Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Andrew Malan Milward's Lightning-Strike Moment

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Andrew Malan Milward, author of The Agriculture Hall of Fame (University of Massachusetts Press) tells how he fell out of love with basketball and in love with writing fiction.

I never wrote fiction in high school. I read a bit—Beats mostly—and composed my share of angsty teen poems and songs, most of which began something along the lines of: “My heart, wrapped in barbed wire, wants only to love.” But mostly I was concerned with playing basketball, which was what I went to college to do. I was a pretty unremarkable student—and an absolutely horrific test taker—and despite my interest in English I didn’t place out of the remedial Comp class.

So there I was my freshman year, slogging through Comp with the rest of the academic preterite, when a strange thing happened. Through a mix-up at the registrar I found myself in a senior-level Post-Vietnam fiction class. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’d never read much contemporary literature in high school and as a result I’d formed the bizarrely elitist opinion that anything good had to be old. I practically wore a monocle. (I was the absolute weirdo on the team bus, reading Kafka as my teammates blasted Tupac over the speakers, trying to get fired up for the game—I was kind of a team novelty). You can imagine what a barrel of laughs I was to hang out with. Anyway, it was in this class, that I never should have been in, that I was first exposed to writers like Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, and Andre Dubus. It’s inadequate to say the experience was revelatory. It was a lightning-strike/knock-me-on-my-ass kind of moment where I knew exactly what I wanted to do with a clarity that was kind of frightening.

The professor was an old baller—he’d grown up in NYC, had played against Lew Alcindor and Jim Carroll—and perhaps because of this he tolerated me. I began to seek him out after class, in office hours, and by appointment, and we’d talk about basketball and literature. Finally I worked up the nerve to ask him if he’d mind reading something I’d written and to my surprise he agreed. So began the period when I’d show up with a few pages of O’Brien rip-off and he’d read it thoughtfully, critique it, and somehow summon the grace to encourage me to keep at it. It was an amazing act of generosity and I don’t know if I’d be a writer today if he’d said what would have been most convenient for him: “I’m busy, kid—aren’t you late for practice?”

This coincided, or more likely precipitated, the period when I was falling out of love with basketball. I was burned out, spent, tired of having every minute of every day, in season or not, planned by assistant coaches. And there was writing and reading. So I quit the team right before the start of my sophomore season and got to experience college like a normal student. I remember leaving class one day and being amazed that I didn’t have to run off to workout or to a team meeting. I could just go home. What a strange feeling that was. I responded to this newfound freedom by smoking a massive amount of pot, during which time I mostly thought about all the great things I’d write while I was high, but when that grew tiresome I actually did begin to write. I transferred schools and was fortunate to have more teachers who read my crappy stories and told me to keep at it. And so I do.