Over the weekend I attended the LA Times Festival of Books at UCLA, where I sat on a panel of writers to talk about traveling for adventure and making a living from writing, neither of which I know much about, to be honest.
I’d been dreading it for weeks, but once I finally got there, it turned out to be huge fun. Crowded hall, lots of laughter, and fine chat. I rapidly became quite addicted to speaking into a microphone, telling a room full of eager, attentive people a bunch of stuff I’d just made up, and sounding convincing doing it.
Interesting panel, too. The guy on my left was a journalist for Rolling Stone, routinely heading off to war zones and almost getting killed. The guy on my right nearly got killed in Australia when he was 19, swimming in a lagoon full of crocodiles. And I almost died a couple of times making a cable TV show. Actually, our little trio was so much fun that people assumed we went around together doing this all the time. Like the Three Stooges, only unfunny.
What was really interesting about guy number two, though, was that his wife had just left him, taking the kids back to Virginia, forcing him to sleep in his car. He told me this while we were waiting to go in. Worse, she’d persuaded him to quit his job a month ago to be with her. The instant he did, she filed divorce papers. So right now he has no work, no home, no family, and is carrying his world in a large backpack. He was understandably depressed about the situation, yet you’d never know it from listening to him speak from the dais yesterday.
When it came to my turn to tell the audience something, I chose a topic I really believe in: how you have to find your own destiny, chase your own dreams, and not allow yourself to be forced by teachers, church-leaders, or especially your parents into doing something THEY would like for you. As I was speaking, a woman halfway back stood up in anger and dragged her three children out the door. One of the ushers outside said she stormed to a line of chairs, sat the kids down, and said, “You must never repeat what you just heard to anyone for the rest of your life, d’you hear me?”
Odd, because she sounds exactly like the kind of frightened, narrow-minded parent kids should never pay attention to.
How many people are now doctors or lawyers because their mother and father insisted they go to college and do something that would make the family proud? Now, of course, they’re desperately unhappy, but with responsibilities and kids of their own and they can’t quit. If we had happy, contented lawyers in this country – that is to say, only the ones whose destiny was to actually be lawyers and who desired to seek justice, not the ones who are merely in it for the big house and the money (which is practically all of them) – I don’t think there’d be half the cases and law-suits that there are.
Once the panel was done, we were led outside to sign books – but fast, because they were serving free food in the authors’ lounge ’til five and we had to get there before they took it all away. The canny UCLA volunteer chaperoning us around said in a whisper that we should sign ALL the books on the table, whether people were buying them or not. Then they couldn’t be sent back and the store would have to keep them and sell them, no matter what. A-ha! So with that in mind, I grabbed every single one and stuck my name on it. Like a cat leaving its scent.
Once we were done eating, the living-in-his-car guy and I chatted in the parking lot about future projects. I said I was thinking of quitting writing to go out and live life for a while, gain some experience. He, for his part, said he was looking for a new adventure to write about. He had two ideas. Both sounded incredibly dangerous. So I suggested, “Why don’t you make this your chapter one: guy quits his job to be with his wife, who then serves divorce papers on him, leaving him homeless, jobless, and alone?”
What a great start to any book, right? From that point, throw a dart at a map and start your travels there.
And that’s how we left it. As he walked off, wearing his huge backpack – probably containing the entire contents of his car – I felt really sorry for him, but also exhilarated.
Whenever life has dealt me that kind of blow – and it has a couple of times – it’s always turned out to be the best thing that ever happened. I wouldn’t be in America now, for example, if I hadn’t lost my job, my money, my relationship, my home, and if my family hadn’t turned evil, my brother married the wicked witch of the north and cut me off, and my father been so ruthlessly and gratuitously nasty that it made living in the UK impossible. Thoroughly awful, every last bit of it, but look where it took me. Nowadays, I’m hugely grateful: I have a fine life in America with a new partner, new job, and money; meanwhile, my brother’s still married to the wicked witch of the north. Karma, she sure is a bitch.
We spent an hour on the panel yesterday talking about life and taking risks and having adventures, and the homeless author was actually living that. Horrible emotionally, but also a glorious opportunity, I reminded him. If he goes off to Queensland now and writes about crocodiles again, instead of chronicling this episode about his ghastly wife, who seems like the biggest crocodile ever, then it’s a total waste of an idea, as well as a complete contradiction of everything we’d been telling those people.
And, as I was also quick to remind him, bullshitting a crowd is my job, not his.
TV Swami – he say YES to making life an adventure.