Becoming a writer

Grabbing the bright blue Mad hat by the brim, I flip it onto my head as the computer beeps and grinds and finally presents me with the blinking amber command line. I summon WordPerfect and the program’s promise that it’ll help me find just the right language to tell the story. The enclosure of the hat, I like to think, contains and focuses my skittering thoughts.

Just down the block, sunbathers line the upper deck of Dolores Park, with its seductive view over palm fronds to the high rises by San Francisco Bay. But I’m not tempted from my post at the computer. I’m right where I want to be—right where I’ve pictured myself ever since a tweedy English professor fanned my spark for writing into a steady blue flame of ambition to do it for a living.

So I write, ensconced in the apartment alcove that serves as my office. Today on my monitor is an article in progress about the Streetfare Journal poetry posters that I first encountered on San Francisco buses. Intrigued to know how this mass-transit poetry project came to be, I did a little research and pitched the story to a magazine editor; I landed an assignment and met with the soft-spoken writer who dreamed up the idea.

Tuning into my surroundings, following curiosities, chasing down back stories, and writing about what I discover: this is the closest I have to a dream job description.

San Francisco feels like an ideal place for me to pursue this untethered creative life. I’m writing not only stories but songs—switch-hitting between my PC’s keyboard and my Guild guitar. Every morning, Café Picaro in the Mission District fills with fellow dodgers of nine-to-five jobs who are scribbling in notebooks and scheming novels, movies, political revolutions, or who knows what. Luckily for me, I’ve arrived in the city from the East Coast at a time in the late ’80s when slim payments for magazine articles, book reviews, and little club gigs, supplemented by freelance editing work, are enough to keep me sheltered and fed.

Though I prefer to imagine myself as blazing my own trail, the notion of writing for a living is a natural outgrowth of my childhood. My father spent his career in New York book publishing and then the magazine business—my Mad hat is actually a piece of swag that he gave me. As a teenager, I snickered over Mad’s parodies of movies, TV shows, and advertising; I followed the stratagems of Spy vs. Spy and grinned at the cleverness of Al Jaffee’s fold-ins. I wouldn’t have had the words for it as an adolescent, but Mad’s eye-roll attitude toward pop culture, celebrity, and mass marketing felt like a validation of all my skepticism of the grown-up world.

And so the baseball hat with the Mad logo became part of my official writer uniform, a unspoken reminder not to take anything—especially myself—too seriously. Employing the hat has taught me, too, how helpful it is to associate a creative routine with a particular location, time of day, notebook, mug, or whatever props you choose. The squeeze of the Mad hat, like the bell ring for Pavlov’s dog, is my signal that it’s time to write—and be a writer.

~ ~ ~

Nearly 30 years later, I’m sitting with my laptop on a bright, sub-zero morning in Central New York, typing these words. On the table next to my coffee and a few scattered guitar picks is the Mad hat, which against all odds has reappeared, unearthed from my kids’ costume box after many years lost. The hat shows its age—the logo patch is smudged and the grommets are rusty—but it’s here and stirring all sorts of memories from California and beyond.

In these intervening decades I’ve stayed on the writing path. By the usual measures, I surely qualify as a writer—since my San Francisco days, I’ve done nothing else for a living except work with words and music. It’s what I do. Along the way I did forsake my oath to avoid a full-time office job and spent an (amazing) decade as founding editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine. But otherwise I’ve been a freelancer, juggling assignments and projects and gigs well enough that I have somehow managed to support a grown-up life of mortgage payments and parenthood.

Seeing the Mad hat again gets me thinking, though, about when I had a different sort of day-to-day agenda. Starting out, I spent considerable time off the grid of assignments, exploring topics with no idea if they’d ever result in a published clip or payment. And many did not: in a dusty old file labeled the Lazy Susan (in honor of an elementary school teacher who suggested storing stray ideas and images on a virtual spinning Lazy Susan in our heads), I find grandiose proposals and unfinished manuscripts about gentrification and racial tension in a San Francisco neighborhood . . . hippie nostalgia . . . travels in Nepal and New Zealand. Unfazed by questions of marketability, I followed my instincts, I put on my Mad hat, and I wrote.

I don’t find nearly as much time now for such speculative enterprises—most of what I write, at least with prose, is on assignment for publication. Which is gratifying for sure, though it does mean that my current (mostly digital) version of the Lazy Susan is cluttered with ideas.  

Like the idea that popped up last summer during a backpacking trek with my son through the Adirondacks: to write a story about the Mad hat, and how it helped me become a writer. And about how becoming a writer is not a matter of accumulating clips and making a living with words; you have to earn your badge again and again, and recommit yourself to keeping your eyes wide open, questioning assumptions, and following paths without knowing where they will lead. 

So I grab the bright blue Mad hat by the brim, flip it onto my head, and write.

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers