The following is the text of a speech I delivered to about a hundred high school students who were visiting Southeastern Louisiana University a couple of years ago. I had worked with a lot of them throughout the semester, reading and commenting on their writing. I hope I helped inspire one or two of them.
Early Start English Day
Keynote Speech, November 2012
More than several people have asked me why I chose to include the odd jobs that I’ve worked over the years in my author bio instead of listing more of my so-called “prestigious” accomplishments. My answer inevitably has two parts: first I listed those jobs there to sort of humanize myself for my readers but I also wanted to possibly inspire folks who think there’s only one specific path to achieving their goals, whether artistic, academic, or in their business careers.
After all, John Steinbeck worked in construction: he actually helped build Madison Square Garden in New York during the Great Depression before going on to write highly successful novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Of Mice and Men. William Faulkner painted billboards and served as a postal worker and then worked in the boiler room at Ole Miss, heating up the dorm rooms over the winter and writing As I Lay Dying in the middle of the night when he wasn’t heaving coal into the large metal boilers. Robert Frost eked out a living as a chicken and dairy farmer, as well as a grammar school teacher, once being called “the hen man” by one of his students, who was later expelled. All this, these writers did while faithfully practicing their craft and believing in what they were doing, and in themselves. No doubt they all had teachers along the way who believed in them as well. (Both Steinbeck and Faulkner went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature. And Robert Frost won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times and recited the inaugural poem for John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961.) The point is that no path is necessarily etched in stone based simply on the early tribulations one may encounter in work and in life.
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Fifteen years ago, I was a junior in high school and came here to Southeastern with my English teacher and one other hand-selected student to participate in English Day. To this day, I’m not exactly sure why my teacher selected me to come. But I was so reluctant to participate that I made a point of being late for school that day so I’d have an excuse for not going to Hammond. My English teacher was steadfast, however. She was determined: she waited for me there in the grass parking lot at Covington High School so that as soon as I pulled up in my beat up little pick-up truck, she corralled me into her car, and we sped down Highway 190 and into Hammond so that we would be on time for the English Day activities on campus.
You see, I never considered myself a great student then: I took the easiest courses I could, and college, to be quite honest, was one of the last things on my mind. Looking back, I think my teacher must have had some sort of intuition about me. It was as if she could see past my facade and was able to recognize something more there. It was a gift I now believe a lot of my teachers had and I don’t think I’d be standing here today if it weren’t for that special talent that all good teachers seem to possess: the gift to see all of their students’ potential and to bring that potential into light. Certainly the teachers among us here today can relate to that, I think.
I distinctly remember three things about English Day that year in 1997: sitting in one of the windowless classrooms in D Vickers and listening to a lecture on Milton’s Paradise Lost, hearing Bev Marshall (who is now our writer-in-residence and an accomplished novelist but was then an instructor still working on her craft). She read a short story to us in the Writing Center called “Peddling Day” about a young black girl who learns about racism in the south (I can still remember that story vividly, even to this day) and lastly, I remember entering the creative writing contest and writing a short story, which didn’t win, but I wasn’t terribly discouraged, however, for I had seen, firsthand, the close knit community and true sense of passion that Southeastern had to offer.
When I was in high school, the Dual Enrollment program didn’t yet exist: at least not to my knowledge. So I took the standard curriculum in order to graduate as quickly as possible, not thinking ahead much at all, and in 1998 I graduated from high school just like everyone else in my class. I felt as if I were finished with my schooling.
You see, at that time, I wasn’t really what one would consider a great candidate for attending college: I lived in Folsom, Louisiana, and we were fairly poor, and most of the kids I went to school with never even finished. Some ended up in jail, while the more fortunate ones ended up working for their families doing farm work. I also had other odds stacked against me: at two years old I was put up for adoption and moved in with my aunt and uncle, whom I would eventually come to know as Mom and Dad. I was formally adopted when I was ten years old, and I grew up with this family as their son.
My dad passed away not long after I finished high school, though, and both my brother and I had spent the year leading up to his death—and several months after he passed—working odd jobs to help our mom pay the bills and to help take care of our younger sister who was only eight years old. The odds of me going to college now (much less being successful there) seemed to be shrinking fast.
When I was twenty years old, not long after my dad died, and against those odds, I enrolled here at Southeastern. I’d always liked reading and writing (books were one of the few solaces I had as a young boy: I read Mark Twain, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe) so naturally my English courses were among my favorites. I still felt the same sense of community and love of literature from the dedicated faculty here that I had noticed several years earlier. After my third semester, I officially declared myself an English major.
It was my teachers here at Southeastern who exposed me to great literature and who inspired me to write seriously. I took my first creative writing class with Dr. Jack Bedell in 2003, who has since become a lifelong friend. That first semester in his class, he nominated me for the prestigious D Vickers Award for creative writing, which I later won. This was enough to assuage any doubts I may have had about myself as a writer then.
During my last semester as an undergraduate, I took a fiction writing class with Dr. Norman German—he also nominated me for the D Vickers Award but the person who headed the department then informed German that the same student could not get the award twice, but mentioned that it had been unprecedented to have a single student nominated more than once. It was then that I was convinced I had found my calling. But writing is not always about reward: it is hard and often lonely work.
And so I kept working, continuing on to graduate school here at Southeastern, where the highlights of my tenure were working with Professor Tim Gautreaux (our other writer-in-residence) on my thesis, a collection of short stories, and then getting the coveted editorial assistant position at our university’s literary journal and press, where I am still heavily involved to this day.
All the while I was shaping in my head what would ultimately become my first novel, The Pugilist’s Wife. The genesis of the story actually came from an experience I had in high school when my good friend’s mother had him come home from school early one day to be with her at their house in Sun, Louisiana, after an inmate had escaped from the Rayburn Correctional Center near Bogalusa. She was afraid the inmate would wind up on her porch looking for food or money and she naturally didn’t want to be alone. The man was later apprehended with little incident, I heard, but that image of a lonely and terrified woman waiting for a criminal to emerge from the woods to harm her stayed with me all those years, engraving itself on my subconscious. I didn’t even consider myself a writer back then, but the seed had certainly been planted.
Then in what seemed like a flurry of time and events (finishing my master’s degree, starting work on a PhD in Lafayette, getting married, having children, buying a house), I somehow managed to finish writing my book and started sending it off down the long road of rejections: and believe me, they piled up, and the road was certainly long. But I never faltered. I believed (like the writers I mentioned earlier) in the work I had done and made a personal goal to have my first novel in print before I turned thirty-three: this wasn’t an arbitrary number, but it was the same age as one of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy, when he published his first novel The Orchard Keeper. Not unlike the authors I mentioned earlier, McCarthy had been homeless and worked in an auto parts warehouse before he eventually published that first book. So, you see, no two paths are the same. And it is often taking the road less traveled , as Robert Frost said, that makes all the difference.
Two years ago, I received a phone call from a university press director informing me that my novel had won their annual fiction prize and that they wished to publish the book the following year. Now I finally feel as if I am fulfilling what I am supposed to be doing in life, what I was put here on earth to do: to write and to teach. That may sound cliché, but I strongly believe that the hardships I’ve experienced have all somehow aided me in being able to stand here before you at this moment. And each one of your personal stories of loss and hardship that I’ve come across in your assigned memoirs over the semester serve only to further my belief in the power of the human spirit to not only endure but to rise above our collective pains and tribulations to a place where we can all realize our dreams and pass on what we’ve learned to posterity so that one day the world might truly be a better place.