The Fourth Coincidence

I finished my novel.

It feels good to write those words. I can finally write them because I no longer fear losing momentum for the project. The book is written—the story has been discovered, harvested, plucked from the floating fancy, collected from the veils of the morning, etc. etc. And it’s good. At least, I think it’s good. Whatever happens to it, I’m happy with it.

The reason I think the novel is good is because it is not some hastily strewn together series of events and characters. This novel is ten years in the making. Eleven if you count script I never finished writing in Los Angeles.

 

I forget about that script often.

Although, there in my last year in LA, it was everything. I obsessed over it. Believing I needed the right mind frame to approach it, I self-medicated my creativity. A dash of weed, a snort of coke, a highball of whiskey. My inner-pharmacist prescribing my proper dosage was ruthless and unflinching, constant in his insistence that substance unlocked creativity.

I recall one morning particularly well, which is important because I don’t recall many nights and mornings from that time period of my life—I was often in or stumbling out of blackouts mostly. It was a Saturday morning, the one I remember, and my roommates were gone. The entire apartment was at my disposal. I rolled a cocoa puff for breakfast: tobacco, weed, and cocaine folded up tightly in an EZ wide. I sat down to write the dream sequence of my script. It was a CGI scene, set to Bob Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay.” Dylan has been so influential to me that if I were to begin to explain his impact on my life, this post would never get back on track. I’ll stick to the script. The plight of the characters in the song were to assume the characters in the screenplay. The woman, the Greek, the Soldier, the Desk Clerk—all.

When I pitched the script to young producers—the kind willing to meet me for lunch simply because I worked as an assistant at a big-time agency, I told them my script was, “A 360 degree introspection of the American Dream.” And that the dream sequence, “Occurs in the middle of the story to recap the first half, preview the second half, and foreshadow the tragic ending.” It sounded great. But that Saturday morning, when I sat down to write the dream sequence, after having gone cuckoo for cocoa puffs, I began to hallucinate. Not because of the cocoa puff I smoked that morning, mind you. It was more the result of a slow and uncontrollable cycle of misery that turned my drug use into a habit, or better, an autonomic function, like breathing. I heard and saw things that were not there. And I pursued these drug-induced hallucinations because I believed they were visions.

The visions took me around Venice, CA. They took me to the bed of one woman I was seeing, and to the door of another woman who had refused to see me. Meanwhile, the script sat on the living room table of our apartment, unfinished.

That day began the week-long bender that brought me to my knees, literally, in Mexico, and gave my friend cause to commit me to a San Diego hospital.

That’s why I don’t think about the script often. It was an ingredient, and perhaps the main agent of chaos in the story of my drug addiction. I try to focus on the solution today.

In my years as a sober writer, I’ve tried to finish every story that comes to me in order to pay a proper amends to the story I left behind.

The first major project was my memoir.

Something I only began as a result of the fourth coincidence. (Who saw that coming?)

 

Moscow, Idaho is a very different place from Los Angeles.

I lived there over the course of four summers to get my degree—something made possible by a coincidence, maybe the most formative coincidence in my life.

U of I is tucked in the rolling hills of the Palouse—an agricultural region that spans into Washington and northeast Oregon. Mounds of lentil, canola, and wheat gesture about the town like the contours of a woman’s body. The shimmering wheat turns from lush green in summer to a ripened gold by the fall harvest.

Grace Virginia Nixon was a graduate of the University of Idaho and a lifelong English teacher. In her death, she left the University’s English Department several plots of farmland. To honor her, the University uses the proceeds from the land to fund the Grace Nixon English Institute, a summer program providing master’s credits to English Teachers. It is a scholarship program, funding each participant’s tuition and housing costs.

But how was I to know of such an opportunity? I had never paid much attention to the University of Idaho when my wife and I sat on the front porch of our rental eight years ago, discussing what to do that summer. I was to enjoy my first summer off as a teacher, and my wife was to find a new work contract. We wanted to go west, to the mountains, but she had no luck securing a job in Oregon, Montana, Washington, or Utah.

“How about Idaho?” I suggested.

“Idaho? It’s flat. Nothing but corn fields,” she said.

How often is Idaho confused for her less shapely cousin Iowa?

“No. I mean Idaho, babe. I have a friend in Boise. It’s filled with mountains and rivers and everything else. Look. Listen.”

I played Yonder Mountain String Band’s tribute to Idaho. The song boasts of a place where “the mountains touch the sky” with “pine trees,” “wild grass,” and “saw-tooth bridges.”

Convinced, she pulled up contract availability on her computer.

“I’ll apply. There’s one option. Moscow. Like Russia. Hmm. This may be a bust.”

My wife was offered a contract within a week.

 

I had grand visions of a summer spent alongside her in Idaho.

While she had a work contract, I was going to do nothing but read and write. At the time, I was only writing poetry. When I told a colleague about my summer plans, he asked me, “Did you look into taking classes at the university? I bet they have a summer program.”

When I sent Gary Williams, head of the English department at the University of Idaho a note, I asked him if there were any classes in English or teaching I could audit.

He responded quickly: “It depends what you mean by ‘audit.’” He provided me with a link to the Grace Nixon Program.

Five years later, I graduated from the University of Idaho with a master’s degree in teaching English, all because the job contract my wife was finally able to land just happened to be, coincidentally, home to a generous and rigorous scholarship program for teachers.

In my first year at Idaho, I took a class on Writing Memoir.  Under the guidance of Professor Joy Passanante, a woman who has shaped my life as a writer, I completed my first major creative non-fiction project.

In that first summer, guided by coincidence, I discovered that my passion for writing goes beyond poetry.

 

19 Responses to “The Fourth Coincidence

  • Wow – congratulations! Much strength and love to you Mark. You are an inspirational man. I am honoured to call you a friend.

  • From my perspective, “the script” was a catalyst

  • Great story. Thanks for sharing.

  • Congratulations! Amazing and beautiful- especially: “In my years as a sober writer, I’ve tried to finish every story that comes to me in order to pay a proper amends to the story I left behind.” Although I’m not a “writer”, I am sober (amen) and I do write. All of us do- whether with a pen or our actions. Paying proper amends to the story left behind. Wow. And thank you.

    • Thank you Liz! That’s the feeling exactly. I’m glad you shared it. My friend Daniel Maurer, another writer, likes to say, “your story isn’t finished.” And that’s another way of saying it I think. We need to continue our stories to grow and change and face another day sober!

      Thanks for all your support Liz. It means a great deal to me.

  • Congratulations, Mark! I have developed a terrible habit of waking up at 4 am and not being able to return to sleep. Truthfully, this morning I thought of you and nearly tweeted a request for an invitation to the #5amwritersclub. I was thinking about Stephen King. Swenny and I attended one of his “conversations” recently, so to prepare I read up on him and learned that his early writing, often fueled by drinking, was an attempt to get the scariest thoughts from his mind to paper to keep them at bay. He worried the impact sobriety would have on his work. Thank you for taking your story in its whole to create something that is good and worthy of your satisfaction. Of course it’s good! I love your writing. Thank you for taking an early interest in my little blog. You inspire many.

    • Thank you Cher for your continued support of mine!

      I really enjoyed Kong’s “On Writing”. A lot of people I know find it too prescriptive. But I like that stuff. Why wouldn’t I want a master like him to tell me exactly how he did it?

      You need no permission. It’s Twitter! Just tweet and feed the love! I find hat group immensely supportive. Still do. I am up everyday still although I rarely log in to tweet about it. I find that some mornings I am so destructed it takes me half an hour to get to the writing. And that’s the whole point isn’t it? The writing.

  • Just simply beautiful.
    xo
    Wendy

    • Thank you Wendy. For this and your continued support of the blog and my writing!

      Hoping you are enjoying the thrill of an “outed” blogger!

  • “In my years as a sober writer, I’ve tried to finish every story that comes to me in order to pay a proper amends to the story I left behind…”

    Amen. You have been a writing machine and we’re so proud of you, Mark! Keep up the momentum and know that you have cheerleaders behind you. (And no, not the kind in tight skirts. 😉 )

  • Congratulations Mark. For many things, but today for the novel being completed.

  • Well done for finishing it. What an achievement! xxx

  • Joe Boswell
    6 days ago

    Wow! Congratulations Mark!!! So cool you finished your novel. What a journey and you committed to it. You are inspiring dude!

  • This is a wonderful post, Mark. Your writing continues to astound me. You’re the real deal. You were born a writer, dude. Your discipline is worthy of envy, as is your persistence and production. I don’t know how you do it. Anyways, I think that any writing is meant to be, to bring one to where they need to be. Shitty drafts are meant to be bring us to crisper, cleaner versions. That script was meant to show you that perhaps you were meant to write, but that script wasn’t it. I don’t know. But certainly putting in the effort, in all ways, has paid off. You’re gonna get published, no doubt about it. Great stuff.

    • Thanks so much, Paul!

      Your words are really appreciated. It makes it all worth it, truly. Why continue to wade through all the rejection if it weren’t for the support of fellows in the craft. I’ve never thought of the script as a shitty first draft. But I like it! I’m going to steal it if I have to! I’ll give you credit when and if I do. Thank you, friend.

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