January 12, 2015
This might be a mid-life crisis (if I live to 100), but I’ve been thinking about a career change. I absolutely love being a university professor. I’ve got thousands of former students who are out in the world doing amazing things, perhaps influenced by something I talked about in a classroom or an idea I shared. One student, after my discussion linking the power theory of Ralf Dahrendorf to the genocide in Darfur, headed for Sudan after graduation to work with refugees. I have plenty of students like her.
That part of being a professor is infinitely rewarding. In my 20 years at my current university, I have created a legacy that has ripple effects around the world and will continue for generations. I know the world is a better place because of my work. But the part of the job that most people do not see is the bureaucracy that drives universities that is something out of a Kafka novel. I’m not one to tell tales out of school, just watch the Anthony Hopkins film The Human Stain (2003), to get a picture of the dynamic that pits administrators against faculty and students. It’s exhausting.
So I might do something different for a while. In 2011, I published my first novel, The Mission of the Sacred Heart: A Rock Novel. It was loosely based on my own issues with depression at the turn of the century. I based the structure on an Electric Light Orchestra album I had when I was a kid called A New World Record (1976). I know you know the songs. Each chapter in the novel riffs on a song from the album. When I started writing it, I had no idea how it would end, but writing it saved my life.
It did pretty well for a self-published novel. (50 Shades of Grey started out the same way.) It made it to #2 on the Powell’s Small Press Best Seller list and has been optioned by a very talented screenwriter in Hollywood for a film. It’s a long road but you might see me walking Andrea and Cozy down the red carpet someday. Hey, I’m a Pisces. Let me dream!
But the feedback from that book was been it’s own reward. Singer Storm Large was an early champion of the Kindle version. The reviews were all pretty amazing. But best was a military veteran who told me the book convinced her not to commit suicide and stick around for life. That’s enough. I could never write another word and have that.
But I love to write and university politics and committees have eaten into my writing space. There is no joy like sitting in the coffee shop with a blank page (or screen) and just letting it come. When I free myself from the technical requirements of academic writing, something transformative happens. The Irish call it the muse (something Bono once told me about). It’s a stream that you can just step in and let it take you away.
She might not be a literary giant, but my true influence here comes from singer Susanna Hoffs, of The Bangles. We were spending a lot of time together in the 80s and she asked me what I really wanted to do after college. “Be a writer,” I said. I was writing a lot of music journalism and had fantasies of being a new Jack Kerouac.
“How often do you write?”
“Randy, if you want to be a writer, you need to write everyday.”
That was the start of my tenure as a poet and I got good. I hosted a popular monthly reading in Atlanta and got to put together some of the spoken-word events for Lollapalooza ’94. In 2011, when The Bangles came to Portland, I gave Susanna a copy of the novel and thanked her for getting me started on this path.
So now it’s time to write again. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been writing. I’ve been working on a book on 4th Wave feminism and a memoir about my rock star friends (Hi Bono and Susanna!) and I have a short story about the ghost of Elvis coming out this year. But it’s time to really write.
Cozy and I just got back from my favorite Portland coffee shop, Random Order. She stared out of her stroller while I wrote the first page of the new novel. It’s called The Dream Police and uses the Cheap Trick album as a structure. It picks up with some of the main characters from Mission and their struggles to come to terms with some of the suffering of life in modern America. There are no aliens in this one, but there is some time travel. It will be more post-modern this time. (I was hugely influenced by Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010), which made me just want to write like a madman.)
So I’m going to take a break from being a professor for a while. I know the university will be there when I’m ready to go back. Maybe I could find one that’s run by students, or elves, or bags of rocks. Sometimes your soul needs a break from the fight. There are other ways to reach people, and this book is gonna be great.
OK, here is the opening sentence: The dark expansive room was knee deep in steaming water, coming in waves from all angles.