I grew up in Caruthers, California, a little town in the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno. They grow raisins there. Now I live in Saint Helens, Oregon, where there’s not a vineyard for miles.


I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer, although I liked books and reading. I never really played with my toys the way friends played with theirs, instead staging elaborate plays with my toys as props, action figures as actors. I gave them backstories, obstacles. I might do a whole day’s play sitting at my desk, toy spaceships static on the desk. I also liked being alone. Once I made my little sister sign a contract to leave me alone and had both my parents witness it. I still have that contract somewhere. I had a storyteller’s imagination, and I suppose I trusted in words and paper even then, though I expressly did not want to be a writer. I used to walk around behind my house, nine- or ten-years-old, thinking about how I wouldn’t be a writer. My hand hurt when I wrote. I didn’t like the typewriter. I thought the spacebar was a cruel invention, a waste of time. Why make a button that big that didn’t make a mark on the page? I liked to draw robots instead and you can’t draw robots on a typewriter.


In eighth grade I wanted to play for the ‘Forty-Niners and the Cubs and the Lakers, though I couldn’t catch or throw and I was the shortest kid in my class. I also wanted to throw discus in the Olympics even though “discus” means “thrown disc”—it must, because that’s what happened. It hurt and put an end to some things. Listen, they grow raisins where I grew up—kids like me, we learn how to dream big, but think practically. Even then, I understood that most of us would be growing raisins, or working for someone else growing raisins, so I’d better enjoy my dreaming while I had the time, even if they were impossible dreams.


In high school I wanted to be a rock star. Actually I wanted to be the love child of Bono and Bruce Dickinson. My friends and I had a rock band and we practiced in Chris’s garage. We played a gig called Day in the Dirt, where I learned to like the smell of beer. I also played trombone in the school marching and jazz bands. I sang, sort of, in the garage and wrote songs with my friends. It was the writing of the lyrics I learned to like most of all. I paced in my parents’ basement and wrote lyrics on sheets of binder paper spread on the pool table. Sometimes I had the table covered with paper, lyrics sheets to a dozen in-progress songs, trying to think up rhymes. I wrote a song called “Judgment Day.” I wrote a song called “Blindness.” I wrote a song called “Satellite” about television, in which I rhymed the words infatuation, fascination, ejaculation, and masturbation. I wrote a song called “That’s Why (That’s Why I Hate the Fourth of July)” that I don’t remember a line of now. Then the band broke up and all my lyrics lost their music. I didn’t have the knack for writing music. I needed a guitarist to write music and suddenly I didn’t have one. I still miss having a guitarist, because, what’s cooler than having a guitarist?


I went to England and all over Europe after graduating from high school, playing big band music on bandstands and in small villages on the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day. We played one concert in a village in Alsace and the mayor gave us all wine and cheese. I learned that I like wine when I’m in France. After kissing a girl named Heidi in the Alps, I came home to Caruthers to learn that I’d made a miscalculation. See, I’d always been told that the stuff I liked doing and was good at—lyric writing and drawing robots—were nice enough hobbies but crappy career choices. I figured if my working life was going to be pointless and miserable, I might as well go on living at home, doing whatever. I registered for West Hills Community College the week before classes started because my mom drove me down there to Lemoore in our big seven-passenger van.


Funny story: there were only four people in our family. My parents bought that van after a Ford Pinto crashed into our Aerostar and the frame bent so badly that the passenger captain seat angled over and broke my mom’s collarbone. My dad took me to the junkyard to get my schoolbooks out of the wreck and the Aerostar looked like the number seven, had the sharp cutback of a 7. I was picking tiny flakes of blue safety glass out of my geography book for the rest of that year. We bought that massive van because a Pinto would just bounce off that big motherfucker. I once backed into Brandon’s pickup truck and bent it all to shit. I had a van full of friends and we were on our way to a band thing. I had planned on asking Brandon’s sister out that night, before I bent her brother’s pickup truck. He knelt, and put his head in the deep crease, and wept.


At West Hills Community College I had an English Professor who’d lived in San Francisco in the ‘sixties, and in Scotland in the ‘seventies, mourning what America failed to become. He had a PhD in Shakespeare, had designed the doctorate program in literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had taught at Georgia Tech, and once worked for the IRS. He’d seen Willie Mays steal home at Candlestick Park. On the first day of class, he passed out a paper saying he was going to fucking cuss, a trigger warning before trigger warnings were fashionable. Cuss he did. The sailors from the Navy Base in Lemoore thought he was a foul-mouthed old cunt and wrote letters of complaint to the President, proving that they or someone they knew could write. He told the class he’d once tried to kill himself. He took a gun outside his grandparent’s farmhouse in Kansas—minutes before, he’d destroyed his stash of pornography to save his grandparents the embarrassment. Among the skin mags was the first issue of Playboy, he said. He stayed alive and regretted getting rid of that. He got me reading A.E. Housman and Matthew Arnold and the Sonnets, stuff with rhyme and meter but without music, like my lyrics. Except, amazingly, those poems had music. They overflowed with music, music like I’d never heard before. Just speaking those words was closer to singing than I’d ever come trying to sing. I started trying to do that.


I took a class on playwriting and wrote some plays. During classes I drew pictures of my playwriting teacher on the Styrofoam cups from the college snack bar, trying to make him look less and less like a robot. He didn’t look like a robot, but my drawing made him that way. I put my sister and some of her friends up to doing a read-through of Shaw’s The Arms and the Man and I timed the scenes on a wristwatch from Wal-Mart. A girl loaned me a copy of John Steinbeck’s novel Tortilla Flat, one funny book. I didn’t know until then a book for adults could be funny. Tell you what, I didn’t let that girl get away. I started writing a bad novel. I had Housman, Shaw, and Steinbeck in me, trying to get out. My mom didn’t like my novel so I wrote another one. I read The Great Gatsby for the first time. The only book I’d ever read that I liked more was Jane Eyre, which I read and loved when I was a sixteen-year-old boy, so kept that mostly to myself. I told everyone about Gatsby. My mom didn’t like Gatsby so I decided I’d better move out of her house.


One of my teachers from my old high school invited me back to talk to a drama class he was teaching and I let them read a story I wrote, which they got totally wrong. Once I realized it was I who had gotten the story wrong, I let go of my righteous anger and intense hatred of high school drama students and wrote another story, then another. I went to Fresno Pacific University, which until the month before I started was Fresno Pacific College, and moved into a house with five people. One was born in Canada. Another was raised in Brazil but went to high school in Fresno. Another was an international student from Ecuador. We did a version of Hootie and the Blowfish for a friend’s wedding. He sang it, “The vest that, the vest that I can.” My roommate was from Nevada. Another guy was from Taft, near Bakersfield. I had a poem published in Amelia Magazine, a literary journal in Bakersfield, California. It was the first time I’d sent something out. I walked around campus telling people. They paid me three dollars, a check I saved instead of cashing. I keep it in the binder with the log of all my rejections since. My poetry teacher sent another of my poems to an editor she knew and I had my second publication in a magazine called Christian Living. They made a typo in the first line, and “kind” became “kid,” and they superimposed the words over a boy in a hat looking over a fence. I told people I’d changed that line myself, a last minute edit before handing it over, because I’d rather admit to second-guessing myself by the light of the midnight oil than admit a sloppy religious magazine was publishing my poetry.


Then I made a miscalculation and tried to become a responsible adult. I got my teaching credential and a job teaching English at Kerman High School. I told my students I was a published poet and they cared not one iota, not even the weird kids cared. I moved to my hometown to save money, renting a house from my dad. One summer I went to the Kenyon Review Writing Conference. Got reborn. I really needed to be reborn around then. I went home and got a new job at Fresno High, which was a much better school than Kerman High, but teaching was still teaching. I liked my students, was frustrated that my colleagues only read books they taught, and hated all the high-stakes testing bullshit that’s still making education into a demolition derby of unreflective minds. While my students took some state mandated test, I trolled the Internet and found the Pacific University MFA program, accepting applications for its first residency. I wrote an essay on Chekhov sitting in my backyard swing and made one more edit on my best story. One of the people who wrote me a letter of recommendation was a Fulbright Scholar who'd studied language acquisition in Bogota, Columbia. She taught my son to never blow dandelion manes. She always gave mediocre Fresno Pacific students mediocre grades—she was hated for that. I loved her, because while at times I could be awful, I was seldom mediocre. Her husband killed her with a hammer. He was sick, the whole situation sad, sudden.


Pacific University let me in. I made good friends. I wrote less than I could have, but I kept writing after I graduated, and that’s a big deal for a writer. Pacific wanted me to come teach there so I quit my tenured job at Fresno High and moved to Oregon.


StringTown published my first story in their last issue about a year later. I got another story published the next year, and another the year after that. I failed at writing some novels but kept writing. I started work on Silk Road, the literary magazine at Pacific University. Megrez made a picture for my office door, the Johnnie Walker whiskey figure boldly striding to the words, “Keep Writing.” So I do.


Earlier tonight, I saw an empty tallboy of PBR lying on a child-sized polo shirt on our strip of lawn. I don’t know what was happening. What I like about being a writer is imagining that I do know. I’m always thinking about vans that are bigger than the family, signs made for doors, destroyed pornography to spare a grandmother’s blushes, and the terrible use people find for hammers, and writing into being worlds in which these things make some kind of sense.