I had always planned to be a scientist and a college professor. By the time I finished high school, I knew I wanted to study ecology, but I was ten years too early. In 1966, DNA was the hot new topic, and all biology was done via an electron microscope. That wasn’t for me, so I switched to anthropology.
By 1970 the Viet Nam war was going strong, I had just completed my B.S. at Michigan State, and my draft number was 41. The Navy said they would make me an officer – so naturally I spent the next four years as an enlisted man working in the dental service of a naval hospital. If you have any connection with the military, that will make perfect sense.
At the end of my enlistment, I entered the University of Chicago. I had been admitted to a master’s program and intended to continue with my Ph.D., but didn’t work out that way.
During those four years of working on Marines’ wisdom teeth and broken jaws, I had lost my chops. Learning how to study, learning how to learn (not the same thing), and learning how to play the game (definitely not the same thing) are a college student’s chops. Like a musician, you have to practice to stay good. It took me half a year to get my chops back, and by then the next year’s quota for Ph.D. candidates had been filled. My would-be career was in hiatus.
However, all was not lost. When my major professor read my Master’s thesis, he told me to reapply the following year and they would find a place for me. In the social sciences, nothing is as important as the ability to write. Having a professor who believes in you doesn’t hurt either.
I had an unexpected year off. What to do?
I had been an insatiable reader all my life, and had always thought it might be fun to write a novel. I knew I could write, but doubted I could sit down day after day and write hundreds of pages. This was my chance to find out.
The day after Labor Day, September 2, 1975, I sat down in front of my typewriter. Within a month, I was addicted. I never reapplied to Chicago.
Tomorrow I will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the day I sat down to become a writer.