The Writing on the Wall by William Henderson

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The hallway connecting the bedroom I shared with my brother to the bedroom my parents shared. I wrote on the walls in this hallway with crayon, then with pencil, and once with blank ink. Only after writing with black ink (a poem, four lines, about a girl named Kyla: Every time I look into space/I turn around and see your face/Though you are everything wonderful to me/You and I will never be we) did my parents ask me to stop writing on the walls in the hallway that connected the bedroom I shared with my brother to the bedroom my parents shared. Funny that I call my parents my parents when my parents are also my brother’s parents.

I was eight years old when I first told my parents I would be a writer. Not wanted to be, mind you, but that I would be a writer. Or that I was – am – a writer. My parents humored me. My mother was an English teacher; my father worked in a family business making cabinets and tables and trophies for major sporting events. Neither of them wanted me or my brother to follow in my father’s footsteps. The business would die with him, my father used to say.

So I’m going to be a writer, I told my parents, and they said, OK, but I think they were really saying, and tomorrow you’ll want to be an astronomer, and next year you’ll want to be a paleontologist, and by the time you’re 16, you’ll want to be a race car driver.

That same year I made my announcement, my class visited the offices of the St. Petersburg Times, in St. Petersburg, Florida. We got a tour of the offices, and of the printing press (they printed in-house, two editions a day), and during a question-and-answer session, I asked how much reporters made. I think the reporter laughed, a bit uncomfortably, and a teacher said my question was inappropriate.

A leading edge computer on which I mostly played games: Dig Dug, Pole Position, Bricks. Third grade. A report on Marco Polo and Kubla Kahn. I traced pictures out of an encyclopedia to accompany my report, but the teacher was most impressed with the fact that I had typed my report. A dot matrix printer, the best kind of printer to have in those days. Each line, an excruciatingly loud series of letters and words and sentences and full stops. I typed with one finger, and I watched as my finger spelled on the typewriter. Only later, in tenth grade, did I learn how to touch-type. Last time I took a typing test, I type at 110 wpm. Few, if any, mistakes. A side effect of sitting in front of a keyboard, inventing.

The memorization of my social security number in college, if only to access a computer in a computer lab at the University of Florida. You could see who else was logged into the network, and even in the lab where you were working, but you’d have to stand up and look around to actually see the person. An ex-girlfriend and I used to go in, late at night, after having a few drinks, and we’d take turns logging in and moving from computer to computer, playing a game of find me.

My first professional writing job was with the St. Petersburg Times, which was kind of kismetic, if you think about it. I wrote one article for the paper, for the Citrus County section of the paper (by now, my family had moved from St. Petersburg to Inverness, Florida), and a few weeks later, I was working as an intern at the Citrus County Chronicle, a daily newspaper with a circulation of about 60,000.

The editors let me write, and because they let me write, I wrote. I volunteered to cover anything, from school board meetings (boring) to a woman standing on top of her car during a floor (first lesson in journalism: get the story then help the victim). At the end of my internship, I was offered – and I accepted – a full-time staff writer position. I wasn’t 18.  I had taken enough credits in high school to only have to attend half-day my senior year, and the time I was in school, I was taking college courses for college credit. I had a column, Will’s World. The photo used with my column was one of me senior year pictures, the one of me in the leather jacket, with the collar puffed up just so.

I loved that picture then. Now, I have a hard time looking at it, and when I take a boyfriend through my publishing history, I always laugh at the picture and the clumsy way I wrote stories. The editors rarely edited me. I think they appreciated the novelty of an 18-year-old reporter who thought he knew it all.

That know-it-all attitude served me well in college, where I entered a journalism program at the University of Florida with the first year of college completed while I was still in high school, and my major already decided. I learned, of course I learned, but few of my peers had daily newspaper experience coming into college.

During my senior year, I earned a Hearst Award for Profile Writing. I profiled a student with muscular dystrophy. I lived with him for a few days, met his caregiver, and had to help him go to the bathroom at one point when he couldn’t wait for someone else to help him. The Hearst Awards are considered the college-level Pulitzer Prizes. I got lucky, I suppose. Awards are such a crapshoot.

My skin. Celtic knots. (right shoulder blade and right ankle). Dragons (three: left calf, right arm, left arm). Symbols (Aries, lower back; don’t ask. Chinese characters for wisdom, back of neck). Quotes (Neil Gaiman, left shoulder blade; An Ani DiFranco lyric, collarbone). A flock of birds that look 3-D (really; 3-D) on my right shoulder and descending down my chest). Twin celtic designs (chest; these tats hurt the most).

A laptop. Windows 2000. I fucking hate Windows 2000, and Me, and XP, and any version that came out after the night when a brief I was writing for a legal writing class during my one year of law school (one of the only things I’ve tried that I bailed on, and if you discount my marriage to a woman, then law school is the only thing I’ve tried that I bailed on) disappeared when the laptop died. And it kept dying, because I kept killing it. Waterboarding. Electrocution. Finally, a suicide jump from the roof of a three-story building.

I wrote for newspapers in Seattle (where my wife and I moved after college), and I applied to graduate school, and I was accepted at Emerson College in Boston. My wife and I moved to Boston, where we still live, though we will soon be divorced. I’m gay. You may have picked up on that. I started my MFA as a fiction writer, but switched to nonfiction halfway through the program. With more than a decade of newspaper and magazine experience, my advisor suggested nonfiction would wed my career with my passion. And my advisor was right.

A Mac. 27 inches. I could have gone bigger, but 27 inches fits nicely on my desk, and fitting large things nicely is important when you write. A recipe of words and punctuation and sentences and paragraphs that you mix and stir and let simmer and sometimes throw out because the words and punctuation and sentences and paragraphs have burned or grown stale.

I’ve worked as an editor and as a copywriter and I’ve worked for myself and I’ve worked for other people and I’ve managed to write for a living for most of my adult life. I planned to write a book. I knew I would write a book. And when my marriage imploded last year, I started writing a book, which I have finished, and which has been excerpted in magazines and journals based in seven countries, including here in the second issue of Hippocampus.

I’ve started writing a second book, as I attempt to secure representation and sell my first book. This second book is about my children, and about dating with children, and staying friends with my wife, who will be my ex-wife at some point, and about the aftermath of a broken relationship. However much my life has changed, my vocation, for what else is writing but a vocation, hasn’t changed. I’m a writer. I knew when I was eight. I knew when I was 16 (never raced cars, though I had my share of speeding tickets that first year I was a licensed driver). And I know today, sitting in front of my computer on a sunny afternoon in September.

william hendersonWilliam Henderson is a contributing writer to Hippocampus Magazine. He has written a memoir, House of Cards, from which 27 excerpts have appeared in literary journals and magazines. He writes a weekly column for Specter Literary Magazine, Dog-eared, and will be included in two forthcoming anthologies: The Other Man and Stripped. He is a full-time writer, takes care of his two children, and is working on a second book.

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