The moment I knew for certain that writing was the only thing I’d ever be good for was the afternoon that my college roommate’s best friend from church visited our dorm room. This was in the 1980’s, at MIT. I had met the fellow on several previous occasions, but always elsewhere on campus. He had never stopped by our dorm before. He spent most of the visit on my roommate’s side of our large, rectangular prism. They talked mainly about church business, which I, a devout atheist, tuned out. (My wife once told me that, aside from her, I am the most devout atheist she knows.)
When he was about to leave, this fellow paused to scrutinize my half of the room. He seemed to be taking it all in, but what he focused on most were my bookcase, which housed an unusually large collection of Penguin paperbacks for someone who was supposed to be studying computer science and business, and the enormous black-and-white poster of Annie Hall, then as now my favorite film, on the wall beside my bed. He stared at these offerings for an unnervingly long time and appeared to be unaware that I was watching him. Finally, he drew in his lower lip and nodded as if he had confirmed a long-held suspicion. “Writer,” he said. Then, without elaboration, he left the room.
I’m not convinced that a fondness for literary fiction and early Woody Allen films necessarily makes someone a writer, any more than an appreciation of baseball makes one an athlete. Nor did this assessment of me make me burn my textbooks, drop out of MIT, rent a garret, and set about writing great, or even not-so-great, American novels. It would be many years, sadly, before I finally woke up and pursued my goal with the intensity it requires. But that afternoon was the day I realized that other people saw me as a writer, that my comportment made it obvious to everyone but me that I was much better suited to creating fictional characters and puzzling out plot points than to working with linear algebra and Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Many others would repeat this fellow’s assessment over the years, often asking in astonishment, “Why are you working in high-tech if you like writing so much?” When I resigned from one company to obtain, of all things, an MBA, one of the colleagues who signed my farewell card wrote, “Forget this MBA nonsense and write your damn novel.”
So I’m a little slow. But I’m finally doing what I want to do. I’m writing novels and short stories and, publication record notwithstanding, loving every second of it. The colleague who penned that inscription more than ten years ago probably has long since forgotten about me, but I like to think he’d take a small amount of satisfaction from knowing that he was right, and that I often wish I had taken his wise counsel more seriously.
And that fellow from college? According to my former roommate, with whom I still keep in touch by phone, his friend had a pithy reaction when he heard that I had given up the software industry for the literary life: “About time.”