I am constantly intrigued by the many paths writers have plod in previous lifetimes. For example, I became a freelance writer thanks to a brain tumor. Let me explain.
In 1985 I was a thirty-six year old card-carrying Peter Pan thinly disguised as a hard-drinking bartender. Thirty-six going on eighteen, some would argue twelve. Responsibility was, shall we say, not my strong suit.
The tumor introduced itself during a poker game, blinding and paralyzing me. Suddenly the lights went out, and I went facedown on the tabletop like a puppet with its strings cut.
As my face pressed against the Formica, I remember thinking, “So this is how it happens. I’m having a stroke; I’m dying.” Not the way I pictured the end. And it wasn’t the end, or a stroke. So much for the good news. The bad news, somberly announced at the local hospital: a brain tumor. “Larger than a golf ball,” is how the neurosurgeon described it.
After six months, six surgeries, spinal meningitis, and several close calls, I emerged damaged and shaken, but to my surprise, alive. Next, a rehab program.
A year or so later I had become healthy enough to…to what? My sister summed it up nicely, “Let’s see,” she said one day as we discussed my future, “you’re disabled, flunked out of college, no marketable skills…” She paused as we both pondered that resume. “Maybe you should take some classes at the junior college. See how you do.” And that, in a nutshell, is how I found myself waiting to register while wondering if I was too old or too damaged to do something with my life. I got in, of course — junior colleges admit anybody with a pulse.
As an assignment for a freelance writing course I submitted an essay about my brain tumor experience for publication. It seemed to me the rejection letter arrived the next day. Crushed, I didn’t submit another thing for a decade. Not until a dissertation drove me to it. Penning nothing but academic prose provokes even the most stable individuals to commit irrational acts. I submitted another essay about my brain tumor experience. It was published.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw that published essay. It felt like I was fourteen again and I had just sighted the girl of my dreams. Naturally, along the way I’ve accumulated a stack of rejection letters thicker than a New York City phone book. But after reading an interview with a successful writer who revealed how many rejections he accumulated, I realized it goes with the territory. If it were easy, a sage friend observed, everybody would be a published writer.
Of course another benefit of selling something I’d written proved to be getting paid. For someone who’d only written for college grades this was a novel experience. And although I often take less exciting writing gigs – like writing essays for medical encyclopedia or academic ghost writing, at times I get paid to write about something I want to write about. And that’s like giving an eleven-year-old boy money to play baseball.
It’s been an interesting and rewarding journey. But when I’m congratulated for my accomplishments I’m reminded that — for someone whose brain’s been fondled more than my mother handled the Sunday meatloaf — I’d probably still be tending bar, if hadn’t been for that brain tumor.
If there’s a message in my story for other aspiring writers, it’s probably this: Don’t give up your writing dreams, but develop dependable writing assignments to pay the bills. And I can’t stress this enough: persistence pays.
Bill Asenjo recently completed his PhD at the University of Iowa. A certified rehabilitation counselor he consults for a healthcare management company to supplement his true love: writing.