Sometimes you have to choose. Sometimes you have no choice.
I remember it like it was yesterday. But it was actually the day before yesterday.
I had spent ten years working three jobs, 60 hour weeks, ten grand in debt to the IRS every tax day, paying it off in installments until the next tax day when I was once again broke and owing ten grand. Let’s not mention the 25 grand of credit card debt.
I was teaching at two colleges and freelance programming for the county government and various small businesses. My typical work week looked like this:
- Mon: 9am-9pm
- Tue: 9am-9pm
- Wed: 9am-9pm
- Thu: 9am-9pm
- Fri: 9am-6pm
Taking off at six on Friday was like a little vacation. I spent the weekend recovering in my recliner while grading tests. And playing the occasional gig. I mean, a boy’s gotta cut loose every once in a while, amiright?
This particular evening, I was sitting at my desk in my office, eating a sandwich for dinner before my six pm class when the phone rang. I picked it up, expecting to hear the dulcet tones of The Woman’s voice, when a man from California spoke.
“I saw your resume on the internet and I think you’re the perfect person for this position.”
Yes, my resume was on the internet in 1996. I was teaching at Texas State Technical College after all.
The guy was putting together a call center support team one thousand miles away at the Savannah River Project in Aiken, SC. One year contract, 40-hour week, paying twice what I was making from all three jobs combined.
I listened to him, asked some questions, but I knew my answer without asking. “I have two kids in high school come this fall, one a senior, one a freshman. I can’t move a thousand miles away and leave The Woman to deal with them on her own.”
He gave me his number in case I changed my mind. I wrote it down knowing I would never dial it. Then I called The Woman and told her the story.
“What did you tell him?” she asked.
“I told him there was no way I could leave you here on your own for a year.”
“Call him back.”
I called him back. Two weeks later I was in South Carolina.
We built time and money into the schedule for me to fly home one weekend a month and for The Woman and the kids to spend one week each with me in SC. To be honest, I was looking forward to getting a little time away from two teenagers.
It took about three months for the fog in my brain to clear, but eventually I found myself walking up the stairs to the bedroom at night wondering what the hell I was doing one thousand miles away from everyone that I loved. What can I say? I’m a slow learner.
That was the year I wrote the postcards.
I learned a lot that year. I learned how to play harmonica while playing guitar. I learned how to keep the attention of an unruly crowd while playing solo in a very sketchy dive bar. I watched Haley’s comet from the parking lot of that dive bar. I learned that if I played a gig with The Number One Son, I’d better play the first set. I attended a steeple chase, dining track-side on hors d’oeuvres and champagne and listening to stories from Chuck Yeager’s babysitter. I discovered boiled peanuts. (It’s like eating baby new potatoes. Yum. And better for you.) I learned that there is a place called Whiskey Road Baptist Church.
And I learned that I had alternatives. That I had spent ten years living in a rut of my own making, and that the only thing keeping me in that ditch was me.
I learned another thing. I don’t do things in half measures. For the last six years I had spent every spare moment thinking about photography or music. If I was going to claw my way out of that financial ditch, I had to devote all my attention to it.
At the end of the South Carolina contract I returned to Texas. I sold the darkroom equipment. I kept the camera and lenses, but from here on out, I would be a taker of snapshots. I would not lie awake at night planning photo excursions, would not scour the town for the strange and startling hidden among the ordinary and mundane, would not brainstorm how to create post-impressionist images with film.
Three months later I was in Phoenix working as an IT director at a software startup. I didn’t play a gig for a year, and just the occasional coffee shop after that.
Three years later I was in Denver working as a sales engineer for a regional communications carrier. (I confess I played a few open mikes while I was there.)
Three months later I was in Honolulu working as a product manager for a telcom test equipment manufacturer. I paid off the IRS and the credit cards. I did put together a band in those six years, but on a modest schedule.
One day an editor called. He had a manuscript I had given to a friend ten years before. A year later I had a book contract, and all bets were off. Writing replaced photography, and I was sucked back in. I wrote three novels, returned to Texas, and wrote six more.
I was in deep, deeper than ever before. One thing about writing novels–it doesn’t cost squat. No equipment to buy. No film. No prints. No mattes and frames and stuffs. But what you save in dollars, you spend in time.
In Hawaii, I was pulling down more than I ever had, but I was also back to working 60-hour weeks, plus traveling from 30 to 50 percent of the time. Mainland US, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland. I wrote two nights a week, all weekend, and in planes and hotel rooms and coffee shops all over the world.
Then I came back to Texas and started freelancing. No office, no regular hours, no boss. That’s when I took to writing at night, starting at 10 pm and writing until the wee hours, often straight through to sunrise.
I loved it. It was like the old days. Every moment not dedicated to something else was spent thinking about the novel in progress. Plot, characters, setting.
One day I drove my mother from Fort Worth down to Corpus Christi for her sister’s 90-something birthday and realized that, although she was doing fine in her retirement village, one day she might need to move closer to family. That’s when we started looking for property that had a separate apartment should she ever need to use it.
After several months of looking, we found a place with a 1500-foot workshop that could be renovated for our needs. We started work, but our progress was stymied by big ticket items like HVAC, plumbing and electrical. The required capital never accumulated and after three years I realized I was back at the same crossroads.
Sometimes you have to choose.Sometimes you have no choice.
The reality was that I could spend six months writing a novel or I could make the same amount from a week of freelance work. Assuming I had more clients.
So I made a New Year’s resolution. I wouldn’t write another novel until the apartment was finished. I would take all that crazy energy required to produce a novel and focus it on getting more clients.
Which explains the gap after I released The Reluctant Saint. I must confess, I cheated. A little. Like a good Pharisee, I found the loophole. I had vowed not to write a novel, but I didn’t say anything about short stories.
The following year I wrote one short story, The Icebox, which I will release with my next novel, whenever that is. And I wrote this rambling memoir, but neither of these things consume the mind like a novel. They are confections that I work on when whimsy takes me, but they don’t haunt my every waking thought. (When you think of it, say a prayer for my poor, long-suffering, always encouraging wife.)
In other news, in the three years since the resolution, we’ve made good progress. And another novel is in the offing.
And, even though for the last two decades I have restricted my photographic urges to snapshots, I have amassed a nice collection, so read on.