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

The Jungle

The first book I ever read, beginning to end, was The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  I was 19 years old.  While I’ve been a strong reader for as long as I can remember, I wasn’t always good at comprehending the thoughts and ideas represented by the words on the page.  This may very well explain why I loved comic books so much growing up.  In fact, the only book I went out of my way to try and read as a kid was the novelization of the 1989 movie Batman written by Craig Shaw Gardener.  And the only reason I read that was because I spent an entire calendar year in anxious anticipation of the theatrical release of Batman.  I was about 12 years old at the time and, incidentally, my brother, Greg, took me to a midnight showing of Batman at Universal Studios (this was before they added the Universal City Walk) on the night of it's release.  Batman, Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster film, represented three of my greatest passions as a 12-year-old boy: Movies, comic books, and superheroes.

Batman, in particular, was my favorite superhero; while, like most any other comic book fan, I appreciated fantasy-driven super powers, I loved that Batman’s abilities were framed by the limitations of being human.  Specifically, this led me to believe that I could one day grow up to be Batman—or some similar superhero.

And, for a while there, I had some serious aspirations of becoming the real life version of the caped crusader.  I suppose the point I’m trying to make here is the only reason I bought Gardener’s novelization of Batman (with my weekly five-dollar allowance, mind you) wasn’t because I loved to read, but because I loved Batman.

While I read the book nearly everyday, I couldn’t really comprehend what I was reading.  I could appreciate the broad strokes, but most of the time I was simply exercising my ability to read words without actually engaging in the story that those words were telling.  I’m pretty confident that I never finished reading the book (however, I did write a terrible book report on it the morning that the report was due).  And that was pretty much the only real novel that I ever tried to read on my own; not to say that I read novels that were assigned to me in school, because I didn’t do that either.

But all of that changed in the fall of 1996—or was it the spring of 1997?—when, during my first year in college, I took a U.S. History class.  There were three novels assigned to read in that class: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Babbit by Sinclair Lewis.  Having recently completed a mediocre high school career, I decided that I wanted to make a fresh academic start in college.  I wanted to apply myself and see what I could make of it.  This ambition, however, was nearly knocked out of me when I learned I would have to read three novels for one class during an 18-week semester.

Three novels?

In 18 weeks?!

I was all but ready to drop out of college at that point, but, having no other life options at the time, I figured it was best I stayed and gutted it out.

The Jungle was first on the list.  The professor gave us roughly a month to finish Sinclair’s novel, before being tested on it.  It’s over four-hundred pages and, in my memory, the font is super tiny.  Because I’d never finished a book in a year, let alone a month, I decided I should come up with some sort of strategy.  First, I broke the book down by pages, giving myself the goal of reading approximately 15 pages a day.  For the first day I sat in my backyard, hoping the quiet and fresh air would magically make the book come to life.

I remember the first chapter being boring and difficult to understand.  There was a wedding, as I recall, with the protagonist of the novel, Jurgis, and his young bride, Ona.

“It was almost too much for her—you could see the pain of too great emotion in her face, and all the tremor of her form.  She was so young—not quite sixteen—and small for her age, a mere child. And she had just been married—and married to Jurgis, of all men, to Jurgis Rudkus, he with the white flower in the buttonhole of his new black suit, he with the mighty shoulders and the giant hands.”

-Upton Sincalir, The Jungle

I got through my 15 pages and, as usual, comprehended little to none of it.  I was very frustrated and my hopes of excelling in college were quickly being dashed.  The next day I stayed in my room for my 15 pages of torture.  Lying on my bed, holding the book over my face, I began reading again.  I didn’t change my technique nor did I enter into the reading with any sort of optimism…and yet, during that reading, something amazing happened.

At some point—and can’t tell you when—the words on the page came to life.  It was as if my imagination was filtering Sinclair’s prose and projecting it into a movie in my head.

In fact, the words went away completely and all I could see was Jurgis and his long and difficult journey as an immigrant trying to survive in America.  I was so caught up with the beautiful story that was playing out in my head that I didn’t even realize it was happening.  And when I did figure out what was going on, I stopped reading and thought to myself:

“Holy shit, I’m reading!

Then, because I stopped, I feared it was a one-time phenomenon and by haulting my momentum I might not be able to tap into the book’s story again.  I began reading right away and, to my great relief, I was still able to turn the words into a movie in my head.

I would go on to finish that 400-page novel, with the tiny font, in three days.  I was absolutely blown away by the experience.  Sitting here, reliving this memory, I can hardly recall what The Jungle was about.

I remember Jurgis was married and I remember (spoiler alert!) his wife, Ona, dies.  I remember times were good for a little while and times got significantly tough soon thereafter.  I remember Jurgis took any job he could get, including shoveling manure and working in a meatpacking warehouse.  I remember going on an emotional rollercoaster, rejoicing in Jurgis’ victories and feeling distraught during his defeats.

“He had lost in the fierce battle of greed, and so was doomed to be exterminated; and all society was busied to see that he did not escape the sentence.  Everywhere he turned were prison bars, and hostile eyes following him; the well-fed, sleek policemen, from whose glances he shrank, and who seemed to grip their clubs more tightly when they saw him; the saloon keepers, who never ceased to watch him while he was in their places, who were jealous of every moment he lingered after he paid his money; the hurrying throngs upon the streets, who were deaf to his entreaties, oblivious of his very existence, and savage and contemptuous when he forced himself upon them.”

-Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

To this day, I can’t explain to you what it was about The Jungle that unlocked my love for reading.  If I were going to encourage somebody who doesn’t love books to start reading, I certainly wouldn’t tell them to start with The Jungle.

And yet, it worked for me.

Jurgis certainly isn’t Batman, but, like Bruce Wayne, he’s simply a man trying to do his best within the rigid boundaries of his mortal body.  And while The Jungle isn’t anything like Tim Burton’s film, it is an engaging and cinematic story, filled with heroes and villains.  From the moment I finished it, I felt like I’d discovered some grand secret: every single novel ever written was actually a movie disguised in words.  From that day on, I couldn’t wait to read as many of those movies as I could get my hands on.

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.