At the University of New Mexico, I put on my graduate-student persona and became one of those library cadavers laid out on overstuffed chairs, tucked into nooks, or sunning by the duck pond reading Metamorphosis and tossing ramen noodles to sparrows. I was poor, but I always had books. Listen, you can reuse razors, coffee grounds, and even trash bags (if you aren’t cockroach phobic. After my peak experience, I rescued cockroaches; even they awed me because they were wondrous life.). Life was good even without money, as I had never connected income or things with happiness. Once my basic needs were met, more money didn’t make me happier. Studies back this up, by the way, but I didn’t know that then; I just knew that books and writing made me happy because it felt like positive growth, like trying to self-actualize, which to me also was linked to publishing.
Back in the 1980s, my option to publish was to seduce editors or go with a vanity press. My writers’ group was full of English majors who smirked at self-publishing. We wore the label “novelist” uncomfortably but hopefully. Although none of us was actually published, we viewed people who self-published the way I viewed my buddy Ramon waddling beside me as we raced a 220-yard dash in PE class. “Arrogant” probably captures my attitude. But at the time, I saw myself as confident and hopeful.
Hope makes us more resilient. Rats that have hope of rescue will tread water longer before giving up and drowning. Yeah, I know; it’s a really mean experiment. I’m just saying that I could tread water like a mofo. I always had hope.
Hope is learned. It is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities. As in distance running, I knew that I wasn’t as talented as many of the people I competed against, but I was hopeful or persistent. I yearned for the day that the spines of my novels would grace the shelves of libraries and bookstores. I was already in Manhattan at sold-out book signings in my mind even as I Xeroxed hundreds of pages of my current novel to share with the other creative-writing students. Many trees gave their lives in the service of molding me into a writer. Someday, from my novel’s back cover, I would stare at all of those people who rolled their eyes. I’d be wearing a black turtleneck, my chin would be propped on my fist, and I’d sport my best shit-eating grin, which would imply, “Well? How you like me now?”
Now, you may be thinking, didn’t this guy already have a peak experience? Didn’t he settle down with Renni? Where’s the psychological growth? To clarify, although my peak experience made me a more loving and empathetic young man, I was that way with everybody else. I was the person last in line; I still struggled with some chameleon traits. The chameleon in me couldn’t endure the shame of a vanity press. Besides, even if I did publish my own writing, how would I market and distribute my books? I didn’t want to be one of those desperate people with a garage full of unsold novels. In 1987, I couldn’t imagine books written, published, marketed, purchased, and downloaded from something called the Internet (as there was no Internet).
I used my university writing classes to polish Leftovers Again, untouched while I was in the army. I hoped to “find a home for it,” which was graduate speak meaning I was on the brink—the very cusp—of signing with a major publisher. All my troubles would vanish as if I were moving to Solla Sollew. I’d finally have serious respect, the CIB of the literary world.