Pilgrimage

I’m near the end of what can only be called a pilgrimage for me. It’s not epic, not as if I were journeying to the Holy Land for grand spiritual insight, but that’s the word I keep coming back to.

This pilgrimage is back to my hometown, the place I grew up, a dusty little place in central California now grown into a small city. Still as dusty, and in some parts as quaint, but the downtown that used to be just where people went to shop is now the province of sidewalk cafes, gift shops and some very nice tatoo parlors. I can only think that the biker crowd has intersected with the modern tendency toward body art to produce enough customers to support three fancy establishments within four blocks.

Although the town was interesting to me, to see how it has grown and changed – for example my old house in what used to be a decent part of town has somehow moved across the metaphorical tracks into a declining neighborhood, while there are spanking new subdivisions on the edge of town – what I really came back for was the people.

The impetus for crossing the country just for this purpose was two indie author friends of mine, Vaughn Heppner and Brian “B.V.” Larson (shameless plug, check out their books). They have inspired me to begin writing this year, and I wanted to reconnect with them in person. I grew up with these guys, playing wargames and D&D and reading lots of the same stuff, but we never talked about being writers. Writers were like distant gods, handing down scripture from on high. To teenagers, authors seemed impossibly old, mature, imaginative in ways we could never be.

When I left town to join the Army (and subsequently made a career in the military) I carried that feeling with me. I knew I was a good technical writer. I ended up in the intelligence field, writing endless reports and analyses, but never fiction. The bar was set so high that I didn’t feel I could reasonably devote so much time to doing something with so little chance of success. It remained a dream no more real to me than winning the lottery or the World Series of Poker.

From our common twenties, basically the mid-eighties on, these other two guys started writing books – science fiction and fantasy mostly. They got the classic treatment – rejection after rejection. Both of them stayed in our hometown and became teachers to pay the bills. Jump forward twenty years – and then came ebooks. They were both nearly despairing of having any type of success in writing fiction, when the gates suddenly opened and anyone could publish. They were in the rather unique position of each having a score or so of novels in the can. They just had to be cleaned up, edited, formatted and put online.

They both went from nothing to pretty good livings within two years. Wow.

Now I had hardly kept in contact with these guys. Our lives had diverged and frankly I had not made the effort. I had other friends, and a wife and family acquired along the way in my military wanderings and had simply left these guys behind. But one day I just decided to google them and see how they were doing and I found their books online and their author websites and I realized how much I would like to reconnect with them.

Now it’s hard to convince people sometimes that you aren’t crawling out of the woodwork to take advantage of someone’s success. But the fact is, I make a good six figures in the defense industry. This had nothing to do with an urge to get rich quick. I think I’ve convinced them and everyone else of that. But now that I have retired from the military I was looking for soemthing else to do with my life. The nest of children is emptying – the last one is in college – and the government bureaucracy is becoming increasingly ossified and frustrating. So the concept of writing, inspired by these guys’ success, seemed like a good one. It was an opportunity to set new goals and challenge myself in a new field that nevertheless I believed I had some talent and skill already. I’d not be starting from zero, I’d just have to learn the writing game.

So after a good part of a year emailing these guys, and writing two and a half novels. I felt like it was time to go see them in person. So I did.

I don’t think I can fully communicate my feelings about this reunion. I had thought we had worked out any awkwardness over email but the results were interesting. In some ways we were thrown back to adolescence as we reminisced. In other ways I could see so clearly how life had changed them and, by reflection, me. I had gone out into the big wide world and many of my attitudes had changed. These guys had not, not so much anyway. There was a solidity in knowing they had never left my hometown, but also a realization that I could never really communicate what I had seen and done. I’d lived in the Far East, in Europe, in the Middle East, and had been deployed to several war zones. I’d lived in different parts of the US – Alaska, the South, the mid-Atlantic states, and the Midwest. How could I relate to these guys anymore? How could I talk to them without either talking down to them, based on my larger experience set, or seem to be sucking up to them, based on our common interest of authorship, as they were so much further ahead of me in that arena? At the root of it, I found myself yearning simply to be part of our little group of teenage friends again, the ones that had played so many games and shared so many experiences. And I realized that I was the one to be suspicious of, from their point of view. I had run off, now I wanted to come back. Maybe they felt I had betrayed them by leaving.

But as we grew comfortable again with each other I realized that they were letting me back in to their lives based on nothing more than distant memories. This was amazing to me, and puts the lie to naturalistic ideas about the pure selfishness of human beings. They were generous with their time and their thoughts and their lives and I realized how much I had missed. I was the ship, they the harbor.

To bring it back to writing, it was a spiritual and emotional renewal that feels like an infusion of enthusiasm for authorship and the potential of this craft to transform me and my life. From being a consumer of content I’ve become a producer and I find this very satisfying. Having these guys as models and examples is invaluable – the simple idea of “if they can do it, so can I” is so powerful. I move forward with a renewed sense of purpose and hope for my future as an author.

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