The Gateway Drug to Writing

If there is any truth to the stereotype of MFA program snobbery, I may be ostracized from mine for admitting this, but here it goes. I did not come to writing from a love of books. There, I said it. I was not the teen huddled under the blanket with a flashlight and a copy of Catcher in the Rye in the middle of the night, nor did I walk the quad as an undergrad with Tolstoy under my arm (cover facing out, of course, with Post-it Notes jutting out of every 3rd dog-eared page). Growing up, I didn’t know writers and I didn’t know books. Reading was not my gateway drug to writing. In fact, it wasn’t until adulthood that I even connected the act of reading with the art of writing.

As a kid, I could write and tell stories, but I didn’t keep journals or write for fun or art. I did it for practical purposes, like preventing expulsion. Writing, to me, was the forced essay for extra credit preventing the “F” or the pleading letter to reconsider my rejected college application. Writing catapulted me from dropout status to the bottom of my high school graduating class. It was merely a tool to stave off disaster.

I came to the writing life by a different route. In my 20’s, while living in Chicago, I worked as a mail clerk at a commodities brokerage house. As a form of financial diversification and way to balance their portfolio, the company had amassed a significant art collection. Several pieces of the collection covered the walls of this little bastion of capitalism like stock certificate wallpaper. As I became more intrigued with these works, I planned my delivery and pick-up route to allow extra time in these hallways that doubled as galleries, and my eye was continually drawn to a row of life-sized, black and white silhouettes of contorted figures in business clothes. The etched Plexiglas label at the beginning of the line of drawings said, “Men in the Cities. Robert Longo.”

The men and women in the series were frozen in a moment of dance, but not the Waltz or the Charleston, nothing so intentional. To me, this dance felt completely uninhibited, the dance of tribal people at their most exalted ceremony. The contrast of the wild dance and the men’s proper neckties and the women’s precarious high-heeled shoes made me laugh out loud. Not because it was particularly humorous, but because it was absurd, wonderfully absurd. I was being told a story well beyond the simple images before me.

That someone would think to capture that moment, to approach a story from that angle, was interesting to me. I became fascinated with how the artists were struck with these ideas, how they committed to them, how they executed the story, and how the work ultimately communicated with the viewer.

Art as a way of life was something I’d never considered before and I now wanted that life. I wanted to tell my stories, but I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t even mime, but it hit me that I could write. There it was, the first heart-racing-tweeked-out hit. This is how I wanted to live, and 20-odd years later, I’m still seeking the fix. The happy object of this blessed addiction.

It’s admittedly perpetuating a stereotype and shortsighted to pretend all writers enter this path through the same trailhead of youthful literary obsession, but it served as a good launching point for this story. If there were a single formula for producing artists, our stories would be as homogeneous as that predetermined journey. We each have our gateway drug. Mine was Robert Longo. It shouldn’t matter to your colleagues and peers, or your readers, whether or not you took a particular road, or if you’ve mastered the moody writer expression, or if you wear a scarf in summer, as long as you are here and you have something interesting to say. Own your journey, love your journey, and write on.

Steve is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. In addition to writing nonfiction, he also dabbles in poetry and is an aspiring playwright. He lives in Albuquerque with his wife and two teenage children.

Steve Howe