By Eric Shonkwiler
The pivotal moment in my writing career came when I made the rather cavalier decision to dedicate myself to it. That may sound anticlimactic, or out of order—it’s not. Toward the end of my college days I was a 911 Dispatcher, working third shift and scribbling out notes for a novella in between taking calls. I was socking away a decent amount of money while slowly coming to hate what I did. Reading literature (and trying to write it) fostered in me a contempt for the mundane. In particular there was a Contemporary Lit. class— Sula, and Gilead were formative to me, showed me the kind of beauty writers were putting out into the world today. Reading Don Delillo’s White Noise, a book I didn’t particularly like but that nevertheless nearly drove me to live in the woods, further spurred me to make something of myself. One day, after graduation, I decided that I wanted to get serious about writing; I wanted to do nothing but write.
Naturally, that’s damn near impossible. I tried anyway. I quit the job I hated, hit the road, and worked as little as I possibly could. Rent was low, bread was a dollar—I was extremely lucky to be in a position to live the way I did. I lived in a house with no insulation, a cracked foundation. In the winter, I could see my breath indoors. After a rainstorm, ghostly mushrooms would grow from the carpet. I wrote, stealing time in my alma mater’s computer lab until they caught wise, then I broke down and bought a laptop, becoming a fixture at a nearby coffee shop. The novella became a novel. I applied to MFAs, moonshots, and failed. I papered my bathroom with rejection letters (the old cliché—I should have stuffed them in the cracks in my walls.). A year went by, in which I wrote another novel. What else was there for me to do?
I got better. I polished the work that I had. Nearly two years after I decided I cut out whatever got in the way of my writing, I was accepted at The University of California Riverside, based on the strength (minimal as it was, looking back), of the novella I started with. Two years there, and years after, the ashes of that novella gave me my first published novel. And I don’t doubt it wouldn’t have happened without that I had decided, with no good reason but hubris, to drop everything and write. That’s the turning point. Long before I ever had a book—before I even had a short story published—I think that decision is the one that made me a writer.
Eric Shonkwiler is the author of the novels Above All Men and 8th Street Power & Light, (MG Press), and the story collection Moon Up, Past Full (Alternating Current Press). His writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in Fiction from University of California-Riverside as a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow.