Bucks County Writers Workshop
by Kurt Krumpholz
We are driving down the street on a Sunday morning to the convenience store for a gallon of milk. I'm thirteen. My dad is grilling me about my plans for the future again. "How about business?" He turns to look at me over his shoulder. "What's so bad about being a businessman, anyway? You make a good living in business, you know." It's my Dad's standard response to my customary shrug-of-the-shoulders reaction each time he brings up the much-feared, and increasingly more persistent, what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up? question. "Or computers? What about computers?" he says, his eyes widening at the thought. "They are the future, you know!"
I shrug my shoulders again and stare out the window at the milky summer sky.
On the drive there and back he continues to interrogate me in this way, serving up a succession of respectable career options for me to shoot down in rapid-fire order. Occasionally, for the sake of variety, I offer a meek and apologetic "I dunno" in reply.
For years, I sandbagged my dad in this way, deflecting his probes and diplomatically sidestepping his many cross-examinations. But contrary to the feigned indifference I consistently laid out for my parents regarding my plans for the future, I really did know all along what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. I just didn't dare say it. I was too afraid to give voice to my real inner calling for fear of how it might be received.
"Well, Dad, truth be told -- I really wanna be a writer."
"A writer of what?"
" I dunno." Long pause. "Stuff."
"You want to be a writer of stuff? Oh, that's just great. Erna, did you get a load of this? Our son here wants to be a writer. A writer of stuff, no less. And for this we should send him to college?"
"But, Dad, all my teachers tell me I'm good at it. Don't you read the papers they send home for you to sign? Besides, it's what I like to do."
"Now, lookey here, buddy-boy. Nobody asked you what you like to do. I asked you what you wanted to be. There's a big difference. And I don't care what your teachers send home for me to sign. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there and you're never going to make it on your own as a writer! You can just forget about that! It's no way to earn a living. You'd better pick something else right now. Something more sensible. And that's that."
So I learned to keep it all inside.
And, of course, as it turns out, in the long run he was right. Computers were the future. Just not the right one for me.
Very early on I learned to put aside the foolish notions I had of who I wanted to be, and like a good little boy, instead, did only what was expected of me. Years later, when it came time to enter the "real world," I immediately fell lockstep into the prescribed career paths available to me at the time. Instead of taking stock of myself and validating my secret aspirations, instead of traveling the country and testing my abilities on a series of itinerate jobs, I did what I felt was required of me.
I entered the business world.
The summer I graduated from college, I dutifully tucked all my inchoate hopes and dreams about becoming a writer into a wooden crate, and along with my textbooks and assorted memorabilia, stored them away in my parents' basement. I cut my hair and slicked it back over my ears; drew up an impressive, although somewhat embellished, resume; donned a dark suit and shiny black oxfords; and went out to seek my fortune, if not my true calling, in the spit-and-polish world of advertising.
I'd selected advertising as a career chiefly in the misguided belief that it would afford me the best opportunity to explore and develop my artistic side. It sounded like the best compromise I could get away with at the time. On the one hand, it was an honorable and unimpeachable profession, suitable for a young man of my educational background to pursue (read: it was something my mom could guiltlessly boast about at the hairdresser's each Saturday morning); and on the other, it seemed to hint -- seductively wink, if you will -- at a more decadent and aesthetic line of work, one requiring little practical preparation.
I quickly learned that both suppositions were, in part, true, and for years, in spite of myself, I thrived in the environment. At first I thought I would become a copywriter and from there maybe work my way up to Creative Director at a large, downtown agency where I'd get to call the shots some day.
"No, not a red table cloth for this layout, darn it!" I'd shout. "I distinctly indicated fuchsia in the copy."
Eventually, I realized that advertising copywriters don't have much latitude to write anything even vaguely resembling a form of self-expression. So, I settled on the account service side of the business instead.
At first, there was simply the raw thrill of holding down a bona fide job in the real world. Wow! Look at me! I'm really making it!
And then, there was the paycheck.
I was getting paid for all this fun as well. The little piece of paper I got at the end of each week that entitled me to a nominal sum of money was like gravy to me. I'd have done it all for free, but to get paid on top of it? What a scam! During lunch on Fridays I'd stand in line at the bank eagerly waiting to cash my paycheck and from there spent the rest of the weekend reveling in my success. It was like having a big pile of Monopoly money to spend as I wished on beer and ball games and take-out Chinese food. I was flush with the giddy excitement of this first unexpected brush with greed and that was enough to carry me for many years.
Before I knew it, though, I'd bought a house, gotten married, and started a family. Just as quickly, I found myself overextended, trapped in a life that had suddenly become monotonous and repetitive. My responsibilities and obligations as a father, a husband, and a wage earner were tearing me in opposite directions. Every morning for fifteen years I had gotten up, looked in the mirror, and seen an advertising executive staring back at me. Then, in my mid-thirties, I realized the face I saw wasn't the man I wanted to be. I had somehow slipped past that person.
But who was I now?
How did I get here, I wondered? I hadn't planned it this way. I never meant for it to play out like this. And, where was I in all this? Somehow I'd lost track of that pearl during the excitement of the shell game. I'd lost sight of myself; who I really was, who it was I really wanted to be.
It was finally time to drag that box out of the basement again and resurrect all my dormant dreams. It was time to stop messing around and, against all odds, see if I could establish myself, at least partially, as a serious writer.
Throughout college, and then my career, and my marriage, I continually felt the pull to write, but I never believed it was possible to pursue as anything other than a side interest. In 1990 I bought one of the first laptop computers so I could write during spare time at the office and on vacations as well. At home, I wrote poems late at night, I started stories early in the morning before work, and I chipped away at novels as my scant free time allowed. For many years, those stories and poems lay sequestered in the noiseless catacombs of my computer. They never saw the light of day. Although it wasn't much, it was a start.
In 1996, when my son Max was born and I left my full-time position to stay home with him, I began to keep the journal that would form the basis for Exiled on Main Street, a story (a book of narrative non-fiction about my experiences as an at-home dad that I've been told is unmarketable because "books about men's issues don't sell"). Each morning before the baby woke, and in between diaper changes, and then again at night after I put him down for bed, I would record the day's events so as to preserve them for eventual inclusion in the book. In this way I was able to maintain a vigilant but solitary, and often hard-won, commitment to furthering my vision.
Two years later I decided on a whim to enter a prestigious local poetry contest that, for one reason or another, I'd put off entering for years. One morning after reading a final call for entries in the local paper I thought, what the heck? What have you got to lose? That day I dusted off a stack of poems that had been collecting in my computer, printed them out, and drove down to the sponsoring college to hand deliver the submissions myself.
It was late on a sunny September afternoon. Walking across campus, I could sense something beyond the customary allure of the season in the air. The light was just beginning to drain from a cloudless sky and the grass and walkways were scattered with a few of the season's first orange and yellow leaves. Clutching my then two-year-old son Max's tiny fist in my left hand and a sheaf of poems in my right, I gleefully traipsed across campus on my way to the Office of English and Language Arts, dodging clusters of co-eds chatting idly along the way. I suddenly felt nineteen again. In a small, cinderblock basement office, I turned my application form and poems over to a matronly receptionist who smiled and thanked me for coming all that way.
Afterward, heading back to the car, I watched Max tumble along the path ahead of me and I remember thinking that if, per chance, I should win the award, I would take it as a sign. It would be the opening of an important door I would promise myself to enter and never walk back through again.
One afternoon a few weeks later, I received a surprising phone call informing me I had been named that year's Bucks County Poet Laureate. I was stunned. I couldn't believe it. For a few weeks afterwards I felt emancipated by the news. It was the first time in my life I was allowed to see myself as a writer. But after that first flush of excitement wore off, all the old nagging doubts returned.
The awards ceremony, which included a reading of my ten winning poems, was slated for a Sunday in mid-November. On a crisp and brilliant fall afternoon, a small crowd of about thirty people, composed primarily of my parents and in-laws, a few close friends, a couple of local political dignitaries, and a smattering of past award winners, gathered in the college's Orangery for the ceremony. Alone at the head of the room, I stood behind a small lectern. Behind me, solid bands of copper sunlight slanted through the tall windows, warming the hall with their light. Beyond the glass, the bloodshot maples and rusting oaks swayed lightly in the breeze. Against this luminous backdrop, in a faltering voice, I read my poems out loud in public for the very first time.
Afterward, juice and cookies were served and the newly crowned Poet Laureate was expected to mingle with his well-wishers. I shook hands and smiled, and thanked people for coming, but felt all the while somewhat light-headed and generally out of sorts.
I felt like an imposter.
"Smile. You're the guest of honor," my wife whispered to me out of the corner of her mouth during a brief lull.
"But I feel like such a fool," I said. "I'm so nervous. Didn't you hear me choke on the words I was reading?"
"Kurt, you did fine. You were wonderful. In fact, I think that's the first time I ever saw the real you get up in front of a group of people to speak."
And she was right. It did feel like the first time in my life I had given public voice to the authentic inner me.
That brief moment of recognition gave me the initial conviction I needed to pursue my art in earnest. It made me believe that it might indeed be possible to call myself a writer someday. Still glowing with elation, I returned home and threw myself at parenting and my writing with a renewed vigor.
Though it was only the beginning, I was finally on my way down that path.