I was almost thirty when I decided I was the next John Irving, an epiphany I had after reading The World According to Garp for the third time. I decided this even though I had zero writing credits and was tenuously employed as a telemarketer selling tax settlements. Garp was the only book I finished in high school. It gave me a sense of completion. A feeling I hadn’t felt in years. My days were spent pitching the same questionable proposition featured on bus benches and radio commercials: Attention delinquent taxpayers! If you owe ten thousand dollars in back taxes you may qualify for a pennies on the dollar settlement. Don’t wait –call now!
It wasn’t true.
I settled into the phones after I flunked out of college. When I was eighteen I didn’t want to go anyway. But I went and wasted my parent’s money and a year passing the bong and playing Sega Hockey. To be honest, I’ve never thought the year was a complete waste. I loved Sega Hockey. Although I cringe when recalling the letter from the university informing my parents I was getting thrown out for poor grades. In retrospect it was a warning: get your life together or else.
For me the “else” was telemarketing.
School was something I never really considered again. Just a nagging memory of another incomplete journey, something I pushed from my thoughts with a wince. Until I started having nightmares as the big three-o approached. Then, for whatever reason, I decided I would be like John Irving. Maybe my delusion was a way of coping. But he created an entire lifespan of writer in a book about a man who lived a full life before I started mine. Picturing middle age kept me up nights. I envisioned myself grey and overweight, strapped to a headset with breakfast burrito dripping from my chin, trying to convince the world I was really a novelist.
My annoyed coworkers would roll their eyes as I switched between spiels. Alternatively trying to sell my tattooed colleagues (and myself) on the far-flung idea that I was eminently talented, boasting, “Either you have it or you don’t.” Even though, at the time, I wasn’t good enough at selling to afford car insurance. And when a prospect called in, I’d be forced to return to my horrifying reality: “Hello this Patrick. Are you responding to our offer to eliminate thousands in penalties and interest?”
So I decided school was the answer after all.
My father agreed.
“What are you going to study?” he asked opening his checkbook.
He looked at me as if I’d said Masturbatory Sciences. Clearly he was hoping I was going to study a tangible skill like computer-tech-something. So I responded with the same line he used on me when he was trying to get me to take college seriously. “A degree is a degree, right?” He recognized my petty ploy, but wrote the check anyway. “Almost any pursuit,” he agreed, “no matter how implausible–is better than staking your livelihood in phone sales.”
I chose a downtown commuter college with no barrier to entry. It was housed in a series of low brown buildings that felt temporary. At any minute I imagined a crew might load the campus on a truck and drive it away. Before I could officially enroll I was required to take an academic evaluation. A simple challenge, I’d decided. After all, I had once been accepted into a vastly superior learning institution. Of course that learning institution wanted nothing to do with me until I secured twenty-four credits with a grade of B or higher.
I arrived after work armed with my trusty No. 2, sharpened and ready. Then I was escorted to a terminal where a green cursor pulsed on a monitor. The days of filling in little circles and flipping through booklets were gone. I pressed enter to start. Other students, who looked like children, began clacking away on the keys around me. Entering answer after answer as I struggled to concentrate on the first question: “What word listed below is a synonym for happy?”
An hour later I was stabbing the darkest and least reactive recesses of my brain to complete the last question on the math assessment. Afterwards I shuffled down the hall for my results. An eighteen-year-old girl stationed behind the window printed my scores. After considering my results she said I needed to retake algebra. Not just algebra, but pre-algebra. “Don’t worry it’s the easiest math class we have.”
“Really?” I asked, “Isn’t that a high school thing?”
“Typically junior high.” Her smile broadened, “So you have an academic hold preventing you from registering for regular math courses until you pass pre-algebra.”
“Great.” I nodded. It didn’t matter. I had no plans regarding math. I was John Irving.
“You did a lot better on the science section and even did alright on the reading and writing –but classes are mostly filled up so you’d better hurry.”
At the Advising Center I waited shoulder-to-shoulder with other freshman waiting to pick course schedules. A middle-aged woman using an orthopedic cane called my name. Her ankle was in a cast that made her arrange herself in a way that took up most of her cubicle. She scrolled over available offerings on her computer trying to find an evening pre-algebra section. I shook my head, “Maybe next semester –what about writing courses?”
“You can’t put math off forever,” she warned.
All I needed was twenty-four credits. The university didn’t care if I earned them in math and I doubted they accepted pre-algebra. I just needed my courses at night so I could work.
“Do you have any writing classes available?” I asked.
“There is one open seat in Professor Sarah’s eight p.m. class.”
It was the longest semester of my life. After three months I couldn’t wait for Intro to Creative Writing to end. Shysters surrounded me by day in the call center, and at night I was insulted by hacks. Thankfully, all that was left was to turn in our final projects to complete our portfolios. “Okay, everybody” Professor Sarah said raising her hands above her head “let’s bring it together so we may begin.” She closed her eyes waiting for silence. I stared at her wrist tattoos: a sun on her left and a moon on her right.
My classmates attentively readied their notebooks, anxious to share their final ideas for our Expressive Writing Portfolios. Sarah had encouraged us to discover our own subject, provided that “it comes from the heart.” I felt, with few exceptions, the class should light their work on fire and throw it in a dumpster. Their final ideas for the semester were sure–to put it simply–plebian.
“Yes Stewart,” Sarah called on a brooding man in a black full-length overcoat. “Will you share your idea?” He stroked his pointed goatee like a chubby satyr in ponderous thought.
“Well,” Stewart chuckled “it’s a good one Sarah.”
I hated it when those two got gabbing. The sun and the moon and the man of a dozen silver earrings. He was at least thirty years old himself, possibly the reason he insisted on speaking to our professor as an equal. For unknown reasons she insisted on taking him seriously.
“I’m writing a fictional narrative based on a intriguing article about an unidentified homeless man found lifeless by the river.”
“He’s dead then?”
“Of course Sarah, didn’t you hear the lifeless component?”
“Right, sorry Stewart.” she said bringing her hands to her chin and nodding in apology, “Brilliant.”
“Yes,” Stewart agreed. “I’ve written it in his voice, but in epistolary form.”
“Clever little invention.”
“Unsent letters from the man to his family discovered on the body.”
Sarah then spun on her heals to face Jonathan. She smiled and said nothing, bobbing as if she were perched on a dashboard. Then strolled to her desk to take what appeared to be the absolute most enjoyable sip of coffee the world had ever known. Her eyes remained closed from the time the plastic lid touched her lips until the liquid reached her stomach and she hummed “yummy.”
Then she returned to her previous standing position cooing in the coy tone of a girlfriend mimicking surprise at the contents of a present, “John-nah-than?”
He was bursting. “Okay,” he said, looking around to make sure he had our full attention. “I am writing an essay about a profoundly brilliant storyteller.” Jonathan smiled at his girlfriend seated beside him. She returned his knowing smile encouraging him to continue. Jonathan couldn’t hold it in for much longer. “The protagonist is someone who is familiar to us all.”
“Who is it?” asked Professor Sarah “tell us.”
“Are you guys ready for this?” Jonathan asked exchanging another giddy smile with his girlfriend. She was rocking in her chair with her hands pinned under her thighs, possibly to prevent herself from uncontrollably clapping.
“Tell them,” she whispered.
“I am going to write a piece about Stewart.”
“No?” said Sarah aghast, “W-Ohhhh-W again!” Looking stern she asked, “Do you think you can pull it off?”
Stewart rose from his group-work table and declared, “I believe he can.”
“Stewart already wrote a novel,” Jonathan’s impetuous girlfriend injected. Both Jonathan and Stewart glared. “I know Becky,” Sarah said. “He’s going to share it with me this summer.”
“Maybe he’ll let us read it too,” offered a retired postal-worker turned budding travel-writer. “What do you think?” he nudged me.
“Gosh, I hope so.”
“And what about you Patrick?” Professor Sarah asked.
“Uh, well” I fumbled. “It’s only in the developmental stages.”
“Great! Tell us, what are you developing?”
“Its a short story about a telemarketer.”
“A telemarketer?” Jonathan chuckled.
“Not only is he a telemarketer, he is also the next great writer.”
Steward stroked his beard.
Professor Sarah consulted her coffee.
“Even though he has this crummy job,” I tried to explain, “he writes like John Irving.”
“That,” Stewart concluded, “is possibly the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Patrick has studied writing at the University of Colorado and New York University. He lives in Denver with his family.
Check out his website or contact him at email@example.com.