the front row stood up and swept the audience with the glare of an enraged prophet.

“Why are we listening to this bullshit?” he thundered, reeking of cannabis and pointing an accusing finger at me. “This dude’s no more than a sorry-ass running-dog propagandist for capitalistic plunderers.”

Over the years, I’d been called many things. A few people, most notably my mother and father and my wife, maybe a doting aunt or two, had been rather lavish with endearments. On the other flank, schoolyard bullies, sergeants, rival journalists and literary critics had been equally extravagant in their use of “jerk” and its many derivatives. But never in the span of forty-some years had I been denounced by PR writers — especially would-be PR writers — for the sins, real or perceived, of my employer. Good-paying jobs were simply too scarce for that kind of kamikaze stuff, and, as the old saying had it, it behooved one to be nice to the mail boy, because tomorrow he could be your boss. So it was especially disconcerting to hear someone wearing the ID tag of a PR aspirant condemning me for being a PR guy for a Big Company.

The room had become crypt silent, and the bearded one and I traded stares, his filled with hatred and contempt, mine with surprise and confusion.

After a time I managed a question. “You got some kind of problem, Sonny?”

The answer was at its root a bitter, rambling indictment — first of my employer as a ruthless exploiter of the underclass and then of me myself as an aider and abettor of the company’s greedy machinations. Both accusations were cheap shots and, at their core, premeditated slander. But I could see that the dude was mainly grandstanding — playing the role of the heroic iconoclast for the benefit of the other bad-smelling people seated around him — and this, coupled with the fact that he had obviously inhaled a big bunch, meant that rational discourse wasn’t likely to happen.

This proved out when the discussion leader tried with no success to interrupt the tirade, which by then was racing in full-throttle glissando. At the highest note, the bearded one paused dramatically, and then, eyes flashing and finger pointing again, he delivered the coup de grace:

“Not only that, but as the writer of four crappy, forget-it novels he’s a rotten little has-been!”

There. The uttermost, uttered utterly.

My most unforgivable trespass, bared to the world: the limelight had brushed over me, leaving me in darkness, and I was to be pitied and scorned.

“But believe me, man,” the fellow summarized, “even if I was as nowhere as you, I would never, ever, work for that shitty company of yours!”

In the total silence, all eyes were on me, amused. Could this Brooks Brothers suit-dummy mount an effective counterattack?

It wasn’t to be.

No noble denials exploded from my outrage. There followed no sweeping counter-indictment of my accuser and the man’s egocentric, airheaded theatrics. My mind gave me no more to do than to nod and utter a single sentence.

“I’ll be happy to arrange that,” I said.

There was a supportive tittering in the room, a sound that told me I wasn’t without allies, and my head cleared. But then, at the instant my shock became self-righteous anger and I’d begun to buckle up for combat, a remarkable transformation occurred. In a Damascene flash, I saw why the bearded one had entered my life.

He was my epiphany.

He had materialized in the wilderness of my discontent, unwittingly shocking me out of my craven rationalizations and compelling me to see how I must henceforth live if I were ever to find fulfillment. As a bizarre non sequitur to his loony rhetoric, I’d been forced to admit that, by wearing intellectual blinders, by clinging to the hope that the big teat of regular salary and nifty retirement benefits would make it all go away, I had built a spiritual prison, condemning myself to a lifetime of pretense and euphemism, sublimating what was really bugging me so as to fit safely in, to adopt the colors that best hid me in the dark passages the world had led me through.

Hunter
Corporate Hunter three days
before taking early retirement

With nothing more to say, shaken by the surrealistic encounter, I strode out of the room and went to my car.

On the way home I decided that, no matter what it might otherwise cost me, I would now give whatever talents and ambitions I had to the novels burbling in my gut.

I put in for early retirement the next day.

Jack

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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