This past spring, I found myself mixed up in a series of hiring and job application ordeals. My wife went through a rigorous string of interviews for a new position. I wrote half a dozen recommendation letters for friends. As a member of a departmental search committee, I read CVs from hundreds of potential professors, attended live teaching workshops, had drinks with candidates.

I am The Wannabe Novelist. Yes, in title case. To one day drop the adjective (“Wannabe”) and simply be The Novelist or at least A Novelist is a goal on my corkboard of goals that is thumbtacked to the left hemisphere of my brain.

From Brad Listi’s “It’s Kind of Like Creative Herpes”:

I like to joke that one of the best things I ever did in my career was to tell everyone close to me that I was going to write a novel back when I was twenty-one and dumb and fresh out of college. I remember right after graduation I went to a family wedding and stood around all fresh-faced and boozy talking to aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, wearing the coat and tie, receiving congratulations and answering twenty questions about the future.

“So what are you gonna do now? What kind of career path are you gonna pursue now that you’ve graduated college?”

“I’m gonna write a novel.”

THE ORIGINS: From a Construction Site to the Classroom

It was at this age, 21, I, too, seriously began writing—though I did not know it quite then. I was not in college or fresh out; I was working a meager paying job in construction. A friend of mine by the name of Jeremiah, 23, had recently been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was July 2003. The night of his diagnosis, I sat in my car at the basketball court across the street from my house and his. We were next-door neighbors growing up, and the basketball court, to us, had always been hallowed ground where memories of our youth together had been birthed on its very blacktop. The floodgates opened. I cried every salty tear I could accouch from my swollen eyes.
 
There was a green notebook in my car and an ink pen. I always kept both with me wherever I went. Although I had never written seriously in my life other than horrible love poetry to high school girlfriends, a handful of left-wing, anarchist inspired Letters to the Editor of the local newspaper, and rock ‘n roll lyrics (for the greatest cow pasture rock ‘n roll band to ever exist, Anti-Lou), I used to jot down fragments of thoughts and emotions, or whatever popped into this head of mine. It was a way of controlling all of what bounced around up there. Therapeutic writing, nothing more than emotive prattle.

I flicked on the dim interior light of my car and commenced writing. A little over a month later, I made the decision to enroll in a local junior college. Jeremiah’s sudden diagnosis urged me to think about my own situation in life. I had health insurance, not through work but individually purchased at the request of my parents, particularly my dad, who had not long before overcome his first battle with cancer, Stage IV Colon Cancer.

Could I financially afford to be sick? Jeremiah had a well-paying job with substantial benefits working as an accountant for a firm based in Charlottesville. Therefore, his company was, at the start, helping foot his medical bills, and could also afford him the time away from work while he recovered from the first of what would be his numerous surgeries and hospital stays, first at Lynchburg General Hospital, then the University of Virginia, and later, Duke University in Durham. If I were to get sick, whether from a more likely cause such as a car accident or injury considering my employment in construction, I simply would not get a paycheck. Although I worked with a company, I was considered self-employed, an individual contractor per se. Thus, I had zero benefits. No AD&D. No sick days. No vacation. Nada. If I didn’t work, I wasn’t paid. It was that simple.

Up until this point, I had never really thought about my future seriously, at least not more than a passing nod of what questions tomorrow would bring: peanut butter and jelly on white, or ham on rye. I was never engrossed with the idea of college while in high school. Neither of my parents went nor did any grandparent. Only one of my cousins on either side of the family had been to college and most recently, my sister; hence, college was never really up for consideration for me, never an ambition to attain.

I began college part-time, taking night classes while I worked full-time during the day. I studied on the carpool to work as we drove to our next job site and during my lunch breaks. If I could cut it in these night classes, I would enroll full-time the following year. I was petrified my first day of class having not situated my rear end in a classroom in over five years since high school. Nursing students, being that the class I enrolled in was Anatomy and Physiology, surrounded me. I had even enrolled a day before the add/drop date finalized, so I was already behind from day one by about a week-and-a-half. It showed in my first test. I flunked it miserably. I didn’t know how to study although I did try. Not only had it been half a decade since I last cracked open a textbook, I never once studied in high school. I winged it all. I did well then, but I winged it. There would be no winging it here.

I’m in over my head, I thought. I stared at the results of my test and hung my head. My professor, Mrs. Lisa Dunn-Back, approached me as I shuffled my way out the door.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can drop your lowest test score and lowest two quizzes. You’ll be fine. Take a look at your test. Do you see a pattern?”

I didn’t.

“The questions you missed were from the first week-and-a-half of class when you weren’t part of the lecture. You didn’t miss a single question from the week you were here.”

She was right.

I picked my head up. Determined, I made it a point to read every single line on every single page in the gigantic Anatomy & Physiology book that was required for class. I’m going to ace this next one, and I did.

“I told you,” Mrs. Back said, stopping me again as I made my way out the door that day.

A few weeks passed, and with them a handful of tests and quizzes. I piled up A’s and suddenly found myself on the job site during the carpool and my lunch break so immersed in the class text, I knew that I had made the correct decision. I called Jeremiah on a weekly basis to see how everything was going. I told him about my plans to return to college full-time the coming year, but was hesitant to tell him my reasons why, his diagnosis being the wake-up call that made me realize how fragile life is at its core, even at such a young age.

Being that my first round of night classes were science-oriented, there were no creative writing assignments that propelled me forward in wanting to etch my way closer to becoming a writer. To be honest, I had not given it a second thought; to be a writer, that is. What did happen during the time I learned of Jeremiah’s diagnosis and throughout my first year as a part-time student was scribble down little scenes from our childhood. Nothing intact. Nothing literary. Fragments only: An adventure down the train trestles, through the woods playing a game of War as children, or what have you. I jotted down these scenes on scraps of vinyl siding and metal trim, on empty cardboard boxes that housed coil or downspouts.

By the end of my first semester, I had managed to achieve the highest average in Mrs. Back’s class, “the highest average of any student in any of her classes,” she alerted me; this, obviously, after dropping my first test which, due to its very low score (and I mean very low score), would have pulled me down a couple of points easily.

“Have you ever thought about the University of Virginia?” she asked me the last day of class.

Jeez, I had only completed my first semester of class and my professor was already asking me about a school I never in the world thought myself material for ever since I was a kid. I laughed a little, “Well, no not really.”

“You should,” she said, and that was that. My professor had lost her mind.

Then, after another semester taking the second part of Mrs. Back’s Anatomy and Physiology course, came the decision; not quite of LeBron James’ epic proportion, but an important decision nonetheless; and it was, though I had been mulling it over for quite some time, very difficult to make: to leave the job and the co-workers I had known for the last three years of my life, who I had become such great friends with, and return to school.

I loved my job. I really did. Yet I knew it wasn’t in the cards for me, not in my future at least. My boss knew it was coming. He could see the transformation I had made in less than a year’s time and how engaged I had become in the life I led in the hours after work, and he graciously accepted my resignation, and let me know that, should I need any hours to work anytime in the future, I would be welcome to them with his company.

I enrolled full-time at Southside on the John H. Daniel campus in Keysville, Virginia. One of my classes, College Composition I, an English course with Professor Judy Lloyd (then Stokes), would be the first class on my plate, beginning at 8:00 a.m., Monday morning. I had no idea then how much this mandatory course would alter the path I would travel from that point forward, how it would open a window into my creative soul. I was about to find out.

I got fired for the first time in my life sometime in the past two weeks. I say ‘sometime’ because my boss never actually picked up my phone calls or let me know what was going on beyond a single text that said, “no work,” sent at 6:15 on the Tuesday morning after I returned home from a week being out of town. I finally got a letter of dismissal in the mail the other day. Classy.

Preceding the text and nicely worded letter, what happened was this:

I was offered a last-minute opportunity to go to Calgary for a week in early May to do some writing/photography/filmography with a notable group of Canadian athletes, and I jumped at it.

At the job site I had been working on, me and the other dudes were basically being rented out by another project manager and were working under his supervision; my ‘real boss’ had nothing to do with the site besides showing up every few weeks to collect the absurd amount of money he was getting paid to do absolutely nothing.*

So, because I had only seen my ‘real boss’ like twice in the last month and a half of working – and because he’s an impossible-to-talk-to, bi-polar, hyper-aggressive heart attack candidate whose mental development arrested at the exact moment of a playground shoving match that took place when he was 12 – I wasn’t in a huge hurry to get him on the phone.  I got around to calling him some 18 hours before I was to get on the plane and left a message saying I would be leaving.

I know that seems like a pretty obvious move of insubordination on my part, but to be fair when I called him it was only like 18 hours after I had found out I was to be getting on the plane in the first place. I had immediately let the project manager –- the guy whom I saw at work every day and who was responsible for what was going on on site –- know what I was up to though, and he had no problems with me leaving. And that to me seemed ‘good enough.’

So (again), the short notice to my ‘real boss,’ by itself…I mean, company protocol states an employee is supposed to ask at least 24 hours in advance before taking time off, and I failed to do that. But if we’re going to get into ‘company protocol’ here, how about this; on my last day on the job two dudes weren’t wearing steel-toed boots, three of us were working with our shirts off, no one wore ear or eye protection the entire day, and there wasn’t even one hard hat on the whole site. Fuck company protocol; that shit is illegal, and I don’t think I’m splitting hairs to point out that there might be some incongruities in enforcing co. stipulations going on at K___ Construction.

Anyhow. I went on my trip, did some good stuff, perhaps furthered the ‘career’ I ostensibly went to school for, got paid, and came back home to radio silence.

And, financial uncertainties aside, it’s been a sweet couple of weeks.

But I guess I hurt boss man’s feelings. Or undermined his authority. Or maybe I was doing a shitty job…although, if that was the case, I don’t really see how it could have gotten me canned, seeing as how he was never around long enough to check up on anything we were actually doing.

So (once more), I got fired sometime in the last two weeks for some vaguely justifiable reason (I guess), but I didn’t find out until yesterday. Two separate dudes who I worked with called to sort of gently let me know that they had heard through the grapevine that I was ‘done.’ With both of them I chatted for a few minutes, planned to meet up for a beer sometime soon, and said, “Thanks for calling. Take it easy, bro.” One of them offered to go pick my last paycheck up for me on Friday and drop it off at my place.

After I got off the phone and left the diner and got back on my bike and got home I reread the previously posted ‘Jobsite Survival Guide’ and felt that I wasn’t sure if I should have published it. I didn’t think it was as funny as I thought it was when I was writing it – actually, I felt like it was maybe kind of mean-spirited, and a simultaneous oversimplification/exaggeration of my blue-collar life for the sake of entertainment. I had written it after a shitty day of work in some kind of snickering rage, and re-reading it now I wonder if it doesn’t sort of stink of that.

But those rules I outlined aren’t all bullshit. In fact, from the perspective I (and my non-philistine hammer-swinging friends) most often look from, they’re all true almost all of the time. But – and this ‘But’ might just be the two weeks of unemployed hedonistic joy mellowing my roll here – BUT, from the ‘noble’ side of this Savage Nobel (yeah yeah, sic) exploration, it is kind of bullshit that I wrote the piece.

See, I like ‘The Bros.’ I like hanging out with ‘The Bros.’ I like being one of ‘The Bros.’ ‘The Bros’ are solid and predictable and when I’m around them all the hyper-self-conscious, future-fearing, narcissi-nihilist paralytic paranoia in my life sort of sometimes disappears. Sometimes I even enjoy myself, being on site, hamming nails and shooting the shit with ‘The Bros.’ And I’ve realized that if any of ‘The Bros’ were to read the stuff I’ve written (not likely) and got bummed about it/me, I’d be bummed too.

And on top of/in conjunction with all this I’ve realized despite the fact I hated what I was doing for work, I kind of liked it, too.

Now I know there’s all sorts of shit that could read into this, the seeming incongruities between the things I’ve written about construction in this miserable little series vs. the reality of me actually enjoying the act of building stuff out of wood. I think someone could probably make a pretty strong case that my white, upper-middleclass sense of entitlement is the real root of the problems I have working on a jobsite, and that I’d be a subversive, anti-authoritative, malaise-mongering little shit in any job scenario I could conceivably be found in (besides like a respected-author-avec-movie-deal-happily-enjoying-creative-control type of situation).

And I wouldn’t really argue with them. The only real habits I have are my vices and a militant dedication to being non-committal. If I can’t conceive of myself being able to bail out around the six-month mark, I don’t want to be part of anything. And as soon as whatever responsibilities I find myself, uh, responsible for start closing in like the walls I start looking for a way to smash out. Or at least throw a wrench in the gears.

(Yes, I’m single.)

But I’m pretty aware of all this. I’m pretty aware of most of my flaws. And for right now I don’t work a construction job anymore and I’m happy about that. And yeah, I’m writing more. And I’m even getting paid for some of it. No, it’s not fiction, but it is storytelling of some recognizable form and I feel positively about that. But no, I’m not writing as much as I would have led you to believe I might, back in Part I when I was all indignant and repressed and ready to really start banging it out like a fucking hellion. Maybe I’ll start tomorrow.

If anyone wants me, I’ll be down at the bar.


*For those who don’t know, construction workers are generally charged out at double the rate they get paid, with the rest going into the boss man’s pocket. My boss, I think, was charging his own fees on top of that.  The dollar figure he was pulling down per day to not be anywhere near site and not have anything to do with what was going on was disgusting.


The Savage Nobel Part I: My Life as a Well-Read Meathead

The Savage Nobel Part II: An Abridged Jobsite Survival Guide

When I finished my new novel POINT DUME I asked all my characters to collect their things and head to the guest quarters in the back of my mind where they’d be living for the rest of their lives.There isn’t room for them in the main house anymore.Luckily, my people were very cooperative.We hugged and kissed and said our goodbyes.I won’t lie, there were tears but I’d warned them, right from the start, that our time together was limited.They knew that once I told their story they would have to move out to make room for my next group.