Do you see yonder wicket gate? John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress
My mother wanted me to become a Presbyterian minister. Even though I had read a good deal of theology (mainly Paul Tillich’s Shaking of the Foundations, Dynamics of Faith, and The Courage to Be), I had been reading poetry and fiction a lot longer. I was already committed to a literary career by third grade (this was around 1960, pre-Lucas and Star Wars), when I wrote a story about a boy with a spaceship, who saves a beautiful princess. I read the story aloud to my class and it wowed them. From that moment on, I was hooked.
Of course I went through the motions, just to please mom. My interests were eclectic, included religion and philosophy. By the time I got to Westminster College, I realized that I would make a lousy clergyman (something like Reverend Hightower in William Faulkner’s Light in August). Mom died of bone cancer in April of my freshman year, two days before her fifty-fourth birthday. She had previously suffered through a double mastectomy and a chemo-induced remission lasting a few months before the final fatal relapse.
When I turned fifteen, my mother had bought me a Sears Silvertone guitar. I got a Mel Bay chord book and taught myself a dozen chords. Envisioning myself as a ‘bard of the airwaves,’ I had already begun writing songs when Bob Dylan sprang out of the radio and “ruined my life.” Well . . . perhaps I exaggerate. But somewhere between “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Mister Tambourine Man,” and “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright),” Robert Zimmerman definitely drove me back to my original plan of a literary career.
It’s hard to know for sure how the order in which things occur in a life tend to produce a particular outcome. I’ve made my share of bad decisions, but always persevered toward my envisioned goal—even when it was hard to discern through the tumult of living. Thank God I got an education! I shudder to think how things might have turned out, had I joined the clergy. Twenty years later, I had thirteen boxes of original manuscripts.
I continued playing guitar for twenty-five years before devoting myself to an exclusively literary Muse. When I played “Motherless Child” and “San Francisco Bay Blues,” I didn’t have to imitate Richie Havens.