Thursday, January 6, 2011

Defining Moments

James A. Michener, in his excellent memoir, The World Is My Home, tells a wonderful story from his childhood. Reading that vignette was a defining moment for me, for it expressed exactly why I write.

Wrote Michener: "The farmer living at the end of our lane had an aging apple tree that had once been abundantly productive but had now lost its energy and ability to bear any fruit at all. The farmer, on an early spring day, hammered eight nails, long and rusty, into the trunk of the tree. Four were knocked in close to the ground on four different sides of the trunk, four higher up and well spaced about the circumference. That autumn a miracle happened. The tired old tree, having been goaded back to life, produced a bumper crop of juicy red apples, bigger and better than we had seen before. When I asked how this had happened, the farmer explained: 'Hammerin' in the rusty nails...reminded it that its job is to produce apples.' " Michener went on to say how a number of health issues were the "rusty nails" that goaded him into writing his memoir.

My "nails," as many of you know, was cancer. Until that time, I lacked the discipline and skill required to be a successful writer. I had been blessed with a great education, an active imagination, a wide variety of life experiences, and I possessed an ability to collect ideas and boil them down into a story. But when the going got tough -- as it inevitably does for an artist -- I would move on to something else. I was a quitter.

My fight against cancer, however, was a defining moment for me like the apple tree was for Michener. A line in the sand. A moment when I couldn't be a quitter. But it had its roots in an experience that had occurred many years before.

During my freshman year at Baker University, I studied shorin-ryu martial arts in the basement of the old Baker gymnasium. I learned eagerly, excelled quickly, and I remember taking my first test in Kansas City, at Bushidokan. The legendary Jim Harrison was Bushidokan's founder and master, and I will never forget him. Bruce Lee once called Jim Harrison "one of the most dangerous men in the world." Harrison was truly a modern Samurai warrior.

Another student and I were called to the mat for our test. Harrison played with us for a while, allowing us to attack him with everything we had learned. He blocked and parried and deflected our blows, then suddenly turned on us with a vengeance. What happened next is still a vivid memory -- if you count blurs as vivid memories. After a flurry of fists and kicks, I found myself flat on my back. Both eyes were cut and swollen. My nose was bleeding. My body was aching.

Screamed Harrison: "Get up or I'll kill you!" But I couldn't get up. I was exhausted. I could hardly see. Harrison ordered us again to get up -- and I wasn't about to lie there and discover whether he was screaming metaphorically or otherwise -- so I staggered to my feet only to be pummeled back down. That process was repeated several times, and each time Harrison would not let us quit. Finally, at the proverbial "brink of exhaustion" -- and it was more than a "brink," I can assure you -- we were invited to stand before him. The test was over.

"Was that the worst beating you've ever experienced?" he asked.
"Yes, sinsei," we answered, gasping for air and struggling to stand.
"I didn't allow you to quit, did I?"
"No, sinsei."
"Okay, I want you to listen to what I'm about to tell you. If you ever find yourself in a fight, don't ever quit. I don't care how weary you are, how beaten, how bloody, how frightened -- don't ever quit."

He then looked at me and smiled. "Good job," he said, inspecting my black and swollen eyes (one eye was completely swollen shut). "The cuts will heal," he added, "but the scars will remain to remind you of this day. To remind you of this lesson."

Don't ever quit.

What we're made of -- our character -- emerges when the odds against us seem insurmountable. And sometimes it takes precisely such a fight -- a fight like cancer -- for us to recall the lessons we've been taught in order to achieve what we're meant to achieve. Without the challenge, we never truly rise. It's why I wear Jim Harrison's scar above my eye with a degree of pride. It's a reminder, along with my other scars, of the lessons I've had to learn the hard way, and what I am today: scarred but not defeated.

This year -- 2011 -- marks my twentieth anniversary of being alive. Back in 1991, I was given eighteen months. And while these twenty years have been exhilarating, especially being married to the love of my life, on other fronts they have not been easy.

Much of it was self-inflicted because of the path I've chosen: writing. And not just any writing, but fiction. As many of you know, the road to becoming a published novelist (same with actors and other artists) is one of the most difficult roads there is. It's no place for quitters. You've got to have "thick skin," strength, and stamina. "Sticktoitiveness," as I've heard it described.

I started writing when I was ten, and my first professional writing job, for which I was actually paid, was in 1972, for the Dr Pepper soft drink company, in Dallas, Texas. Since then, when paid writing jobs weren't available, I've had to work at every kind of job imaginable to support my passion to write. I cannot tell you how many windows I've washed, how many nails I've hammered, how much concrete I've shoveled, how many toilets I've cleaned or floors I've vacuumed. And I didn't quit. Here I am!

Robert Werden, a veteran Hollywood film publicist, once told me this: "the longer and harder the road, the sweeter it is at the top." And after having come through what I've come through, I can say this: the tougher the road, the more difficulties you encounter -- the greater the joy, inner strength and capability you will develop.

An easy life produces shallow roots; a hard life produces deep roots. It's true for trees. It's true for us.

So when my intrepid fictional hero, Aleksandr Talanov, gets the stuffing beat out of him in one of my books and later turns it to his benefit, remember: I've been there myself, just as many of you have. The world is full of hardship and triumph. My experiences help define who I am. Such experiences also make Talanov who he is: a character whose victorious battles against the odds always come at a cost, but produce solid character and lasting reward.

I look forward to your partnership and comments in this exciting literary journey.