Origin Story: How I Became a Novelist (PART 2 of 2)

PART ONE | PART TWO

The first class was a U.S. history course. I’ve never been a very good history student and that class did nothing to change that. However, we were assigned three novels to read that semester, the first of which was The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This was pretty scary, since I’d never really read a full novel before. Unless it was a comic book, I could never make it to the last page. The closest I ever came to reading a full novel was the novelization of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie by Craig Shaw Gardner. I don’t really count that, though, because, even though I read the words, I didn't really take the story in. I hadn't yet unlocked the code for truly reading a book. Also, I knew the movie would soon be in theaters, so I wasn't exactly motivated to give it my all.

The Jungle was especially intimidating, because it was about 400 pages and the font was super small and it was super single spaced, so I saw no way I could finish that book in a month, which was how long the professor gave us to read it before the test. I knew that I couldn’t afford to drop that class, because I’d need it to graduate and I also knew if I was going to make anything out of my life, it was going to come by going to college, so I had to figure it out. I tried to approach it logically, breaking down the number of pages in the book and how many days I had to finish it, and coming up with a certain number of pages per day to read. I think it was about fifteen, which seemed reasonable.

My first day reading it was a disaster. I could hardly make heads or tales of what was happening and since I’d hitched my whole future to finishing this book, I basically felt like I was on the verge of failing life. The next day I picked up the book again and started reading, though I had little hope of understanding it any better. I read and read and read and, without warning, something magical happened.  It’s going to sound corny, but I swear I’m not making this up. The words went away and it was as if the pages began projecting a movie into my head.  And it was such a wonderful movie, dramatic and exiting and sad and triumphant.  I was following Jurgis , this poor Lithuanian  immigrant, who was trying to provide a life for himself and his 15-year-old wife, Ona, and the conditions were horrible and the wife died and he worked in a terrible meatpacking plant…and on and on…

And then I stopped and I realized, “Holy shit! I’m reading!  This is reading!” And I was so mad at myself for stopping, because I worried I’d never be able to get that movie back in my head.  So, I started reading again, fingers crossed, and, after a few minutes, I got the movie back. I finished that book in three days. That’s when I learned I loved to read. I remember going into a bookstore after that and looking at all these books and thinking to myself, “You mean to tell me there are movies hiding in all of these books and all I have to do is read them?” It was a revelation.

The second class that changed my life was a composition course I took with the author S. Kay Murphy. Because it was composition, the purpose of the class was to write essays. The first essay Kay had us write was an autobiographical essay. I wrote about working at Thrifty’s and scooping ice cream and stealing and eventually losing my job. Kay loved the essay so much that she read it to the class. The class loved it too—they laughed at all the funny parts and gasped at all the suspenseful parts and I loved every moment of it.

That alone would’ve been amazing for me, but it was the note Kay left me on the last page of my essay that sealed the deal.  She said, “You’re pretty good at this. You should think about majoring in English.” That’s all I had to hear (or read). I was so excited to be good at something—especially something that seemed to come pretty easily to me—that I decided to study English. I had no idea what that meant or where it would lead me, but I was willing to find out.

Around that time, I remember watching the Academy Awards. I've always loved the Academy Awards, but I remember being hyper-aware of how beautiful everyone was and how well they dressed they were and how talented they seemed to be and how lovely their speeches were and all I knew was I wanted to be a part of that. So, I decided that screenwriting would be my best chance into the world of Hollywood. And so, that became the goal. I was going to be a screenwriter.

I figured that if I was going to write movies, I first needed to learn how to tell a story, so I enrolled in a creative writing class at Chaffey. It was three hours a week on Friday mornings and the professor was a really kind old man who used to be a staff writer on the Smurfs. If the Smurfs connection wasn’t enough to make me love him, then his friendship with Stan Lee certainly was (I wish I could remember the professor’s name, but I’m notoriously bad with names and so, unfortunately, his has become another of my causalities). All that I really remember from the class was that it was fun and I had no idea how to tell a story.

But, as a consequence of that class, I fell in love with the craft of prose fiction. Much like drawing pictures, I knew I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, but unlike drawing, I didn’t feel that same ceiling over my head. I felt like my potential for writing was far greater than my potential for comic book art and that was a great feeling. Even if it wasn't true, I felt like if I worked really, really hard, I could become a great writer. And that's how I found myself on the road to becoming a novelist.

PART ONE | PART TWO

10 Questions for... S. Kay Murphy

S. Kay Murphy is a writer, a teacher and, I'm pleased to say, one of my very good friends. She began freelance writing thirty years ago and still contributes to national magazines and newspapers. Some years ago her freelance work was interrupted by the pursuit of information about her great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, who was rumored to have poisoned more than a dozen individuals in her own community. That resulted in the writing of her first memoir, Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford.

In July of 2012, Kay published her second memoir, a beautiful and touching book called Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me. If you buy the book for only one reason, let it be this: 100% of the net proceeds from its sales will be donated to animal rescue.

So, without further ado, here are 10 questions for S. Kay Murphy...

 1. What would you like readers to know about Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

I wrote this book to honor the dogs who chose to companion with me at various times in my life.  The book is divided into several sections, each one telling the story of a dog or dogs I had throughout my life.  Some of them saved me in a literal sense; Rufus kept me from being assaulted or possibly abducted when I was a teenager.  Ian saved me from a burglar.  And some of them saved me in the psychological sense, rescuing me from deep sadness or giving me a reason to go on living even during a very dark time.

2. What persuaded you to donate all the royalties from Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me to animal rescue?

I have been inspired by several individuals, in particular young Miss Michala Riggle who established www.beatingtobeatautism.org. She started with $7.35, bought some materials, made some bracelets and sold them. Her purpose?  To raise money for research into autism to help her brother Evan who has been diagnosed with autism.  After buying some bracelets from the website one day, the spark of Michala’s passion to help others continued to resonate with me. I was already working on the book and just started thinking about how I could contribute to something I feel passionate about, which is the concept of No More Homeless Pets.

3. Who are some writers that have affected your storytelling sensibilities?

James Brown, James Brown, and James Brown.  I went to see Brown once when he was speaking about his memoir, The Los Angeles Diaries.  I'd read the book, and frankly, it set a pretty high bar for me in terms of the quality of the writing. Brown doesn't just tell what happened in his life.  He somehow weaves thoughts, feelings, actions and sensory response into every paragraph, creating an amazing tapestry of description.

During the Q&A at the speaking engagement, I asked him about telling the truth.  At the time, I was working on my memoir, Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford, and my mother, who figures prominently in the story, was still living at the time. I wanted to tell the truth, but didn't want to alienate her (further than what we'd suffered through all my life). Brown said, "Everyone has their own story. You have to tell yours. For your mother, the story is different. My mother still speaks to me. Yours will still speak to you." A weight lifted, and I went forward with my own project in the most honest way I could. He was right.

4. What methods and strategies have you employed in order to promote both yourself as an author, as well Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

Oof, this is the part I hate. I’m a shy, introverted person—almost reclusive (if I didn’t have to go to work every day).  Self-promotion is a beast. So, at this point in time, I’m relying on the theory of reciprocity.  Many years ago I read a book I loved and posted a review of it on Amazon so that others would be drawn to read it.  The author sent me an email to thank me, which made my day and also made me realize how much we need to be mutually supportive of each other (as opposed to being competitive—ick). I’ve tried to encourage and promote as many writers as I’ve had opportunity to, and I’m hoping now some of those folks will, in turn, reach out to their own circle of contacts and say a good word about my work.

5. Writing a book is such a complex exercise that I imagine no two authors do it exactly the same. Can you summarize your process for me?

Um... yes:

1.  Put your butt in the chair.

2.  Stay there until you've written something—brilliant or shitty, it matters not.

3.  Repeat.

4.  Repeat.

5.  Repeat.

Horror writer Douglas Clegg once said, "I suspect the great American novel will not be written by the best writer in America. I suspect it will be written by someone who writes."  His point was that the biggest dementor (yes, that was Harry Potter reference) we have to overcome is our own self-doubt.  Then we just have to keep writing until we finish things.  Amen.

6. What drove you to write Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me?

I miss my dogs. Living here in the San Gabriel Mountains is idyllic. But, for various reasons, I can’t have a dog here. One summer afternoon, I was culling out from boxes and boxes of photos the ones that were pictures of my dogs, with the intention of putting them in an album.

I organized them chronologically, and as I did, I began to reminisce about how important those canine heroes were in my life and recall how integral they’d been in keeping me sane (and alive). I simply wanted to tell their stories.  As it turns out, the book was the most difficult thing I’ve ever written.  Among other incidents, I write about my step-father’s attempts to molest me.  This is something I’ve never talked to anyone about—ever.  It was hard to relive that time in my life, and I found myself crying often as I wrote. Sometimes, when the emotion became overwhelming, I would have to take a break from the writing for a few days. I was haunted by nightmares while I worked on the book.

7. Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me is your second consecutive memoir, following Tainted Legacy. Is this your genre of choice or do you have plans for writing fiction?

When Mrs. Walton, my fourth grade teacher, told me I could be a writer (and I absolutely without hesitation believed her), I assumed I would grow up to write down the stories I constantly made up in my head.  But… that’s not what happened.  As you know, the story of my great-grandmother, Bertha Gifford, fell into my lap when I discovered she’d been accused of murdering several people.  I never thought I’d write her story, but I’m so glad I did, as it gave my mother some much-needed closure about the alleged crimes.  And then I had the idea for Lessons I Learned from the Dogs Who Saved Me, so I had to do that.  But I have written a bit of fiction.

8. What are you currently working on?

In 2006, I did NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). To those unfamiliar, I encourage you to look it up—and do it!  Just do it!  In 30 days, I wrote a 50,000 word Young Adult novel entitled Ghost Grandma.  When I finished, I put it away for a long time because I assumed it couldn’t possibly be any good (having been written by a nonfiction writer in 30 days).

But every summer, I would take it out and look at it.  Six years later, I still love my characters and my story.  Maybe no one else will love it as I do, but at this point, I’m doing a final edit before I take it to CreateSpace for publication.  I love YA lit and, at this point in my life, read more of it than adult fiction, partly because I’m always looking for good books for my high school students, but also because I simply love what’s out there right now.  (I just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars and Jumpstart the World.  Oh my Buddha, what fabulous novels!)  After Ghost Grandma goes to press, I’ll begin working <gulp> on a YA trilogy I’ve been planning for some time.

9. Where do you see your writing career five years from now?

Right now, major writing projects have to be completed during the ten weeks of summer, as once school starts and I return to my day job, I have little time or energy for such things. But in two years?  Oh my Buddha! I'll be retired from teaching, and finally, after longing for this for decades, I'll be able to be a full-time writer. Booyah! So I’m hopeful that in five years’ time (three years after I retire), I will have produced a substantial body of work and developed a sympathetic and appreciative fan base.

10. What advice would you give to an aspiring author who hopes to see their work published one day? 

See my answer to question #5. Keep writing. And learn your craft. Simply because you enjoy the process doesn't mean that your work meets the standard of what's out there.  (Notice I didn't use the word "good."  What makes "good" writing is subjective.) Learn where the commas go. Learn what syntax is. Learn why "subject/pronoun agreement" is an issue. Make sure your writing is correct and readable. And then write from your heart. Ignore the voice of your own self-doubt. Ignore friends, family members and co-workers who discount, in any way, what you're doing.

Pretend you don't hear them. Shake it off. Go home and write something great—but never, ever share it with people you love until it's in print; you will be too easily influenced by their response, especially if you're looking for approval. Do find someone who is good at editing—preferably someone who is not a part of your social circle—to find the typos and words you left out and the part toward the end where the piece takes a wrong turn. Take his or her criticism to heart—then keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Writing mediocre drafts and discovering how to make them better is just like a painting a portrait then continuing to work at it until it truly resembles the model. Don't give up. And find other like-minded writers to have coffee with so they can inspire you. And don't hate English teachers! We can't help who we are!

And there you have it. I’d like to thank my friend, S. Kay Murphy, for taking some time to hang out on Inside Martin. If you’d like to learn more about Kay and her writing, visit her blog On Simply Being True. You can also connect with Kay on Twitter, as well as Facebook.

Author Meet & Greet at Sun City Library

I was invited to attend Sun City Library's 1st Annual Authors Meet & Greet, which took place on January 21, 2012.  It was a great afternoon in which I had the opportunity to meet readers and authors, sign copies of Inside the Outside, and take photos with fans.

Amongst the highlights of the afternoon was being able to hang out with my friend and fellow author, S. Kay Murphy, author of Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford

I had the great pleasure of meeting the lovely Tina Walker, author of a book of poetry called Finding Christ Inside, as well as Travis Kleist, author of the thriller The Unveiling.

The Sun City Library Meet & Greet was a great way to kick off 2012. I had a terrific time and I look forward to participating in future events with the Sun City Library for years to come.

If you'd like to see more photos from the Meet & Greet, you can view them at my Facebook page.

Feature This! (GUEST POST)

A few months ago, I was approached by Jose Oliver De Castro, a college student and contributor to his school's newspaper and magazine. He wanted to interview me for a feature article in the newspaper and I, obviously, was more than happy to comply. Along the way, Jose's editor decided to make the interview part of the magazine. Jose was excited, but he had his reservations. He worried that the story would get dropped, since not everything makes the final cut. I told him that if it did get dropped, I'd publish it myself on Inside Martin. Well, the fact that we've gotten this far should tell you how the story ends. So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you...

FEATURE THIS!: An Interview with Novelist Martin Lastrapes

By Jose Oliver De Castro

“I’m a vegetarian and, as a vegetarian, I was fascinated with the idea of cannibalism.”

This was just one of the ideas that Martin Lastrapes, 34, had in mind when writing his debut novel, Inside the Outsidewhich tells the story of a young girl named Timber Marlow who grows up as a cannibal in a cult in the San Bernardino Mountains. When she is about 14 or 15 years old, she manages to escape the cult into the mainstream society, where she tries to assimilate.  For Lastrapes, Inside the Outside is his dark and twisted version of the coming of age story.

“I always thought of it as a metaphor for growing up. When you grow up you live in a relatively small place. You start off with your house, eventually your house turns into your block and your neighborhood,” Lastrapes said. “At some point you have to leave that small isolated corner of the world that was your own and discover the world is bigger than you realized and there are different people that you have to encounter.”

While writing Inside the Outside, Lastrapes used the metaphor with Timber Marlow in mind.

“I took it to the extreme in a relatively dark book,” Lastrapes said, “where instead of growing up in a neighborhood, she grew up in a cult of cannibals.”

Upon its release, the book reached #3 on Amazon’s Top 100 Hot New Releases in Horror.

“There was actually a certain point where I was even ahead of Stephen King, which was very exciting,” Lastrapes said. “It’s been an exciting time and I’m sort of blown away by both the initial success of the book and also the reception of the book.”

Lastrapes was born on December 9, 1977, in the city of Orange and was raised in Rancho Cucamonga, California.  After graduating from Alta Loma High School in 1996, he attended Chaffey College, Cal State Fullerton, and Cal State San Bernardino. While at Cal State San Bernardino, Lastrapes met James Brown, a creative writing professor and acclaimed author of The Los Angeles Dairies and This River.

“The time when I met James Brown is really when I got serious and focused about my career as a writer,” Lastrapes said.

Brown described Lastrapes as a serious, determined student when they first crossed paths in the classroom years ago. As Brown’s student, Lastrapes made it easy for him as a professor.

“I’d like to flatter myself that I helped improve his already strong writing,” Brown said, “but all I can really take credit for is encouraging an already talented writer.”

In 1996, during his first year in college, Lastrapes took his first English course with S. Kay Murphy, author of Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford. It was Murphy who Lastrapes credits with being the first teacher to take notice of his writing and encourage him to pursue it.

“Martin’s essays were far and above the writing level of the rest of the class,” Murphy said. “I enjoyed his casual yet fluid writing style, and often wrote notes in the margins of his papers about his writing ability.”

Growing up, Lastrapes' first significant creative influence was his older brother, Greg, a filmmaker and musician.  As a kid, Lastrapes watched his brother perform on stage at the Roxy Theater in Hollywood, while also making many television appearances as an actor and singer. Greg made it a point to tap into his brother’s creativity early on.

“Since the day that Martin could read, we have been collaborating,” Greg said. “I always work him into whatever project I've got cooking, and that has included writing projects.”

While Lastrapes had many creative interests growing up, from comic books to movies, it was his discovery of creative writing that lit a fire inside of him.

“Writing became the ideal medium to sort of exercise my creativity,” Lastrapes said. “I fell in love with it when I was 18 and we have had a passionate love affair for the last 15 years.”

For the next 15 years, Lastrapes is looking ahead as he evolves and develops as a writer.

“I’m definitely not done growing and I plan on getting better,” Lastrapes said, “otherwise it would just be boring if this were the end of the road.”

Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford

In 2009, S. Kay Murphy published her memoir Tainted Legacy: The Story of Alleged Serial Killer Bertha Gifford. Like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Murphy's memoir explores the chilling effect of murder in a small, rural town.  Unlike Capote, Murphy is not simply a city-slicker fascinated by a brutal crime, she is the great-granddaughter of the accused.

Murphy does a terrific job of pulling you into her world, letting you feel what it's like to discover your great-grandmother might have been a serial killer; with every new discovery, which either brought jubilant triumph or devastating heartbreak, you soon realize that you're on this ride with Murphy, driving cross country to Missouri, contacting descendants of the dead, touring courtrooms and visiting graveyards.

Murphy’s writing in Tainted Legacy is simple and elegant, getting right to the heart of the matter.

“It is an odd thing to have a family member who is a murderer, even more odd that the family member was a simple farm woman—a grandmother.  When I reveal to people that my great-grandmother would have been considered, in today’s terms, a serial killer, they look at me just a little differently.”

-S. Kay Murphy, Tainted Legacy

The true victory of Tainted Legacy is Murphy's tireless research and her unflinching search for the truth, even if it brings her answers that she doesn't really want to know.

What Murphy eventually figured out was that the process of discovery was just as important, if not more so, than the discoveries themselves.  Ironically enough, I learned a similar lesson not long after I graduated from Alta Loma High School with the class of 1996.

I was a bad high school student, which isn’t to say I was outspoken or rebellious.  You’d never catch me smoking in the boys room and I can count on one hand—using less than four digits—the number of times I ever ditched class.  No, I was a bad high school student with regards to academics.

I almost never studied for tests and, when I did, I never knew how.  I didn’t know how to write papers and, when I did write them, I always waited until the last possible moment.  I still don’t understand geometry or chemistry and I have an embarrassingly limited knowledge of U.S. and world history.

Question: What’s the Pythagorean theorem?

Answer: You got me!

Question: What’s the most abundant element in the Earth's crust?

Answer: Hell if I know!

Question: What was the conflict that led to the Korean war?

Answer: Umm…I need to use the bathroom!

Yet, I graduated high school without a single hiccup.  It was as if there was somebody standing behind me for four years pushing me through, despite the fact that I wasn’t really learning anything.  While I wasn’t what you would call ambitious, I did have a very tangible sense of wanting to do something substantive with my life.  I just didn’t know what I was supposed to do.  Because I had long before given up on my dreams of becoming Batman or a wrestler in the WWF, I didn’t know where I should be focusing my energy.

Most of my friends had gone away to college, because they had done all the things that I didn’t do in high school.  Since I didn’t have a job—part time or otherwise—and I hadn’t taken the SATs, the only choice that seemed to make sense was to enroll in Chaffey, the local community college.  As part of my enrollment, I had to take a math and English placement exam.  I did terrible with the math, but, somehow, I’d done well enough in English to qualify for English 1A (a class most schools call English 101).  What I know now—but didn’t know at the time—is English 1A is a class that most community college students have to work towards by completing one or two remedial English courses.  The fact that I had gotten right in should’ve given me a clue that, perhaps, I had an innate aptitude for English.

As it turned out, most English 1A classes were full in the fall of 1996, so I wasn’t able to get into one initially.  But, as luck would have it, Chaffey had opened up a brand new satellite campus in Fontana and there was a late-start English 1A class being offered.  The only other classes I’d managed to get into were Survey of American Film and Fashion Merchandising, so I jumped at the chance to enroll in English 1A.

The professor for the course was S. Kay Murphy.  She was—and is—a high school English teacher.  She decided to teach an English course at Chaffey during the evenings as a way of supplementing her income and, as a former Chaffey student herself, she saw it as an opportunity to bring her academic life full circle.  And her first day on the job just so happened to coincide with my first semester in college.

The first thing Murphy had us do was a quick in-class writing assignment where we described three magazines that represented who we were.  While I wasn’t rebellious, I was—and am—a slave for coloring outside the lines, so instead of writing some straight forward prose, I decided to write a fictional narrative that involved me going to a drug store and browsing through the magazine section.  I remember having the distinct feeling that I was doing something wrong and I worried my new English professor wouldn’t appreciate it.

The following class session, Murphy was passing back our magazine assignments.  In the middle of calling out names, she paused and quietly considered the next paper in her stack.

“Martin Lastrapes?”

I raised my hand.

She looked over my assignment for another moment or two.

“This is good,” she said, before handing it back to me.

Her approval sang like a choir that I never knew existed.  I wanted to hear more, so I got right to work on the first paper she assigned, which was an autobiographical essay—which is to say, a short memoir.  I decided to write about losing my job as an ice cream scooper at Thrifty’s, after being interrogated for four hours for stealing.  I didn’t know if it was any good, but I did know writing it felt good.  Murphy thought enough of it to read it out loud to the class.

I was absolutely elated.  And at the bottom of my paper, she wrote:  “You’re a good writer.  You should consider majoring in journalism.” Murphy's encouragement had unwittingly jarred something loose, exposing me for the first time to what I knew had to be my destiny.  From that day forward my whole life revolved around writing.

A few years passed and I often found myself thinking about that English professor who changed my life.  I wanted to tell her that I took her advice and pursued writing.  I wanted to tell her that I had been published and won awards and it was all because of her.  It made me sad that she would never know.

Then one day, through the miracle of the Internet, I was looking for writing contests and came across the Inland Empire California Writer’s Club.  The treasurer of the club was S. Kay Murphy.  I wasn’t positive if it was my former English professor, but I wrote her an email anyway.  I explained who I was and how—assuming she was who I thought she was—she had changed my life.  Not only did she remember me nearly seven years later, but she was dumbfounded by how her little comment on the back of my paper had managed to put my life in focus.

Now that we were in touch, the first thing I wanted to know about was her writing.  She sent me an essay she’d written for the L.A. Times about not watching an Eminem concert at the Blockbuster Pavilion.  I, in turn, sent her some of my own writing.

But, for all the talking we did about writing, what she didn't tell me—because she is famously guarded about her work, as I would eventually learn—was she was working on the manuscript that would eventually become Tainted Legacy.  As much as I enjoyed the memoir itself, my favorite part of Tainted Legacy appears in the “Acknowledgments.”

“To Mrs. Walton, my fourth grade teacher—and to all those teachers who are willing to encourage the gifts they see in their students: Please know that your contribution to our lives is enormous, and we never forget you, even if we never come back to thank you.”

-S. Kay Murphy, Tainted Legacy

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Evolution of Professor Me

I’m an English professor.  It’s how I earn my living.  Invariably, when I show up on the first day of any given semester and see a group of 30 or 40 college students staring at me as I prepare to introduce myself, I’m always struck by the same thought.

How did I get here?

I’ve been teaching English since the fall of 2006.  While I like to think I’m good at my job, there was definitely a time when I knew I was terrible at it.  Not for lack of effort, mind you.  I just didn’t know what I was doing nor did I know how to get any better.  It’s taken me these last five years to reach a point where I feel like I almost know what I’m doing.

It wasn’t always my ambition to be an English professor—or do anything at all in the world of academia.  In fact, growing up, I had no idea such a world existed.  As a kid I was shy and timid, so the easiest thing for me to do was get lost in my imagination.  I loved professional wrestling and comic books.  My brother Greg had an impressive library of comic books that he collected during his own childhood in the seventies, so, for as long as I could remember, I had access to Batman and Superman and Spiderman and most every other superhero that came out of DC or Marvel.

It was never the words in the comic books that captivated me, but the pictures.  I loved drawing pictures as a kid.  Some of my earliest memories involve me hiding under my bed and falling asleep with a crayon in my hand and a coloring book pillowed beneath my cheek.

My love of art and drawing stayed with me through high school, culminating in an advanced placement studio art class during my senior year.  But, by the time the class was over, I found I was burnt out with art.  This should’ve been alarming, as art was the only vested interest I had in school, but I found that avoiding the idea of my post-high school life was a lot less stressful.  Of course, high school did eventually end and I had nothing planned for myself, so I enrolled at Chaffey College.

I grew up five minutes away from Chaffey and, more importantly, I knew how to get there, so, obviously, it was my number one choice.  While I went into Chaffey completely clueless as to how I was supposed to succeed in college, I had the great good fortune to end up in a freshmen composition course taught by S. Kay Murphy.  It was Kay’s first time teaching a college course and it was my first semester in college, so we were a perfect pair.  More than that, Kay saw something in my writing that I had never seen before.

Potential.

She spent the semester encouraging me and my writing and I, in turn, applied myself—really and truly—for the first time as a student, college or otherwise.  With her encouragement I discovered a love for writing that seemed to come from the same place that my love for art and drawing had once come from.  Interestingly enough, that same year I took a U.S. history class, which assigned, among other books, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

It’s important to note that I was not a reader growing up.  If it wasn’t a comic book or Pro Wrestling Illustrated, I had no interest in reading it.  So, when I was assigned to read The Jungle—which is around 400 pages with teeny-tiny font—and only given a month to do it, I was terrified.  For reasons that I can scarcely articulate, something triggered in my brain soon after I began reading The Jungle and, without meaning to, I finished Sinclair’s seminal novel in three days.  So in just under a year, at the age of nineteen, I discovered a love for reading and writing.

A few years would pass before I decided to study English, but even when that time came, I didn’t know what I would do with a degree in English.  All that made sense was becoming a high school teacher.  As I was preparing to graduate from Chaffey and transfer to Cal State San Bernardino, I went to see my counselor for a State-of-the-Union-type sit down.  He asked what I wanted to do with an English degree and I told him I would teach high school.

“You don’t want to do that.”

“Really?”

“No,” he said.  “Just stay in school for an extra two years and get a Master’s degree.  Then you can teach in a community college.”

“No kidding?”

I finished my Bachelor’s degree with relative ease, as the enthusiasm and motivation I discovered in Kay’s class was still going strong.  Graduate school was another story altogether, proving to challenge not only my intellect but my will.  It was tough and I’d love to tell you that I stuck it out for some noble reason, but the truth is I didn’t have a backup plan.  I had painted myself into a corner, so to speak.  In the absence of any other reasonable options, I managed to earn my Master’s degree in three years.

As I was finishing up my degree, I called the Language Arts department at Chaffey College to ask how I might get a job teaching there.  A month or so later I was interviewing for an adjunct teaching position.  About fifteen minutes into the interview, I was offered a couple of advanced composition classes to teach.  Before I knew it, I was holding two textbooks and a set of keys.  Classes would begin in three weeks, so I needed to start writing a syllabus.  The fact that I didn’t know how to write a syllabus was the least of my problems, as I didn’t know how to be an English professor.

I took the job anyway.

That was about five years ago.  I’ve learned a whole lot since then, much of it coming the hard way.  While I’m far from an expert, I feel like I’m pretty good at my job.  And, more than that, I also like to think I have some useful insights to offer college students and professors alike.

And that's why, from time to time, you can expect to read any number of posts here on Inside Martin regarding my life as a college professor. It’ll be a chance for me to share my stories, talk about my experiences, fill you in on some of my personal victories, as well as some of my more demoralizing defeats.  Even if you find that what I have to say here doesn’t make you a better student or teacher, hopefully you’ll find that you’re too amused to care.