Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (1/19) — Chapter One, Thrift (Part 1/3)


MORGANTON, N.C. (Aug. 14, 2019) – In all likelihood, this will be the last book-length manuscript that I write—that is, if I manage to finish it by the end of next summer, my goal. Based on all the times I’ve tried to start this thing over the past three years but have been waylaid—or, even worse, laid low—by this and that, don’t be surprised if I get hit by a bread truck between now and, say, Labor Day 2020.

Why a bread truck? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I spent the first years of my adulthood in Valdese, where the boxy orange delivery trucks of Waldensian Bakeries were flashier than all those damn brown Buicks and metallic-blue Fords favored by bakery employees. That shiny Sunbeam fleet with the cute, blond-haired, gluten-glorifying girl on their side panels must have made a big impression on me. But if bread bothers you, substitute milk or beer or whatever else you can tolerate being loaded into a truck and delivered over the road, that could then run over a guy with my kind of luck. Man can live and die by many things other than bread alone.

MY CAST MEMBER LISTING in The Waldensian Gazette of July-August 1980, which served as the playbill for the Valdese outdoor drama From This Day Forward.

Against all odds, I became a real writer in Valdese. I had spent the summer of 1980 as a cast member of the Valdese outdoor drama From This Day Forward after a successful but solitary spring semester at Appalachian State University in Boone. I’d made straight A’s again, this time as an English major on the university level, not just as a student in the transfer program at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton. But I dropped out anyway, took a full-time job at Valdese Hardware downtown and moved into a one-bedroom apartment upstairs in the same building. I mixed Tru-Test paint and sold tenpenny nails during the day so I could work nights on a tortured novel that took me 12 years to write and then rewrite three times.

When Timberley and I met in 1981, I had typewritten about half of that novel. I finished it in longhand a few months after we were married in 1982 and completed the first typescript in 1983. I rewrote major portions in 1987, the entire novel in 1990, and the whole darn thing one last time in 1992, using a new title for each version, finally deciding on Crisscrossing the Darkness as an apt metaphor to describe the book’s plot, as well as its reverent conception, disjointed completion and cold reception in the literary universe. I’m glad that Timberley didn’t marry me for my prospects in the cruel world of publishing.

That book was never published and probably never will be. But it got some great rejection letters, the first one probably the best and the closest that a novel of mine has come to being accepted by a major New York publishing house. The first 20 pages of that manuscript also were read by a Nobel laureate who just happened to be my favorite novelist at the time. In fact, he had offered to read those pages without me even asking him to do so. He didn’t especially like them, it turned out, and told me so, but imagine my surprise last year when an online guide to this Nobel, Pulitzer, National Medal of the Arts and three-time National Book Award winner’s collected papers listed me as one of 30 “struggling young writers” whom he had helped through the years.

That distinction and four bits might have gotten me a cup of coffee back then. But not now, almost 40 years later—well, not until this Sunday, anyway, when I’m finally eligible for a senior discount at most places. Come to think of it, being a struggling old writer is better now than being a young one was then in some ways. The job still doesn’t pay much, but—being retired—the hours are hard to beat. Now I don’t worry about being late for work, and I take a break whenever I please. When the famous novelist returned my first 20 pages, he told me that I shouldn’t “count on fiction to rescue [me]” from the chicken-or-egg problem about which I had written to him, the impossible situation of needing a literary agent to help me find a publisher but not being able to find an agent until I’d been published.

So which one came first for the Nobel laureate? His first published novel or his high-powered literary agent? How many grants, fellowships and teaching posts had he accepted in order to make ends meet? Had his fiction rescued him from anything? How about his less than acclaimed nonfiction? Or his one big play, the one that flopped on Broadway? Had either genre played a heroic role in his writing career? Or did he, too, need to be rescued now and then, just like me? No, I guess not.

Still, before I left Valdese in 1983—the year I first wrote to my literary hero—I had worked as a sports stringer for the Morganton News Herald, as a staff writer at The Valdese News and as a columnist at Hickory’s Focus entertainment magazine. And by 1992, when I finally completed my English degree and gave up on seeing that first novel of mine in print, I had worked as a reporter, morning anchor, and ultimately news director at Morganton radio station WMNC-WQXX, as a staff writer at The Brunswick Beacon in Shallotte and as a technical writer at a medical billing software company, also in Shallotte.

So maybe my mentor was right. Maybe fiction didn’t rescue me from anything. But facts certainly did. Journalism. Writing that’s supposed to be based on facts. For small-town newspaper subscribers. For a small-market radio station’s listeners. The technical writing was factual, too, of course—at least, my employer and the office workers who consulted the software manual I had written expected it to be.

What had prompted the renowned novelist’s rebuke—other than what he hadn’t liked in those 20 pages of my first novel—was my comment that if I somehow managed to achieve any measure of success as a writer, I’d remember his generosity and help young writers in turn. He said I was taking too much for granted and that I’d only succeed “with much work, perhaps.” Tough love, for sure.

I didn’t give up, though. And I have worked hard over the past 40 years. Since that first “apprentice” novel, I’ve written 10 others. Only one has been published so far—Night Lights; or, Golf, the Blues and the Brown Mountain Light—it being released the traditional way in late 2004 after being submitted to and accepted by a regional publishing company whose book support was understandably limited. Night Lights is now out of print, available only on the secondary book market. I have submitted some of those other novels and have received some “good” rejections; some I’ve simply written and filed away, like an under-achieving J.D. Salinger (who never won a Nobel or Pulitzer or any other literary prize, not even a National Book Award for The Catcher in the Rye, and wasn’t my mentor, by the way).

I also didn’t forget my pledge to help young writers, and I’m continuing to make good on it, I think. From 1992 to my retirement in 2016, I taught English at two N.C. high schools on opposite ends of the state—on the southeastern coast and in the northwest mountains. That included regular English classes whose goals included convincing ordinary teenagers to appreciate American and world literary classics, to learn the rules of standard American English, and to write, at the very least, the all-important Five-Paragraph Expository or Argumentative Essay. My true joy in teaching, however, was facilitating the creative writing classes that I was assigned for the last 10 years or so of my full-time career in public education. If there was one particular writing style that I encouraged my students to employ, it was Realism, not Romanticism. And now I work part-time in the Appalachian State University Writing Center. I do enjoy working one on one with students who want to improve their writing skills.

So, whether or not I’ve actually succeeded in helping young writers through all these years—some will say that I most definitely haven’t—I’m still trying to keep my word to that famous fiction writer, though I’m sure I was little more to him than a fawning letter that he received on occasion and then tossed into a folder to be collected with his other papers. Like J.D. Salinger (who wasn’t my mentor, remember, though we were all forced to read The Catcher in the Rye in high school, whether we liked it or not), I don’t expect to win any literary awards, neither for this book nor for anything else I’ve ever written. (I did win a writing contest once—one I hadn’t known I’d entered—with the prize being a free, three-night stay at any Hampton Inn in America. Pretty impressive, huh? We picked Philadelphia. Well, why not?)

As with anyone well-acquainted with failure, I decided a long time ago that there are different ways to measure success, whether in fiction writing or in journalism or in teaching—or in any endeavor that means anything to anybody. My literary hero, who died in 2005, had high standards for good fiction, undoubtedly higher and harder to attain than anyone else’s measures of success, even those of the late J.D. Salinger, who died in 2010 after writing but not publishing anything—no fiction, no nothing—for 55 years. He didn’t have to publish, though, because his old books never went out of print and still sell thousands of copies every year. I could point to the lofty expectations of other demanding teachers I’ve encountered in my life. But not everyone—not even an old phony like J.D. Salinger—measures success in terms of fame, fortune or public reward of any kind.

Sometimes success in any particular pursuit simply comes down to the love one shows and is shown—for the act of creation, for the sake of communication and communion with another human being, for the fulfillment of completing a task that one had been assigned or had simply assumed. Even before our health problems of the past three years, my friendship with and marriage to Timberley was my ultimate measure of success. I told her years ago that, unlike some writers, even some of my literary heroes, if I had to choose between the success of our marriage and that of my writing career—or of any career, for that matter—I would choose her, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, and until death parts us, whether it’s a bread truck or a damn brown Buick that does me in.

And with the start of this new book, I renew that vow.

I FOUND THIS ENVELOPE in my hardback copy of the novel that won its author a Pulitzer Prize and ensured his Nobel Prize for Literature. However, I couldn’t find the envelope’s letter or subsequent letters from the same writer. They’re apparently in my “collected papers” — you know, that plastic storage bin in the basement.