I think it’s time to come clean with you. I am struggling right now to keep this story afloat. My notebook is littered with false starts and I am drowning in self doubt. Am I burned out? Have I run out of material? Am I avoiding something?
There’s no shortage of material, and burnout is a temporary state of mind. A long walk, maybe a day or two away from the notebook and I’m usually good to go. That leaves only one possibility: avoidance.
I know that’s the correct diagnosis, but I don’t know how to fix the problem. The day that I stepped into Boiling Springs High School and began my senior year my life changed drastically. I hesitate to say that because it’s a ridiculously trite sentiment, in contemporary young adult fiction followed by the admission that I was a sexy and sensitive vampire. Besides, it’s the most overplayed cliche in coming of age stories. I’m in the middle without any plans / I’m a boy and I’m a man, to quote the mighty Alice.
But I wasn’t eighteen, and I knew exactly what I wanted. I wanted out of Boiling Springs; out of Spartanburg; out of South Carolina. I wanted out of mediocrity. I wanted away from failure and fear and stress and sadness.
That summer bike trip took me farther than Myrtle Beach — it took me to the edge of infinity. If I could do that what else was I capable of? Everything seemed possible. I daydreamed about riding my blue Pinarello across the country, I wrote stories in my mind, scripted movies. I planned elaborate paintings that would hang in Soho galleries. I saw it all in my mind’s eye. It all seemed so real if I could only reach escape velocity.
I visited the shop where I bought my Pinny, kicked around until the guy who sold her to me was available.
“Did you hear what I did?”
“I rode all the way to Myrtle Beach.”
“Yeah? What are you going to do next weekend?” In the film version of this scene a bike tire deflates loudly at that very moment.
One of my mother’s friends contacted the local paper’s sports editor and bragged about me. I dodged the writer’s calls for a couple of weeks. He finally gave up and ran a two sentence blurb in a sidebar, something along the lines of “Seventeen year-old Jim Stafford found his own unique way to get to the beach…”
That pretty much sums me up: go big, then go home. If forced to explain why I’d brag to the bike guy but hide from the reporter I’d likely say that I wanted validation but didn’t think that I deserved it.
Read that sentence again and pay attention to how much distance I put between my feelings and my statement. I’m no different twenty-eight years later. I’m motivated by the drive to make a good thing while haunted by the fear that I’m a fraud. It’s why I don’t make art; rather, I doodle. It’s why I’m not a real writer but just a guy who scribbles about music and whacking it to a Bo Derek calendar as a teenager.
It’s easier to deflect, diminish. Admitting that this is my work and that I take it seriously is a risk. Confessing to that invites ridicule, hostility, criticism. The ego on that guy! Yeah, buddy, we’re so interested.
I’m too goddamned fragile for the real world. Once during my last summer of college I was walking across campus with an English professor. “You’re a talented writer,” he said. “What are you planning for after school?”
“Well, I want to write.”
“You better come up with something else. You’ll never make a living as a writer. The odds are against you.” In the movie this is where we cut back to the 1984 bike shop and watch the dude sadistically deflate another tire.
Fourteen years passed between my conversation with that English professor and my next serious bout of writing. It was sound advice, of course, I just couldn’t handle it. I caved rather than saying “watch me” and shoving the bastard into the path of an oncoming bicycle.
But a completely different James stepped into Boiling Springs High School on that autumn morning for his last first day. He wasn’t a James at all but still a Jim, and as I said before he was already gone.
If I had to be at that damned school for nine more months it was going to be on my terms. I’d spend them in the bike shop/newspaper paradox, screaming for attention and then hiding from it. I would walk tall, cocky, filled with the confidence that I did not belong in that place, but inside I would feel like the tiniest, most insignificant, unlovable piece of shit ever conceived.
So this is how I walked into that school for the last first time — past the herb curb, through the sea of rednecks, past the popular and the untouchable, through the gauntlet of leather-sleeved letter jackets. Every step in my black Capezios deliberate, bracelets jangling where my wrist protruded from my white Forenzas, the same pants Mellow wore at the beach. My old man overcoat with its band buttons and its pink cowboy hung over a t-shirt with “This Is Not America” spray painted across the chest. I wore a large hoop in one of my ear piercings and a safety pin in the other, my rooster tail moussed high and my bangs drawn over one heavily-lined eye.
What the fuck?
Halloween is next month.
Are you in a band?
What’s up, Flock of Seagulls?
I was bigger than all of them, but there was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t let the phone ring or fly like an owl into the eaves. I wasn’t only in the middle of things now, I was the middle of things.
The next year was one prolonged battle between a small town and me. I had allies, of course — Lee G. was there every step of the way, Matt, Hal the Drummer — but they were outnumbered by adversaries. When it was all over I was the only casualty, and I didn’t even realize how much damage had been done.
And that, my friends, is the truth behind why I am struggling right now to keep this story afloat. It’s time to dredge up about six years of uncomfortable stuff that nearly killed me and then wrap it in pretty paper for you. My self-defense mechanism doesn’t want to let that happen, but this is my work and I’m proud of it so fuck you, self preservation.
Bear with me. I’ll get on top of this and make sure you get good value for your Why It Matters dollar.