where the writers are
Exposing myself to high school students

I exposed myself to about 30 high school communications students yesterday. I was there to answer their questions about how I earn my living.

I told them you need to be provocative -- that’s what I tried to do here with that first sentence. So there’s no need to alert the authorities.

Of course, I didn’t expose myself in the criminal manner. But whenever I talk to students or people who sincerely desire to write for a living, a big encouraging part of me gets naked.

I’m usually self-effacing to the point of belittling about what I do for a living. I think that has to do with where I call home. Latrobe isn’t bohemian Chelsea or some dippy art enclave perched on the unstable cliffs overlooking  the Pacific Ocean.

This is western Pennsylvania, a land populated by good hearted men and women with a reputation for rolling up their sleeves and going to work. They punch clocks in steel mills, on police beats and in the blue collar jobs that invariably lead to sore feet, aching backs and clocks in basement bars that count down the years, months and days until retirement brings relief.

How on earth can I compare what I do for a living with what they do? Even a rare day that’s bottom-line productive means having a pleasant chat with someone, sitting down in my cozy little office, selecting an inspiring iPod playlist for the stereo and then trying to conjure up a compelling tale. And there’s usually some brainstorming juggling involved.

I’m a storyteller. I had it put on my business cards -- Storyteller -- in places where other people put things like accountant, attorney or podiatrist.

So I go out of my way to deprecate how I make my money. In the great scheme of things, it’s like going to work in a sandbox full of bright little Tinker toys. It’s an endless recess.

I always wonder later if it’s right to tell students it’s possible to earn a living -- not necessarily a good one -- by skating through life the way I do. But I’ll never flinch in that situation.

How could I? It’s just so flattering to sit there and have so many bright eyes and raised hands ask you questions about how I got where I am, a place that clearly many of them think they’d like to be.

I was pleased that so many of them had read and seemingly enjoyed many of the offbeat stories from the obscure part of my website I call “The Orphanage,” a section of unpublished stories that are available for love or professional adoption. They wanted to know if the how much heart I put into satirical stories about the possibilities of golf in heaven and how, just maybe, God would be grateful if for just one week nobody prayed for anything.

They wanted to know where my inspiration for fiction and essays comes from. I fumbled around, but told them I really don’t know. If I did, I’d hunt the bastard down and flog the crap out of it for the many days when it spends avoiding me.

It went so well I’m probably going to keep the raft of e-mails from students who went out of their way to thank me and tell me I’m great. I may re-read them on the days when mounting rejections sinisterly try to convince me otherwise.

After the bell rang and I was getting read to leave, one friendly, lanky kid asked if I was famous. I felt like whistling the whole bunch of them back into their seats for a schedule-disrupting discourse on the answer:

“No,” I laughed, “I’m not famous. And I won’t consider myself so until editors and publishers call me and beg for fresh stories. I’m not the kind of writer who wants Spielberg or Eastwood to turn his novel into a movie. I’m the kind of writer that hopes someone -- anyone -- will publish his novel so it won’t sit there like a nagging reminder that it was just a colossal waste of time . So, no, I’m not famous.”

It was the only fib I told the whole day.

Because, truly, I am famous. I’m famous in places like that classroom and anyplace where someone struggling aspires to live solely by his or her wits. I’m famous to people who want to create something out of nothing and get paid, no matter how meager, for the proud little result.

Several of the students have said they were going to start reading this journalistic equivalent of a  lemonade-stand for inspiration. And you know what that means.

It means I’ll have to strive to be even more ruthlessly honest. I can’t be caught in some rhetorical mischief because it’s likely someone’s going to call me on it and expose me as a fraud.

And I wouldn’t want to get caught with my pants down.