When I was in my early 20s, Richard Nixon was President and I was the only white guy who attended a speech by Stokely Carmichael at a primarily black university. I lived in group houses that we self-consciously called communes, made my living by substitute teaching every subject from home economics to probability theory, but got my jollies writing. I wrote non-fiction stories based heavily on what I experienced around me: the dynamics of sharing in a so-called but inauthentic commune, trying to write a psych paper while hallucinating, and milling around in front of the White House the night Richard Nixon resigned. I had no clue how to find a writer’s market, so instead I wrote stories in the form of multi-page letters, sent the original to any of various friends—they were my sole audience—and kept the carbon copy. Sometimes, I slipped one under the door of an old college professor, who said she treasured them. At 27, I was hired as a stringer (paid by the interview) for tracking down and interviewing drug addicts released from Federal prisons. I turned the diary into a book, using the same typewriter and lots of correcto-tape. Writing made my heart sing.
Also at 27, I also got my first real job and met someone. I put the book on a shelf and mostly forgot about it. I was a professional and wasn’t paid for writing “cute stories.” I tried to weave stories in, but they got edited out. So, I put my head down and focused on learning how a researcher writes and on forming a relationship with the love of my life. I got to write plenty, but not the kind that made my heart sing. Over time, I published over 60 articles in the top professional journals in my field. I co-edited several special issues of journals. I co-authored book chapters. After one study, I did over 700 hundred interviews with print and broadcast media. That was a blast because I had the chance to contribute to what others wrote—and often saw their finished products.
Most of the journal article writing ended by age 45. After that, I focused on becoming the best proposal writer in the company. Writing proposals was how people believed we got funding for new research projects. Of course, that wasn’t really true—people usually got funded because they convinced the funder ahead of time they were the ones who should be funded. I learned how to do both well and had by far the highest hit rate in the company. Eventually, I started to convince people that writing proposals wasn’t so much an analytical task as it was about writing stories. Prospective funders, like most people, loved to hear stories. Still, all the while, I felt like I was being kept from what I loved, by the demand to write in language government bureaucrats could grasp. For relief, I emailed a group of friends long movie reviews and multi-page stories about the unusual in usual life experiences.
Something happened. After a corporate takeover, I lost my job. I made a list of things I wanted to write about, but wrote nothing. I got a new job. I went on a pilgrimage. Then something else happened. A 27 year old to whom I am connected through a chain of trust pleaded on Facebook for someone to write a story about “at the movies” for her little e-zine. I volunteered; she accepted. Over a year and a half, she came up with new challenges weekly, often on short notice, such as: “in the dark,” “on the bus,” “at the gym,” “at the ballet,” and “about mom.” She got my juices going with a purpose. Writing for this 27 year-old, I was picking up where I’d left off at 27. A couple of stories she rejected; a few I pulled back. For “at the gym,” After I wrote a story about the trusting integration of the DC snipers into the Silver Spring YMCA, I realized I had something I could publish in a big name publication (and later did). The first mother’s day story I wrote for her– caring for my mother after a stroke when she suffered from dementia and went through hospice–also got published recently after 50 re-writes in one of the oldest continuously operating literary magazines online. One day, I dug into the basement to find the remnants of when I was 27. I found typed diaries, copies of letters, stories, and poems. I found the dusty book—marked “it”—I wrote at 27, pulled one of 100 stories out of it, and turned it into a pilot for something larger. I’d found myself locked in an old box.
A lucrative career as a public health researcher paid me well for writing and for making connections. Intermittently, I got to email a story or movie review to a friend, and it gave me spiritual mouth-to-mouth. I got used to a sky-high hit rate writing proposals to government agencies and foundations, and now must reconcile myself to being rejected the overwhelming majority of the time when I submit pieces to literary journals. Most of the time, there’s nothing resembling a request for proposals (RFP) other than a broad announcement of a theme (e.g., “skin,” “slow,” “meat,” “travelogue,” “compassion”). I don’t know how to make connections within this environment. I haven’t spent a career honing the craft of writing non-fiction stories. It’s been a challenge to get some editors to understand that I’m giving them creative non-fiction, not fiction. The managing editor at a major print magazine assigned the story I wrote about the DC snipers to its fiction editor. Perhaps in some ways it really doesn’t matter. As a writer friend who also runs a publishing house told me, “Everything we write is fiction because it represents the world as seen through our eyes.” All I know is, after a long hiatus, it’s great to be 27 again.
Speaking of which, I need to say something about the 27 year old whose e-zine gave me the opportunity to resume being a 27 year old myself. Apparently, after running her weekly e-zine for two and a half years, the 27 year old got a real job that’s thoroughly absorbing and got engaged. She didn’t have time for her little e-zine, so she suspended publication a year ago. She told me the other day, “I’m not even writing any more. I think it’s just a phase.” I hope so. It took me far too long to pick up where I left off at 27.
Jim Ross is a health researcher who has published in many peer-reviewed professional journals. After a long hiatus, he has begun to write stories again. The Atlantic and Friends Journal carried his story about how the DC snipers worked out daily at the Silver Spring YMCA. PIF Magazine recently carried his story about caring at home for his mother with dementia and traveling with her to that momentary space between life and death. He has about 20 other stories in the works.