by Ed Protzel
My wife and I recently headed to the basement for spring cleaning. Out of the debris we cleared were two heavy boxes containing writings from my young adult life that I had every intention of recycling, thus clearing four cubic feet of basement space (while also saving the planet). Curious about their contents, I began fingering through the stacks like an archeologist, wondering how I could have possibly written so very much back in the days when my life had been so hard, so fragmented; and contemplating how, why, and what kept me going to become a published author decades later.
What a trove it was: a half-dozen completed screenplays for feature films, including a script that was honored by Missouri Playwrights and drew some offers, until Hollywood’s manic Darwinism dropped them (and me) between the cracks. I liked writing scripts, still do, but I could not live in L.A., which was necessary to succeed in that industry. Also in the box were hundreds of pages of unfinished novel fragments, composed on an ancient Underwood typewriter I inherited from my grandfather. There were also pages of poems, song lyrics, juvenilia, and first-draft essays on humankind’s great questions. Youth, right?
I was a troubled young man in my twenties during the ‘60s and ‘70s—a chaotic time of seemingly endless, meaningless war, racial suppression, and protest, which I was passionate about. Clearly, I’d been driven to write these pieces in hopes of escaping jobs toward which I was directed but for which I was totally unsuited, either emotionally or intellectually. I must have felt fulfilled during those hours stolen at the typewriter, blowing off excess mental energy that my friends thought an aberration of nature. While not rewarded monetarily, writing those stories was a gift, a solace, never a burden.
On one scrap of paper was a poem I’d scribbled while at the office, a whimsical piece that (I now see) captured my fatalistic view of my publishing prospects, contrasting them to the bliss I sought from creating literature:
I want to go to the beach
And write poems in the sand
And watch them get eaten by the ocean
I’m a Jewish-Cherokee mix from St. Louis who lived in an orphan home for a year as a child when my parents divorced. Later, I was a teen runaway, escaping from a home ruled autocratically by two volatile adults: imagine living in constant tension in a house that never felt like home. A product of that poisoned soil, naturally I developed into a socially awkward young man, invariably an outsider, as most of my fictional characters tend to be. Readers ask if I am like them. The truth is, all of these invented characters have elements of me in them, protagonists and antagonists, major and minor, men and women. Also, in part, their endeavors represent what I might have done under their fictional circumstances if my roots had absorbed a modicum of courage, trust, and social dexterity. Fortunately for my word counts, my characters aren’t afraid to speak their minds, as I had been.
I’d left home after high school with a box of books and no money, The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer,” and Bob Dylan playing in my head; my future as a writer was uncertain. I couldn’t afford college and no one was footing the bill. Moreover, I looked and behaved too counter-culture for white collar St. Louis to accept me into their tribe. Despite blowing away intelligence tests at school and at the employment recruiter’s office, I had difficulty landing even clerk-level employment and, being bored to tears, kept losing the jobs I did find. Even worse, I chose to read history books during lunch hour, rather than gossip or make small talk with my co-workers. I identified with Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, who begins his final soliloquy with: “Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox.”
But the thought of writing for a living never left my psyche. I kept going, working mundane jobs, while writing and attending college when possible. But I didn’t earn my bachelor’s and master’s degrees until my early forties: too little and too late to teach college. Thus, even with an M.A. in English literature/creative writing, I felt condemned to labor as a slave in the financial services mines for two decades to keep myself solvent and my hopes alive. Indeed, I’ve led a strangely bifurcated life, half in investments, half writing scripts for Hollywood and novels for publication.
Time passed. I matured, married, grew stronger, and saved so I could afford to retire to write full time about six years ago. Leaving the stock market screens for the one on my home computer was like leaving prison for heaven. I now have an agent and a publisher, thankfully, with a four-book contract under my belt. Lately, I’ve been asked to speak at organizations, libraries, and bookstores. These presentations are emotionally rewarding, throwing knockout punches against my youthful, socially induced inferiority complex.
So what kept me going in order to reach this plateau? Why does a young man pursue creative writing while still in college and work furiously on novels he fears he’ll never find time to finish? My guess is: you write because you cannot not write. Fiction is a costly addiction; but its return in happiness is beyond value.
The morning after our basement cleaning, I woke up thinking about those old novel fragments for the first time in decades. I remembered the basic concepts of a few of them, which my instincts told me might inspire new works. But I couldn’t readily recall what was in them, or judge how well they were written. Was I being too dismissive of my early work simply because my life had been so haphazard and difficult then?
Later that day I revisited the recycle bin and retrieved most of the documents I had pitched. Loading them into a box, I read titles I was once so proud of: An August Firewind, The Virgin King, The Galaxy Gambit. What were they about? Which were sci-fi, which contemporary, which first-person narratives, which third-person?
I wondered if there were some lost gems in these pages, some good ideas, some decent writing. I mean, I was a pretty intense, creative person when I was young. Maybe some of these early efforts could yet pay off.
My wife, friends, and family often say that my life was so dramatic, I should write a memoir. I always dismiss their urging because I am content today and don’t want to recollect how miserable and frightening things were in the Bad Old Days. But doesn’t time heal wounds? Maybe I should find the courage to try. Maybe reading these early works would inspire new works, like ancient Greek art inspired the Renaissance.
I made it to college full time, finally, in my early thirties. I’d begun a semi-autobiographical novel, which I named Desperado Combinations, a title inspired by a wild Bobby Fisher chess game. I believed then that my book, too, was high-flying, complex and unpredictable, like my current novels are. That’s always been my style. The English department directed me to one of the professors I’ll call Dick, a publisher, author, and editor—and a singularly sympathetic, encouraging human being. Bless or curse him, but when Dick started bragging to the other faculty and to his crowd of intellectual friends about the novel one of his students was writing, I was hooked.
For now, my formative attempts are boxed safely away back in the basement. I tell myself someday I’m going to read them—even if they’re not up to my present standards—to see if I remember the person who wrote them. Maybe I’ll have time after I’ve fulfilled my current contract. On the other hand, my head is screaming with more ideas for future stories than I’ll ever have time to complete.
In retrospect, in returning to these memories, there is one thing I’ve discovered: you will always love the stories you create as if they were your children. Whether they are born earlier in your life or they are created when you are older and wiser, each is worthy of the care and devotion you bestow upon them. And it is that love, care, and devotion that makes life worth living.
Ed Protzel has completed five original screenplays for feature film and three novels. His first novel, The Lies That Bind, published in December 2015 by TouchPoint Press, was based on one of his original screenplays and became the basis of his Civil War-era DarkHorse Trilogy. The second book in the trilogy, Honor Among Outcasts, was released February 2018, with the third, Something in Madness, due for release next year. In addition, his sci-fi thriller, The Antiquities Dealer, will be published in late-2018. Ed has a master’s in English literature/creative writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. He is married and lives in St. Louis where he writes happily ever after. Find Ed at http://www.edprotzel.com.