From the day I started kindergarten, the whole idea of school disturbed me. I hated the rules. The structured system of mediocrity was pure torture. Also, I hated the rows of desks. I always sat by someone I despised. The lessons from the “Teacher’s Edition” put me to sleep, and our Masters stank of vocational sorrow.
I dreamed of my graduation day for over a decade of my life: which equaled forever in youth-time. So, the last thing on my agenda the summer I finished twelve years of painstaking school was to enrol in school again. I was a free man. Free from systematic instruction.
However, for the next two decades of post-high school excitement, I frequently thought of college and the opportunity I wasn’t sure I missed. James Dean and Jim Morrison went to UCLA, you schmuck! But half of a decade-long quest for a piece of paper that deems you qualified at your craft, and for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars tuition, is not feasible with a wife and two kids and $5,000/month in bills.
The average cost of US public universities is $9,410. So, a math class in the US worth five credits averages to, roughly, $3,000 per student. These numbers are why courses like Math 101 are required for Creative Writing and English majors, such as myself. Why does Harvard near $50,000 per year and Yale $48,000? Because the students or parents pay these astronomical fees to listen and conform to the ideas that an 18-year-old has little to compare to.
I spent six years of my life homeless, in jail, rehab, crawled through the hot coals of hell and chemical despondence. I learned about people, cultures, the justice system, hospitals, “compassion fatigue.” I laid in the depths of the human soul and watched predators become the prey. I learned CPR from a junkie, how to reverse an overdose with ice cubes or methamphetamines; I also learned the true meaning of “dead-weight” and “too young to die.” Love, forgiveness, friendship, parenthood, malice, racism, sexism, every “ism” known to man, even some new ones. I had these “enlightening experiences” one after the other. And I didn’t have them by sitting in a classroom.
So when I tiptoed out of jail in 2013 and enrolled at Santa Barbara City College (at thirty-four years old), I understood Sylvia Plath’s Lady Lazarus: “And like the cat I have nine times to die. This is Number Three. What a trash to annihilate each decade” (Ariel).
After my first two essays: The Taste of Salt and The Meth Monster, my English professor, Dr D, said, “you’re a writer; prose and poetry are all over your essays, it’s beautiful and haunting, your soul is angelic.” Dr D was one of the very few who understood my diabolical curse, and that I meant no harm to anyone but myself in the content of my essays. She told me to write, so I wrote like a man who had something to say. I ignored my theory about a creative weirdo in a structured learning environment. Then some online magazines, on and off campus, started to listen to a junkie tell his epiphanic tales, and without a microphone.
Unfortunately, I’d also spend five days a week in a math classroom for 2-3 hours at a time with 30 students all younger than my eldest daughter. I’d spend eight more hours a day a few days a week doing futile equations in the haze of my small and smoky room. I tried to figure out why the aeroplanes are late by using given velocities of wind, mileage, with however many passengers aboard, until halfway through the semester I honoured the fact that I really didn’t give a shit. I was a goddamn writer, and that was that. I got a D. I was glad; anything better would’ve meant I’d neglected my writing, my dream.
My academic counsellor continued with the “requirement” talk. “You have to do your general classes if you want to go to a University.” I kicked and screamed and tried to exert whatever charm I had, but I added that goddamn Math class to my schedule of Creative Writing and two upper-level English courses.
After my vision of self-redemption was satisfied, I realized that writers take math because, roughly, $600 per credit makes a well-adapted conformer a little wealthier on your money. Moreover, according to the Wall Street Journal, “student debt has surged to $1.3 trillion, and millions of Americans have fallen behind on student loan payments.”
“School isn’t the be-all-end-all if you really want something,” says Jessica Bell, multi-talented artist and owner/publisher of Vine Leaves Press. Bell encourages to ask yourself, “Do I really need to go to school to ‘be educated?’ When I was 16, I still couldn’t spell. Even in my early twenties, my written English was sketchy. It only started getting better when I wanted it to be better.”
Twenty years ago, and just after high school I valeted cars at a hotel in Costa Mesa, California. I made a lot of tips before I stumbled into carpentry and swung a hammer like JC and worked alongside a handful of successful contractors—some made six digits a year, and one even made seven. I also embarked on a rowdy excursion of musical obsession amidst a righteous addiction to booze, pills, and then heroin. I’ve sat in human cages and loud dorms and learned more about race, culture, and humanity than I ever did in any book or school of formal education (one that has me $35,000 in debt and on the Prey List of every telemarketing scam-artist on the planet).
So how did you learn to write? people asked me.
And like Ms Bell I wanted to improve my writing and my vocabulary so I read stories and, if necessary, questioned their authenticity. I lived, I loved, died, committed senseless and necessary crimes then met the ghost of Charles Bukowski on my metal two-level-divan. I abused myself with pointy retractable objects filled with black tar heroin and cocaine, and then I reached out and admitted I needed help when I slipped on my daughters’ tears for the last time.
I’ve never known anything or anyone to be perfect—perfect is drab. I like my flaws. I embrace them. I dress them in black letters then lay them on pallid pieces of paper for others to see. My flaws give me endless material to explore my character, the reason for chemical oblivion, the reason we hate. I use thousands of words in whatever order I choose. And my thoughts will never be graded with a red pen by a conservative “liberal.” I only discuss with professionals who don’t mark me down two full grades for using the word “vagina” as I once did in an essay comparing a piece by Ernest Hemingway with a piece by Virginia Woolf.
After just one year into college, I started to question the “authority.”. Everything and everyone seemed like a paradox to me. Perhaps I thought the world revolved around my writing and me? I suppose, to any 34-year-old man with multiple felonies and another chance at redemption, it would.
“But how did you learn to write?”
“Yes, and how will you make living?”
“How? Will? What do you mean? I am!”
Hubert Selby Jr, a Brooklyn junkie and genius who never completed the 8th grade, but wrote over a half-dozen literary gems, made a living. He wrote Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream. Selby also taught Creative Writing at USC for thirty years. Take that and eat it.
If you want to be a writer, write.
If you want to be a painter, paint.
If you want to be a musician, play your axe until the neighbours call the cops.
Of course, if you want to be a doctor, teacher, lawyer, etc, go to college since your vocation requires one. But keep an open mind. We aren’t all the same.
If you’re different, be different.
That is what will make your dreams come true.
Here is the link; mailchi.mp/6a9f8044d263/spill-it-november-2018