Two weeks from today I’ll start Writing with Feechies, an online creative-writing class based on my first novel, The Bark of the Bog Owl. Writing that book eighteen years ago was my education in fiction-writing. Preparing for class has been a walk down memory lane.
I have often been reluctant to tell how I got out of the steady-job business and into the book-writing business, because I’ve never felt I went about it the right way. Through rashness and lack of foresight, I made things harder on my wife and family than they had to be. But it’s an interesting enough story. If you promise not to behave rashly, I’ll tell it.
I came to Nashville to get a PhD in British Literature at Vanderbilt University. But by the time I finished the PhD, I had a wife and two kids, and we had put down roots in Nashville. We didn’t want to leave for the semi-itinerant life of an assistant professor. So I started looking for a job in town. I hired on at a technology firm as a technical writer.
In the five years I worked at the technology company, my job got less writer-y and more technical. I reached a point where I felt completely cut off from my gifts and talents. None of the work I was doing came naturally for me; I was mostly treading water.
There was one person at the company (besides me) who understood what a poor job I was doing, and that person was my boss. Early in 2002 he wrote me a terrible annual review. This turned out to be a momentous week. In the intervening days between the written review and the face-to-face, sit-in-the-boss’s-office review, my mother was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. As it turned out, the illness was treatable, and she came through fine, but we had no way of predicting that at the time. The convergence of my bad review at work and my mother’s diagnosis made me unusually susceptible to ruminations about the brevity of life and what I was doing with mine. I decided it was time to try to make a go of it as a writer. I had sense enough to know that I wasn’t suddenly going to be able to start making a living as a novelist, but I wanted at least to use my gifts as a writer to cobble together a living that was a little more aligned with who God made me to be.
I drove straight from my mother’s sickbed at Emory University hospital to my sit-down, face-to-face annual review. I didn’t even go home to change clothes. I just went into the boss’s office and told him I was quitting. The boss said, yeah, that was probably a good idea. 1
This was one of those moments of rashness I alluded to above. We had four kids by this point and a fifth on the way. And while it was clear that I needed to move on from that job, quitting dramatically without an actual plan was not the way to go about it. I worked out a two-month notice, figuring that would give me plenty of time to line up enough freelance technical writing gigs to keep body and soul together. 2
With my last vacation days at the tech company, I went to Orlando to see a couple of friends from college. Before I left, my wife Lou Alice said, “So, tell me again why you’re leaving me here with four kids (and one on the way) while you go hang out with your friends in Florida?” A fair enough question. I was going to Florida, I told her, because I felt I had lost my way and needed to spend some time with people who still thought of me as the person I had been ten years earlier.
In Orlando, my friend Tim gave me some cassette tapes of Eugene Peterson preaching a series of sermons on the life of David before he became king. (Those sermons were the basis of Peterson’s book Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians.) I don’t know why Tim thought I needed those sermons, but I did. They made the David story come alive for me in new ways—not only in terms of “spiritual lessons,” but in terms of straight-ahead adventure storytelling.
Also that week, my friend Marvin took me paddling around various swamps and rivers in Central Florida. Just as the convergence of my bad annual review and my mother’s diagnosis had shaken something loose in my work life a few weeks earlier, this convergence of the David story and those swamps and rivers shook something loose in my imaginative life. I started wondering what young David’s adventures would have looked like if they had played out somewhere swampier…and if he had been befriended by a tribe of wild swamp people. In a single morning in an Orlando bagel shop, I outlined all three books of the Wilderking Trilogy (though, at the time, I though I was outlining one long book).
I came home and wrote a couple of chapters of The Bark of the Bog Owl. I showed the chapters and the outline to a literary agent and asked him if he thought he could sell such a book if I could write it. He said he thought he could. <sup>3</sup> I wrote it. He sold it. And that’s how I got into the book-writing business.
I should point out that even though it was exciting and gratifying when my agent sold The Bark of the Bog Owl, fiction-writing wasn’t suddenly my main source of income (nor has it ever been). I made a living as a writer for many years but not, for the most part, from the books that have my name on the front. Maybe I’ll tell about that in another letter.
- For a while there I thought the boss was the antagonist in this story. Then, a few months after I left my job, I started having dreams in which the boss and I would go on picnics or go bowling or go boating and have a lovely time…as if someone were trying to tell me that the person who speaks to you honestly about your failures is not an enemy, but a friend.
- I figured wrong. I lined up exactly zero freelance technical writing gigs.
- My literary agent neglected to mention that I was one of his first clients, and he hadn’t actually sold any books yet. And I didn’t know enough to ask.