What’s the Story #67

"We are all—always—works in progress"

I’ve been starting over my whole life.

I graduated high school in the bottom fifth of my class. I weighed 220 pounds, and the kids in my neighborhood called me “Slim,” “Jelly Belly,” and “Fat Fuck.” I tried to tell myself that my weight and my lackluster performance in high school didn’t matter, that I would get a job or go to college, sooner or later, and succeed. But I had no money, and the affordable universities in my hometown, Pittsburgh, would not accept me with my abysmal GPA, and I soon realized that it was time to do something different. So I enlisted—in the U.S. Coast Guard, the only service that would accept me at my weight. 

By the end of my active duty a year later, I had lost seventy pounds. I was amazingly fit. And during that period of my life, I devoted every minute of my free time to hiding away in the library. Reading—books by Hemingway, Baldwin, Kerouac, Roth—consumed me and kept me centered, helped me focus on the future.

After the military, I started again, this time as a “non-traditional student,” working my way through the University of Pittsburgh part-time at night while also working as a beer-delivery truck driver and then as a traveling shoe salesman. I traveled four states and called on general stores and Army-Navy stores, selling an array of boots for the J.W. Carter Shoe Company of Nashville, Tennessee: Wellington’s engineer boots, steel-toed work boots, soft and pliable kid-skin boots with buttons for old men with bad feet. This was okay, but it wasn’t how I wanted my life to play out. 

So, I bought a typewriter. And from that point on, I woke early every morning, as if still in boot camp, to squeeze out words and ideas and dreams—stories nobody but me, as it turned out, would ever read. (I was trying to write the Great American Novel.)

During that time, I discovered Gay Talese’s early work, his paean to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (The Bridge) and, of course, his classic “Frank Sinatra has a Cold.” And Tom Wolfe’s “There Goes That Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.” And Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. I also discovered that some great fiction writers were crossing genres into nonfiction and using literary techniques—dialogue, description, scenes—to capture real life. There was Mailer, but also John Updike, whose his profile of baseball legend Ted Williams’s last game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” enticed and inspired me. And then there was Truman Capote’s amazing In Cold Blood. And Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Talese, Didion, and Wolfe were calling their work “The New Journalism.” Capote called what he was doing a “nonfiction novel.” The New Yorker, where the Updike profile of Williams appeared, called this stuff “The Literature of Fact.” Whatever you called it, this idea of making real life read like fiction turned me on, and so I started over one more time, writing essays, articles, and books that allowed me to immerse myself in other worlds and write true and dramatic stories about them.

I cruised the country on a motorcycle, followed a crew of National League baseball umpires for an entire season, embedded myself in an organ transplant unit in a high-acuity medical center, and learned about mental illness, robotics, personalized medicine, the veterinary life. Every essay, book, chapter, immersion allowed me to start over and, in the process, open windows to other lives and experiences.

That’s what writers do: we start over. For a writer, every day is a new day with a new beginning. Even if we are writing an essay or a book chapter we have been working on for days or months—or years!—we face our notebook or keyboard not really knowing what is going to happen to our work next. We may think and hope that we know, but we really don’t—at least until we are deep into the story. Even then, we are invariably surprised.

This is one of our readers’ choice theme issues; occasionally we send out a call for suggestions over Facebook and in our newsletter and let readers vote, and “starting over” was the overwhelming favorite. And it was a good prompt for writers, too: we received more than nine hundred submissions. The essays we’ve collected in this issue tell stories of all kinds of fresh starts, at all ages and stages of life. Collectively, they show how we are all—always—works in progress, and how in the face of great difficulties and even tragedy, most of us have a resilient streak and a tendency toward hope.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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