Gina Nahai: Leonard’s story

Years ago, I created a class, “Writer’s Marketplace,” dedicated to the business side of writing. It was inspired by all the I-wish-I’d-known-then-what-I-know-now moments in my own career, the realization that good writers often are clueless about how to sell their work, and that writing schools are often remiss in communicating the practical aspects of the profession to their students. I’m not talking about every third rich housewife who’s bored with her charities and aged out of volunteering at her kids’ schools, who pays a vanity press or an online publisher a few hundred dollars and produces what a friend of mine calls “a booklike object” she can sell to her charity and school friends. My concern is the truly talented writer who takes out a $100,000 loan, spends three years in graduate school writing a novel or a screenplay, then drops out of the race because he’s too broke and in debt and disheartened. 

So I teach the class every semester, start and end it with a firm the-only-rule-is-that-there-are-no-rules announcement, then spend 13 weeks belaboring the rules. One of these, as you might imagine, is, “Whatever you do, don’t quit your day job.” Not when you’re in graduate school, not while you’re finishing the work, not even after you’ve got a contract and cashed your first check. Unless you have a $2 million deal and no mortgage, children or dogs: Don’t quit your day job. 

There are many reasons for this, not all of them financial. I was busy enumerating these for my new class at the start of last semester when a student interrupted me. 

“So what would you say,” he asked, “to a person who’s quit a steady job with a pension and gone into debt and moved across the state just to come here and write?” 

For a minute, I was truly at a loss. Nothing good; especially if you’re older, as you seem to be. 

“Is that you?” I asked, and he nodded. 

“Do you have a rich wife?” And is she willing to support you for the rest of your life, if need be?

He shook his head. 

“A lot of savings?” 

He shook his head again. 

I weighed the benefits of telling an enthusiastic new student that he had done a crazy thing he couldn’t easily undo against the temptation to admire his reckless disregard for reality in favor of pursuing a dream. 

“I’d say you’d better write a great book and make sure it’s published.” 

That was in January. By August, Leonard had written 100 pages of a novel, a few short stories and a screenplay. He was 51 years old, a former river-rafting guide and public school teacher who had give up a steady income with summers off and health insurance to be a full-time writer. He wasn’t going to waste a minute. Right before school started this fall, he wrote to say he wanted to mail to me his novel so we could work on it as his thesis project. Two days later, he died.  

Just like that. He had been walking four miles a day and doing hot yoga two out of every three days. He was gifted, exuberant, charming and optimistic. He was writing a big book, full of intrigue and adventure and beautiful young people who didn’t think twice before risking life and limb in defense of a noble idea. Then he developed a cough, went to see his doctor. 

The first thought that occurred to me after the initial blow of the news itself was that I had yet to receive the novel he had mailed. I had read enough of it in the previous semester to know the plot and the characters; now, I was taken by the thought that they were all floating out there on paper and on line, orphaned and disconnected from their creator, yes, but existing nevertheless. Leonard’s life was over, but these other characters continued to exist. They wouldn’t disappear because he did, but nor would they grow up or old. They’d be frozen in time, so many Dorian Grays who would outlast both the painter and the canvas upon which he drew them. 

Then I thought about the conversation we had that first day in the Marketplace class. What if he hadn’t quit his job when he did, waited through a few more of what he once called “soul-crushing years,” saved his money, planned for retirement? 

At the memorial service we held for Leonard at USC, one side of the chapel was occupied entirely by men and women in loud Hawaiian shirts. These were Leonard’s writing buddies who honored him by dressing in his favorite get-up. The opposite side of the room was lined with prim and proper women in pearls and sweater sets — Leonard’s relatives, one of whom, it turned out, had met him only once. In the middle was as eclectic a group as you’ll find in any memorial: fraternity buddies, fellow white-water rafting guides, middle-school teachers, a guy who ran the cigar bar where Leonard played chess for three hours every Saturday afternoon, members of our own faculty. You could tell, just by scanning the room, that Leonard had had a few, rather divergent, lives. But you had to hear people speak about him to realize that the single constant narrative thread throughout those lives had been his dream of being a writer. 

“I warned him against leaving his life and coming down here to write,” every person who stood up to talk confessed. “I said it’s a bad idea. I’m so glad he didn’t listen.” 

I, too, am glad he didn’t listen — to them or to me or to any voice other than his own impatient heart. 

What would I say, these days, to any reasonably sane person about to trash his income, job title and daily agenda in favor of chasing a fantasy? I hope no one asks, because if they do, I’ll have to tell them Leonard’s story, how good sense and planning, hard work and patience may not be such a good idea after all.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.