Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How I Became An Overnight Success (In Just 35 Years)

They’ve started throwing curveballs.  Be home soon.
A telegram supposedly sent by Ted Williams in his rookie camp with the Boston Red Sox.

I remember thinking I wanted to write a book when I was in fifth grade.  I had just completed a ten-page (Ten!  Count ‘em, ten!) Geology report and I was so proud to have filled those pages with facts I had cribbed from encyclopedias.  I tried my first novel at twelve.  I wrote my first play when I was nineteen.  I published three plays (all co-written with Mike Davis) in my first three attempts before I was thirty.  Fate had chosen the theatre for me.

I had no complaints!  Thirty-two years old and six years married with two babies, life was a dizzying array of commitments and daily chores.  We moved into Ann Arbor in part because of the vibrant arts community.  In the meantime, I would get a check twice a year from my publisher, maybe enough to cover the gas bill for a winter month, which would remind me that I used to be a writer.  I hoped one day I would be again, but it would have to wait…quite a while, in fact.  

It was ten years later that I looked in the mirror and saw that almost all of my hair was gray.  My children, though not yet grown, no longer needed as much help with their homework and were self-sufficient human beings.  They were also a teen and a pre-teen, who scarcely noticed the old man pulling the levers. I asked my wife, “Do you think it might be time for me to go back to the theatre?” 

Going back to acting was key to starting the creative juices flowing again.  Because I had a very good experience with that first show back, I stuck with it.  In seven years, I appeared in five plays, published six and directed one.  I wrote songs, I wrote limericks, even my grocery lists seemed to have a strong narrative.

And as quickly as it started, it was over.  Now I know what it is like when a singer opens up their mouth and nothing comes out.  I would stare at my computer screen and…nothing came out.  I have been a writer for too long to accept that such a state is permanent.  But life had thrown me a curveball.  I was going to have to adapt like Teddy Ballgame did, or take my glove and go home.

There are some projects that, no matter how much you wish it wasn’t so, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.  I had written a novel a number of years earlier, three in fact.  The characters were sharp but my prose was, overall, unfocused.  When you are used to only writing the dialogue and leaving most of the details to a theatrical director, in my opinion you get to go the pay window earlier.

Yet I loved the novels so much.  In creating my detective character, Ted Winkle, I had dreamed up his back story and saw him through eighty years of his life and adventures.  I teared up when he lost loved ones.  I laughed when he laughed.  Ted and I had many drinks together and he was good company.  I decided it was worth another try to see if anyone else might enjoy knowing him as I did.  I had struck out with my preferred publisher(s) and at one time had a contract for all three books that just wasn’t the right fit.  I was depressed when I turned the offer down but it was for the best.
I sent the first novel to Fifth Avenue Press, an imprint begun right here in my hometown of Ann Arbor.  When an editor got back with me, signaling their interest, I was asked “I notice that the title says ‘Witness to Mystery # 1’…is this a series?”  I told her it was.  There were three books, a total of five adventures, taking place in 1932, 1942, 1950, 1962 and 1973.  “Send me all of them,” she said, certainly five of the sweetest words I had ever heard.

As of yesterday, with a contract signed, it was official.  All three novels will be published this November and a lifetime ambition is realized, the culmination of thirteen years I spent writing and revising the novels.  When I received the offer, I staggered into the living room glassy-eyed and told my wife, as Geppetto might, “Ted Winkle is going to be a real boy.”

So I close by reminding you that it is never too late to begin a new chapter in your life.  I am nearly fifty-six and a student again, learning at the knee of my editor, Lara Zielen, a tremendous writer in her own right.  You can go home when they start throwing curveballs or you can try to learn how to hit them.  Still, I won’t compare myself to Ted Williams.

After all, to make the Hall of Fame, he only had to have a hit once every three tries.

1 comment:

  1. Let me know if I can preorder these books, I am excited to read them.