My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Mailbox: My Top Three Achievements

[Keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  I'm happy to answer narcissistic questions, but I also know some stuff too.]    

Alisha asks:

As a writer, what are your top 3 achievements/accomplishments thus so [sic] far?

My reply:

Looking back on certain moments in retrospect, they might not seem quite as "holy fucknuts!" amazing, but I'm going to tell you what the greatest accomplishments were at the time.  Yeah, I look back now on some of them with the nostalgic equivalent of a pat on the head and an "Isn't that cute!" but when I was in the middle of the event, my socks were so rocked that they laid on the distortion pedal, destroyed little tiny sock guitars, and were completely unable to identify their influences.

Oddly enough, getting published is not on this list.  It seems like it would be a big orgasm of a moment to see one's own name in print, but then you just start thinking about the venue.  I wasn't published in anything BIG.  And from what I understand about writing, it keeps going like that.  You publish short stories and you worry that you haven't published a novel.  You publish a novel and you worry that it's not a real publisher.  You get published by a "real" publisher, and you worry that you're a one shot wonder.  You get a second book deal and you worry that you're not contracted with one of the big six. You get published by a big six, you worry about your sales.  If your sales are good, you worry about getting reviewed.  If you get reviewed you want to be reviewed in the New York Times.  If you get reviewed in the NY Times, you want it to be on Sunday.  By a big reviewer....  On the front page....  And on and on it goes.  So...honestly, it's less the Rubicon of writerly success and more a milestone on a very very VERY long path of always having one more thing before it feels real.  So here are the real ones.

1-Completing a manuscript:  Today I might think "Ho-hum" another first draft of a manuscript that will probably never get published, but that first book I finished....oh man.   I still have it in the same brown three ring binder on my bookshelf.  Finishing that first book was better than sex.  Even the kind with two girls and a sizable lingerie/toy budget*.  I rode the high for a week.

The most in-demand book of the 1993 Canyon High School Choir (baritone/bass section).
I had written a book.

(*Though at the time I didn't know that--lemmie tell you the high budget threesome was QUITE a disappointment.)

My friends all clambered for a chance to read it, forming a queue sometimes and jotting down their names in a sign in sheet.  I might as well have been walking across a red carpet.  They told me it was amazing.  (It wasn't, but their praise was like sweet, sweet ambrosia.)

Of course, today I laugh at the horrific writing and not so much the spatula jokes, but at the time, it was a huge endeavor.  I sat down every day for months and hammered this bad boy out and then one day I wrote the last word, and it was incredible.

2- Winning the UCLA Comm Board Award: I was going to get a picture of this award, but I can't find my memory box.  It was 1995, I think or thereabouts.  I was writing under the first name of Nuh (because at the time I was Muslim [long long story--actually it can sort of be summed up in four words: "There was a girl...."]).  Anyway, I won the award for Best Writer in a Student News Magazine.

The kicker?  I wasn't a student.

I wasn't going to UCLA; I just lived in Westwood with a bunch of people who did go to UCLA in a little apartment we split five ways.  It was their "dorm" and my "actual living place," so I found myself alone most weekends and almost every vacation when they drove home to be with family--a fact that isn't as irrelevant as it seems if you keep reading.   I hung out in the student newsgroup offices with them and they dropped by to say hi to me between classes, and I submitted articles to Al Talib ("The Student" in Arabic), the Muslim cultural news magazine, from time to time.

I was actually taking classes down the road at Santa Monica College.  I had a real complex back then about being a slacker high school student, half-heartedly going to a community college while all my friends were in UC honors classes on track to graduate early.  I kind of felt like being the token white guy in a group of Muslims meant they cut me some slack for being a drooling troglodyte.  I didn't think I could ever possibly write something that such erudite people would find compelling.  But I wrote a piece about my first real experience being judged by my race on the streets of Compton, and how it opened my eyes to things I'd never had to deal with as a white person.  And apparently it was even more poignant than I had even intended.  Beating out California's best and brightest for an award--any award--was a tremendous moment for me.  This troglodyte had mad writing skillz.

You might even say I was a troglo-write.  (Pause for big laffs.)

It wasn't the award itself that mattered.  If they sent a T-X Terminator robot to take it away from me tomorrow, I would give it up happily (but not before asking if a "Mila Kunis as a corrupt nun" fantasy couldn't be negotiated in return for my full cooperation or if a knife arm through my temple was the only means of persuasion it would consider).    What made me happy about that award was the fact that until then, I wasn't sure that I could write.  Not really.  I was terrified about all the grammar mistakes I made (more than I make now).  I mean I knew I wanted to write, but I thought without a college degree in English, I was kidding myself.  But it turns out that with an editor, I was competent, and that award from a UC was like being told by the legit forces of legitness that I could string a sentence together.  Also, my editor rocked.

3- Earning my undergraduate degree in creative writing  I'm not the first person to consider the fact that my B.A. in English might not be the most useful piece of paper of all time.  I'm not saying I'd reach for it if I were out of toilet paper or wanted to roll a monster joint, but when I look at my money-making skill sets, there's a reason that housekeeper and food service experience are more valuable to me.

I also know that a degree in creative writing represents a proficiency of skill sets that don't actually have to do anything with creative writing.  They have to do with critical thinking, applying reason, close reading skills, and an ability to analyze and emulate a writing element--though not necessarily a gauge of the quality of doing so.  It's not much different than a literature emphasis--which is why half the class requirements are identical.  If you look up the requirements for a B.A., the quality of the art is literally not on the list of learning objectives.  It is entirely possible for someone to do wonderfully in a Creative Writing degree and be a terrible creative writer.

However, I worked my ass off for that degree.  I went back to school after thirty, worked 30+ hour weeks in addition to going to school, kept going through a divorce, paid for tuition by selling all the things I'd gotten in the divorce (back to my ex-wife), stuck through it for six and a half years because I could never handle a full load with everything else going on, and I never gave up.  I lost sleep.  I gave up any kind of social life.  I even wrote less because I always had some expository paper due or some test to study for.  I took more classes than I needed to to graduate (9 of them, in fact), took classes I didn't need just because they sounded useful to me as a writer, and specifically took instructors who were infamous for raising the bar.  I sucked every last possible drop of wisdom about writing out of that program, and I gave every class everything I had to give--even if it was some general education class in Political Science or Human Sexuality.  As a result, I just kept knocking out one A after another until I was looking at this bad boy.

Oh that ol' thing?
Why yes, it IS Summa Cum Laude.
How sweet of you to notice.
Lower right corner.  Above the seal.  No not MAGNA.
It says SUMMA you bastage.  SUMMA!!!!
Like I said, how sweet of you to notice....
And that was a pretty awesome accomplishment.


  1. You were Muslim? Is that one of your persona things?

    1. If it was, you'd really have to know me in person to find out, but this one turns out to be actually accurate and not just truth. In some ways I feel like still am. In ways that aren't misogynistic, homophobic, and blindly faithful, I'm really, really not.

  2. I coulda been a contenda!

    I graduated SFSU with a 2.58, having scored two Bs (theater and yoga) in four years of school and a handful of A- grades. Everything else was As. I got the Undergraduate Honoree award and a fat fellowship to go to grad school, but my degree doesn't say Summa Cum Laude. I envy you.