In the spirit of Columbus Day minus the theatrics over whether Columbus really discovered anything at all, I have a few things to say about my path to becoming a writer. Given what many of you have read on my blog over the past few months, it would be safe to assume that mine was hardly an easy journey to writer.
But it did start early. I was eleven when I first got the bug. My sixth grade teacher asked me to submit an essay for a city-wide competition for sixth, eighth and twelfth graders in Mount Vernon’s public schools. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote about, something about current affairs and race. It was ’81, still a time when many folks thought that racism and all of its ugly legacy would soon be at an end. I finished second in the competition, which was hosted by the local newspaper, the Mount Vernon Daily Argus (it no longer exists, replaced by Gannett Suburban Newspapers in the ’90s). I won $15, got my name in the paper, and went to A.B. Davis Middle School on the day I finished sixth grade to receive my award. But not before also introducing a future city council member and mayor at my elementary school graduation earlier that day.
In the summer that followed, I decided to write a book about the top secret weapons of the US military. I spent most of July and a good portion of August looking up information on the latest technologies in airplanes, tanks, submarines and missiles, hoping to find something that hadn’t already been reported on by the media. I also contacted the Defense Department to get pictures of their latest pieces of hardware. Even though I’d only sent a handwritten letter to “To Whom It May Concern,” I actually received a response that included pictures. Of the M1 Abrams tank, the B1 bomber, the F-15 and F-16 fighters for the Navy and Air Force, and the MX missile. Interesting pictures, but not exactly classified.
After about fifty pages of writing, I lost interest in my project. School and my first days in the gifted track magnet program known as Humanities was about to start. My studies of Hebrew and the Torah, the whole Hebrew-Israelite thing, had begun to take over. And my mother had given birth to Yiscoc (pronounced Yizz-co) at the end of July, giving me a second younger brother and more responsibility.
Many of you who’ve been reading know some of the rest of the story. After a year of domestic violence and abuse at home and near outcast status in my nerd program, I almost completely forgot about the writer I’d wanted to become. Instead, my focus was on survival and making it to college by any way I could. I remember times in middle school and high school when a four-page paper seemed like an impossible task. Yet almost every teacher I had told me, “Donald, if you’d work a little harder, you could be a really good writer” out of complete astonishment. I took their words as a sign of insult, of an inability to understand that a child under the constraints of poverty and abuse couldn’t possibly “work harder” as a writer. Plus, as I told my AP English teacher during my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, “I don’t want to be a starving artist like Edgar Allan Poe or Emily Dickinson.”
So I spent my teenage years and most of my 20s in denial about my gift and the “discovery” that so many others had made about me. I went into the University of Pittsburgh with the ability to write in a sophisticated manner combined with the way I wrote when I was eleven. It was good enough to get me through my classes without making any improvements at all. Fortunately for me one of my instructors took an interest in me as a writer, took the time to point out my “colloquialisms” and “extended sentences” or helped me in formulating better arguments. I was grateful for the help, but didn’t think about it as a sign that I was born to write.
The re-discovery of myself as a writer began where it had gone off track, at home in Mount Vernon and with the end of my mother’s marriage to my stepfather in ’89. It was the end of the threat of violence and the need to live my life for me instead of for my mother and younger siblings that drove me to take my old writing from ’81 and ’82 and merge them with my memories of the more recent and chaotic past. I spent a significant part of my junior year at Pitt journaling about witnessing my mother’s abuse or my own experience with it, about running away from home or about being a Hebrew-Israelite. I took my first class in Black Studies because it was a literature class. I attempted to also take Creative Writing, but I could never get into the class because every student on campus seemed to beat me to the punch.
Then I got lost in the academic for about eight years. I saw myself as “an historian who loved to write,” I said on my occasions to my obnoxious professors and cut-throat fellow grad students who couldn’t believe that I wrote as well as I did, at Pitt and at Carnegie Mellon. One of the professors on my dissertation committee said, “You might want to think about a career in journalism,” what I considered an insulting response to my well-written and highly analytical thesis on multiculturalism and mid-twentieth century Black Washington, DC. I was determined to be a professor, to be a scholar and an intellectual (more on why the two are different later). Yet I also knew that something was gnawing at me, at my spirit. I knew deep down that something was struggling to come out and that I wouldn’t be happy until I knew what this something was.
The third age of discovery happened nearly eight years ago. My one-time literary agent asked me to take my erudite manuscript Fear of a “Black” America and make it more accessible to the non-academic reading public, especially since I wanted to reach them. I felt insulted again, but realized that she was right. “Therefore”, “thus” and “indeed” were all too much a part of my vocabulary, along with the standard 40-plus word compound sentence. In rewriting sentences, paragraphs, even entire chapters, I re-discovered my original calling. “I’m a writer who happens to be an academic historian,” I said to my wife one day in the spring of 2000. It had taken nearly two decades, but the person I was always meant to be had finally and fully surfaced.
I’ve wondered ever since if I waited too long to become a successful writer, if it would’ve been better if I had gone after this calling ten or twenty years ago. Or maybe I’m just a late-bloomer, that really all I have to hope for are a few minor and significantly underread publications in obscure journals or magazines. Life is what it is for each of us, where each one of us opens or closes a door to things, dreams, nightmares that can define us or destroy us.
Yeah, it would’ve been nice to have gone after Boy At The Window as a book in ’92 instead of ’02. But I know that at twenty-two and only three years removed from the terror of my childhood that I wasn’t ready to take a long hard look at my deep scars and the people who caused them. At thirty-two and years removed from those mama’s-boy years, I could stare at the abyss of my past and then take it apart, bit by bit, and put it back together again.