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Since my retirement from Education, I have often thought about Robert Frost’s verse:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
During my life—as in all lives—there have been many forks in roads that presented opportunities to take the road less traveled by, but in almost every instance, I took the one most traveled, and while the reason has certainly been floating around in my head, it was not until I ran across words written by Donald Winnicott, who in 1958 published a paper entitled, “The capacity to be alone:”
(There are persons who) learned as children to be over-compliant; that is, to live in ways which were expected of them, or which pleased others, or which were designed not to offend others...(the self-perception of such folks as adults) is based upon compliance with the wishes of others, rather than being based upon the individual's own true feelings and instinctive needs. Such an individual ultimately comes to feel that life is pointless and futile because he is merely adapting to the world rather than experiencing it as a place in which his subjective needs can find fulfillment.
In other words, such folks—for whom I could have been a poster child—tend to take the road most traveled because doing so is consistent with compliance to the wishes and perceived wishes of others.
Solitude by Anthony Storr is a wonderful resource for those who suspect their lives have not been based upon one’s own true feelings and needs. Storr includes a quote from Michel de Montaigne:
We must reserve a little back-shop, all our own, entirely free, wherein we establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitude.
For me, that little back-shop has been my writing, and I have a feeling this would resonate with many other writers. Writing provides us with the opportunity to touch our "own true feelings and instinctive needs."
While the fiction I write is, by definition, not reality, it is a wonderful substitute that allows me (e.g.) to follow a young man, who at seventeen, is confronted with two roads in the wood. In Afloat, Billy Benton has chosen a road less traveled, and as he steps down that road, I can walk beside him and experience his journey. I am never certain at any given moment where a character's path less traveled will lead, but I trust the subconscious component of the writing process to show the way, and in so doing, I live a life—albeit vicariously—that touches my true feelings and needs.
Sailing is the only reality I have ever experienced that allowed me to feel free from the bounds of compliance. Unfortunately, I stopped sailing after two decades because continuing down that road less traveled put me at time and money loggerheads with a career that was paying the bills. But in writing Afloat—and now Pinctada—I was, and am again, following my heart and soul to the wind and the vessels it powers through the water.
A contented life is one, I think, where a person finds a good balance between compliance with the wishes of important others and compliance with the wishes of one's own heart. Without writing, I am not certain I could maintain that balance.
And speaking of retirement: "Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty (I am) free at last... "
I do not wish to demean the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., by using them here, words I was blessed to hear as a 15-year-old standing next to the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, but those are the words that kept resonating in my head when I made the decision, over fifty years later, to leave my career in Education. As a teacher, district administrator, high school principal, and finally as a bureaucrat working for a state department of education, I worked hard and with dedication, but my first calling has been writing, a calling hindered for over four decades by a career.
My website aspires to present fact and fiction, and while fact does masquerade as fiction from time to time, there are two pages herein dedicated to Education, which document facts and observations related to my paying career: my Education and Freedom blog (www.educationandfreedom.com) and Education Follies.
Recently, I finished reading Random Harvest by James Hilton, the author of Lost Horizons and Good-bye Mr. Chips. I picked up the former in a book shop in Lewes; Lost Horizons was a used paperback I bought for probably 50 cents and read as a seventh grader. I was a closet reader back then because I saw no reason to believe any of my friends would have understood my fascination with such a thing as reading a mature novel (in the 1960s meaning of the term). That was around the time that I discovered Joseph Conrad in our Junior High library, a library that had been a high school library the year before, which was why, I assume, his books were in the stacks—I do not remember which ones, just that I read a few. And that library was also when I first read Somerset Maugham (The Moon and Sixpence).
Looking back, it may have been those years, when I was 12 and 13, when I became fascinated with the power of the novel to take me away to worlds far removed from the one in which I had been doomed to live, and when I reached 16 and picked up Tom Jones (in response to the release of the movie, which I was not permitted to see because I was too young), I became enthralled by the power of a novelist that is revealed in the scope and complexity of plot lines and characters, a fascination which led me to read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Doctor Zhivago(another read prompted by the movie release), War and Peace, and others (It wasn't until college that I discovered my perhaps disproportional adoration of Dickens!).
Reflecting on all of this, I recollect that none of my forays into mature fiction was prompted by school assignments (I may have had to re-read Crime and Punishment for Senior English), but perhaps even more remarkable may be the fact that I do not remember ever discussing with anyone what I was reading. It is almost as if I needed the novelists' private worlds to escape from the private hell that was then my real life, and now, despite the occasional incursion into a 20th-century novel, it seems that my current writing provides a similar escape. My present life is anything but a private hell—far from it!—and yet, I think my capacity to truly feel remains so challenged that it is only in my writing that I can feel the full essence of what it means to be alive without apology or fear.
Returning to Hilton: I've never read Good-bye Mr. Chips, and know it only in movie form—despite the somewhat maudlin story, and perhaps because I've always fantasized about what it would have been like to be a boarding school teacher, and also because of the extraordinary acting by Peter O'Toole (who lost to John Wayne for the 1970 Best Actor Academy Award, which, in my opinion, remains the single greatest injustice in the award’s history!), Good-bye Mr. Chips remains one of my top five movies.
When I saw Hilton's name on the Lewes bookstore shelf and realized what else he had authored, I could not resist buying Random Harvest. It is an interesting, albeit drifting, narrative presented within a slightly diverting five-book structure that I continued to read solely from my propensity to see not finishing a novel—no matter how arduous a read—as a personal failing. And then, in the last eight lines I was stunned, happily so, by perhaps the most unexpected ending I have ever experienced. I actually cried tears of joy. And in terms of a writer's craft, while surprising, the ending was totally believable and appropriate, tying up so many cleverly crafted streams of events into one extraordinary bow that made the hours of perseverance worth every bit of effort.
24 Minutes has probably been far more therapeutic for me than it will be a desirable diversion for a reader—unless the reader can identify with the principal theme of an elderly man's personal capacity to deal with legacy and relationships juxtaposed with aging and death. 24 Minutes is likely to be the most personal thing I will ever write—even though there are no tangible similarities with my actual life history.
Writing 24 Minutes inspired concurrent dreaming and pondering about plot lines and character development for Pinctada, which will be the novel that chronologically follows Afloat in the Myers/Benton Chronicles. Pinctada is set in French Polynesia, which is a place I have fantasized and read about for years, no doubt because of Maugham's inspiration. It will be a coming of age story for Billy Benton that will draw from my still strong memory of emotions related to my own struggle to discover who I am—the person I think I am only now beginning to understand.
It is strange to think of my own coming of age story being over a half a century long in development, but that is my reality. After a particularly reflective morning, I am certain—at the deepest levels of who I am—I have always been a writer, and had I the confidence or a mentor in my early years, perhaps I could have learned the craft and networked sufficiently to have made a go of it. Lord knows, I chose an English major that came with professors that would have sent me in the right directions if I had been more open to their guidance, but I was not; instead, I did not take the road less traveled but took a safer emotional track.
When I was younger, there was a part of me that wished, perhaps, that if I had taken the road less traveled, I might have acquired some notoriety as an author, but that's not the current truth of what I carry in my heart. What I love about Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is not the continual references to the notoriety of famous painters and writers; rather, I love and feel Gil’s (Owen Wilson's role) fascination with the companionship and passion of committed artists, the stimulating repartee over coffee, wine, whiskey or cigarettes in small shops, the sense of individuality and freedom that accrues to creative types. When I experienced a taste of this myself during my time in the West Chester University graduate creative writing program, I felt completely "at home." But I let life lead me away from the road less traveled.
My earliest serious writing—poetry—began in high school and college, perhaps because I found that attractive women my age seemed intrigued when I shared poetry—my own and that of others—with them. At Elizabethtown College, I was an English major who mistook an interest in Biology as a vocational instead of avocational interest. Changing my major to Biology led me to education, and even though I dabbled at writing while I learned how to teach, I did not begin to write in earnest until the mid-Eighties.
My chosen lifestyle (albeit not grand or close to it) required that I commit to the earning of money in the most efficacious way available to me: as an educator. Work demands caused me to write in fits and starts after college, and I know that were it not for the advent of the PC, which allowed me to run at light speed away from onion skin paper and erasers, I might have avoided writing altogether.
Where Golden Apples Grow was a novel I completed over a ten-week period during the summer of 1985, which provided confirmation to me that I could write a lengthy and complex story if I put my mind to it. (The title borrows a phrase from Longfellow's Ultima Thule, which a reader will discover is a title that reappears in the Myers/Benton Chronicles as the name of Billy Benton's rechristened sailboat.)
Apples was a novel rife with adolescent angst and—unknown to me at the time—tendrils of memories from a challenged childhood. It was also a novel so flawed that only one manuscript survives. I shared what I had written with Leslie Cox Bart, a sometime ghost writer and best friend of my first spouse. At the time, Leslie was married to Peter Bart, who had established himself as a film executive at Paramount and MGM, had produced films in his own right, written a handful of novels, and served as the Editor-in-Chief of Variety for twenty years.
Leslie read the novel and provided excerpts to Peter, which she believed revealed some aptitude on my part. Based upon his reading of those excerpts and a synopsis of the story from Leslie, Peter encouraged me to continue writing and suggested that I tackle screenwriting, which I did with enthusiasm aided by constructive support from both of them. Over a period of a half-dozen years, I wrote four screenplays, three of which had sufficient merit to be requested for readings by a handful of Hollywood studios. One of those screenplays served as the foundation for my novel, The Innocents.
In 2000, I completed Angel in the Valley, a 180,000-word novel that I self-published via Xlibris, which at the time might have been described as a user-friendly vanity press. Time has done little to diminish the sense of satisfaction I felt when I held the first copy in my hands. That feeling motivated me to work harder at improving my skills, which led me to enroll in the Creative Writing Concentration Masters Program at West Chester University.
What I learned from the WCU faculty, and from the input of English teacher colleagues and others who read Angel, helped me excise 60,000 words, make major alterations in the main character, change the style to one that is more memoir than novel, and create a new book from the ashes of the original work. That new book is Tuscarora.
During my time as a part-time graduate student, I experienced a bit of a renaissance as a writer and produced poetry and short stories, one of the latter of which was published in the (now defunct) New England Writers Network magazine (The Murder of Heather Marchand, 2002). A second story, Reapers, was accepted by Dave Cunliffe, editor of Global Tapestry; the letter from Cunliffe was nice to receive, but unfortunately, Reapers was never published.
The Innocents provided the opportunity to return to writing with a vengeance. As the original story evolved, Karl Myers grew into a character I realized had the potential to yield stories that would hold my interest as a writer for years to come. Using the Fifties as the setting for the Myers/Benton Chronicles is another factor that continues to intrigue me. Deciding to have Karl move to Port Townsend provides a setting canvas and historical palette, which allows me to craft stories that take place in a town and region I have come to love and to involve the experiences I garnered over parts of three decades as a serious sailor.