Why I Write: Jim Powell

I’m writing this essay eleven days out of an eleven-day hospital stay with a COPD exacerbation, the third stark reminder of my mortality in the last seven years. I am writing it because I’m a writer, but I am also writing it to save my life.

I’m usually able to get around decently, if slowly, but this crisis took me back to 2010 when the doctor’s “spots on your lungs” scared me back into writing fiction, a mission I’d somehow shelved, settling on a literary-connected life without the joy and salvation of writing. I know how I got COPD—don’t smoke, kids!—but the writing?

My long-time friend and now next-door-neighbor Dan Wakefield, a generation ahead of me, tells me his journalistic career began in high school at the Indianapolis Star where “the teletypes clacking sounded like the most exciting thing in the world.” In college, he fell in love with literature even as his journalistic career blossomed. He says, “All the journalism was practice. For novels. Then the memoirs were that way too.” He loves talking about meeting James Baldwin at The White Horse in Greenwich Village and quotes Baldwin’s autobiography: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” Dan mentions John Williams’ too little-known novel Stoner. The protagonist farm boy is told by his professor that he’s going to be a teacher and the farm boy asks how he knows. “You’re in love,” the prof says. “It’s a matter of love.” Dan says, “Williams told me his original title for the book was The Matter of Love. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Loving the work, yes. I can check that one off, or can I?

I’d always dabbled with writing, but when anti-war politics burnt me out on my undergraduate urban studies path, I turned to it again, taking creative writing classes at Purdue with Arturo Vivante, New Yorker writer of the Updike era. Arturo’s own path into fiction held a mission-like mystique. To avoid World War II, his parents moved from Italy to England and sent Arturo to Canada. He eventually became a doctor, but he couldn’t stand blood and laboratory medicine seemed cold. So he turned to writing fiction. He encouraged me, reminding me that “art lives at the junction of truth and beauty—what could matter more?”

In 1974 there were still under twenty MFA programs and I was lucky to get an assistantship at Bowling Green State, though I’d never considered teaching. I was terrified of my students for one quarter before my misery goaded me to just be my own cool self. From there things went smoothly enough. But during the two years of teaching I never considered it a career path. Other BGSU grads had more foresight. Tony Ardizzone got a heavy-load comp job but soon enough published his first novel with Doubleday and moved into creative teaching at Old Dominion. James Thomas went right into one of the first creative PhD programs at Utah where he founded Quarterly West and published a story collection. Others—the more common story—supported their writing with low-end jobs or the occasional adjunct position. I partnered in a bookstore in Los Angeles (Intellectuals & Liars) with a couple of buddies. We were doing something literary. And we kept writing. What else were we to do? We were writers!

But life moves on and family dynamics brought me back to Indiana. I needed work.

My cousin Tom Hastings led me to Free University, one of the noble institutions born of the Free Speech Movement: “everyone learns; everyone teaches.” Tom had a poetry thing going there, amid the thick course catalog that included everything from aerobics to disco dancing, fencing to financial management, sailing to self-awareness. The Free U Writers Center was born in 1979 even as Free U itself was declining. As a cooperative of myself and many friends, the Writers Center of Indianapolis was incorporated in 1984.

I was still writing fiction and even publishing regionally a bit. But starting a non-profit demands concentration, and I put my various training in writing the “fiction with numbers” of grants, editing our publications, and generally hobnobbing with local writers and donors. The Writers’ Center had replaced writing as my mission.

By 1985 I’d stopped writing entirely but for an occasional poem or two. I continued teaching creative classes part-time at IUPUI to supplement my meager non-profit administration income. And so the next many years of my life passed in a literarily-connected lifestyle of administration, teaching, editing. My jobs were not without interest or value, and I met lots of wonderful writers, but I was not writing.

After I retired from the Writers’ Center in 1999, I found a full-time lectureship at IUPUI, teaching mostly introductory comp and argumentative writing, with the occasional creative writing class tossed in to keep me sane. Eventually the creative track needed me more than the comp program, and I was able to advise the student magazine, create a literary editing class, and pass along other writers’ theories and a few of my own in fiction classes.

Until … the early summer of 2010 when my pulmonologist, treating my COPD, reported I had what seemed new spots on my lungs. COPD had already slowed me down, but I was enjoying a new marriage, and even with reduced mobility travel beyond my dreams. I was scared. Yes, at the immediate health dilemma, but at the psychic level the reality that I had not lived my real life’s real mission.

My response boggled me almost as much as the crisis itself. In the midst of fear, the realization of my not writing for 25 years did not make me so much despondent as willful. I’d never stopped thinking “in stories” and seemingly had stored more than a few of them someplace inside. The first morning (July 1, 2010) I sat down to write, the story was there. One then another. Long ones, short ones, autobiographicals, fantastics, serious or comic, they were my stories; I was again a writer.

I wrote every morning for months, until a lung collapse sent me into surgery. When I recovered, it was right back to the writing that was already again fulfilling me, saving my own life with every story with no more than the obscure goal of keeping on. More than keeping my mind off my health miseries, the writing engaged me more in my internal life than I had in thirty years. I was saving my own life with every story, keeping on, delving deep, even if only some obscure goal was in sight.

With the help of a creative renewal grant from the local arts council, the writing took me to Europe and Mexico, to a freshening re-engagement with the world. Since then I have drafted over 60 stories, polished half of them and published six, including the ramshackle allegory “Little Roy’s Roving Reptile Zoo” that appeared in Fiction Southeast (April 2, 2018). I have collected a good many positive rejections as well, from some of the best journals in the country, and keep revising and submitting and writing new stories.

But I am not writing them to fulfill any great dreams for publication anymore. I am writing for more important reasons, the oldest of old school missions. I’m writing to feel alive. I am writing to save my life.

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About Jim Powell

Jim Powell holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and teaches creative writing at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). He directed the Writers’ Center of Indianapolis (now Indiana Writers Center) for twenty years, during which time, ironically, he stopped writing. Since receiving a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts Council of Indianapolis in 2011, he has written over seventy stories, with work published in Bartleby Snopes, Crack the Spine, Flying Island, Storyscape, and Typehouse Literary Magazine. A collection of his stories, Only Witness, will be published in 2019.