James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

My Writing Journey — Part 4

The Movies.

So we know from prior installments of this series that movies and TV, in particular genre material like Star Trek, had a huge impact on me during my adolescence. Star Wars (that’s the title in this context—no episodes #s or subtitles yet), it must now be acknowledged, also put the storytelling zap on my head.

Later, when I’d read Joseph Campbell, I’d understand why Star Wars resonated so well with the legions of adolescent boys like me (I saw it no fewer than 10 times in the summer of 1977, during the movie’s first run that’d stretch well into 1978); at the time, all I knew was that I’d been entertained and dazzled and amazed in a way at which the small-screen Star Trek had only hinted, and in a more mythic and stylized manner than the at-times more staid and cerebral Trek stories unfolded, and that offered in a big-screen, epic package an experience would go on to electrify the entirety of the sci-fi genre and its hitherto marginalized fanbase.

SW Recruitment

And then there’d been M*A*S*H, of course, and all those scriptwriting attempts at an age when it simply wasn’t possible for me to pull off what I intended to do. By the time I matriculated to the University of South Carolina, however, I not only had a teacher focused on explaining the ins and outs of screenplay-style storytelling, but I was expected to write scenes and entire scripts as part of my Media Arts class curriculum, which I’d pursued after a year spent wallowing in Journalism.

J-school appealed to me, but didn’t seem creative or glamorous enough—my guidance counselor, who’d told me that the Media Arts program was moribund, had been wrong, and I switched over. Before long, instead of struggling through the journalism writing classes around on the other side of the Coliseum classroom level—I kept ‘missing the lede,’ as they say, and I’d gotten frustrated that my journalistic storytelling instincts seemed so off—I was telling stories (more or less) the way I wanted to, on the page, and on screen in small video productions as well as a 16mm ‘thesis’ film of about ten minutes that would consume a dramatic year of my life.

Jenn McCallister, yours truly, and filmmaking cohort Robert Thomas, c. Fall 1987

Jenn McCallister, yours truly, and filmmaking cohort Robert Thomas, c. Fall 1987. That’s the department’s CP-16 that I dropped and broke, an incident that inspired a number of scenes in my memoirist novel of those days called KUNK.

In terms of writing, I’d have a very productive undergrad scriptwriting career, capped off by a number of classroom-level awards and the completion of not one but two feature-length screenplays—”graduate level work,” my writing guru and mentor Franklin B. Ashley told me proudly as I neared getting my degree. I did feel accomplished, and entered both scripts in competitions of the day. I’d planned to go to grad school—maybe NYU, preferably, but wherever I could get in. With two features under my belt, I could get in anywhere.

As for writing novels, that never left my mind through all these college-age years, but focused as I was on cranking out script pages (as well as work in any number of other classes, as well as drinking away most nights in the raging 1980s party atmosphere at USC, which seems not to have abated much in the decades since), I never once sat down to write a story or a chapter of anything, nor do I recall planning any pieces of literature—screenplays, baby. The movies. The name of the game for this young writer.

The scripts I studied (or just collected).

The scripts I studied (or just collected).

Then, life got in the way:

I went through some troubled times which led to some wonderful times, but rather than end up at NYU (which I did visit, and found myself troubled in a different way: what it would all cost), I took a good job of meaningful work at the same university I’d been knocking around for five years as a student. Sure, I said. I’ll work here, save money, and then go on to grad school. Get that masters. Move on and get into the scriptwriting business as planned. In the meantime, I’ll write. I’ll crank out scripts. Maybe I’ll write a novel, too.

The movies are supposed to lead to that anyway—that was my secret-secret plan. Sell a few scripts, acquire the time and artistic capital not to direct, but to take a few years away from the world and write novels. The original dream, the dream of a boy in the back seat of his parent’s car reading The Stand and wanting to be able to send a reader on such an epic journey. And thinking up strands of stories and threads and potential characters, but never quite putting it together. Novels. A bigger challenge—I’d already proven that I could write a script.

But instead of writing and making up stories, having a life. Acquiring experiences—following the Grateful Dead around? Pursuing other professional careers, both of which were and are successful? Oh yeah—I have no complaints about what I think of as my non-writing years. The most I’d accomplished in the 1990s besides journal entries was to scratch out a scene or an idea or an aborted attempt at an ever-unfinished short story, much of which I lost when a word processor I used back in those days crapped out on me, the original hard drive crash that consumed most of my output, including the second of my two screenplays (I do have a paper copy, though, thank goodness), from 1987-1990. It wasn’t much, but now I’d love to see the work.

And then ten years had gotten behind me. Jerry Garcia had died, I’d moved up the ladder at my career–track job at USC to the level of an administrator, and poised for further movement. The catch was that I’d need to go ahead and get a master’s, finally, but not in screenwriting, but in library science: I was being groomed to sit as a director not of a movie, but in a major university library system. No-brainer, right?

Maybe not.

I did what any rational, aspirational writer would do, a writer who hadn’t truly been writing for years (by now this was 1996 or so): I dropped out, man. I bought a hippie store called

Loose Lucy’s

; I learned to be a small business entrepreneur; and I continued to dream of writing, which I thought I’d have the time to pursue if I didn’t have to go work at 9-5 grind behind a desk.

Hah—due to the requirements of my new life-path in business, I wouldn’t begin writing in earnest for another few years, at the turn of the millennium, and upon the occasion of my 35th birthday. In that next interim I’d have more interesting and compelling life experiences, make new friends and engage in all manner of further adventures, most of which has fueled my fiction in the years since—we write what we know, after all. Or we should, anyway—trying to write anything else is just making up shit, which isn’t the same as telling a meaningful story. And write I finally did—maybe not as much as I could or should have, but I finally started piling up pages and word-counts. The only path to success, this!

My life has imbued my writing with all manner of meaning and fuel for the literary fire; there is only more wonder to come, it seems, and all now seems of a piece. I could not have become the writer that I am without all the influences I’ve had, both in reality and through the work of other artists and writers and filmmakers, to have experienced worlds and colors and thoughts and emotions through their eyes, which is the goal of any true artist wishing to make a statement and connection with others: the grandest connection, a telepathic one, across time and paper and symbols and pages flapping in the breeze of the passing years, a story told from one voice to an ear, or from one voice to many. Either way, it’s my passion, it’s my work, it’s my life, and if there’s one piece I can give to aspiring writers of fiction or much of anything else of (relative) substance, it’s to make sure you have to write to live, because if you don’t, you’ll never get anywhere.

More on this idea: All along, even during the long decade or more in which I didn’t pursue the craft to speak of, I never quit pushing forward in an intellectual sense—I never gave up the dream. When I began in earnest in late 2000, I developed a sense of urgency that persists to the moment of this writing, and that adds up to one notion: I have to write to live. That is the key and the secret to having come as far as I have after these thirty-five years or so of dreaming, writing, and trying. This path is not for the faint of heart, to resort to a cliche; and it’s a long road fraught with error and terror and struggle and strife. But if you have to write to live, you’ll walk that road, because what’s the alternative? To not live? I know what I’ll choose.

In a final installment, I’ll cover the productive years leading up to my current status as a published author of stories, novels, screenplays, articles and essays. For now, here are the prior posts covering My Writing Journey.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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