He attended only one writers’ conference in his life, and he was lost and way over his head most of the weekend.
Even so, he was a force to be reckoned with.
His name was Bob and he wanted to be a writer. In fact, that was the first thing he told me when we met at the conference he attended. “Hi, I’m Bob and I want to be a writer. What’s your name?”
We chatted for a while then I made my way to the registration table. The next time I saw Bob he was working the room. Doing what everyone is taught to do at their first conference: Mingle. Introduce yourself.
“Hi, I’m Bob and I want to be a writer. What’s your name?”
The next time I saw him was an hour or so later in the first session and he was sitting by himself. When the next session started, he was still by himself. So, I walked over and joined him. I noticed him struggling to keep up as he wrote in a spiral bound notebook with a brand new Bic Click pen (he told me later, with no little sense of pride, that his wife had given him the pen and notebook as a gift before he came to the conference) and he said he never finished school, so he didn’t write very fast. So, I offered to make a copy of my notes for him. He accepted (and later copied them in his notebook so he would remember better), and we pretty much spent the rest of the conference together.
As I got to know him I found out that Bob was the janitor at a community college and he had always wanted to be a writer. But having never finished school he didn’t know if it was possible. But his wife encouraged him to find out, so, the conference was his chance to see if his dream was even feasible.
At one point that weekend we were challenged to find a critique partner at the conference and continue to work together through the mail (Remember the mail? We used it in publishing before the days of email).
Guess who my partner was.
The first thing Bob sent me was a novel. A science fiction novel. A six page science fiction
novel. It had aliens, spaceships, government cover-ups, government helicopters, a time machine, advanced alien weaponry, and a crooked general.
Did I mention it was only six pages long.
I called Bob and we talked about his novel. He was surprised to find out that he would need to write the whole book because he had heard of people sending in part of a book and the publisher bought that. I explained that he was thinking about a proposal and the author still had to write the whole book. With that, Bob began to tell me about his other book ideas.
And you know something? A lot of them were pretty good. And a few were really good.
Unfortunately, Bob was getting discouraged because he was discovering just how poor his English skills were. I suggested he go to someone at the college and see if he could take a remedial English course. I wondered out loud if he might even be able to take the class free. And instead of becoming more discouraged, he was thrilled to think he might be able to move even closer to his dream.
We swapped a few short shorts* then I didn’t hear anything from Bob for a few months. Early the following January I called to see how Bob was doing. His wife answered and told me the bad news.
Bob died on Christmas day.
I told her how sorry I was to hear about his death, and she stopped me. She told me how happy Bob had been before he died. He was taking the remedial English class, doing his homework, and writing a little every night. He died, she said, making his dream come true. She went on to tell me how proud she was of him, and more important to her, how proud he was of himself.
After I hung up the phone I thought a long time about what I had just heard and how compared to Bob, my own writing efforts were little more than surface efforts. I (nor most of the writers I knew) hadn't yet tapped into the furnace that fueled an all-out no holds barred desire to write.
His example and subsequent death was the thing that tipped me over the edge and lit the flame.
A few months later I was commissioned to write a play as a fundraiser for a theater in Louisiana and after much thought, I used one of Bob’s ideas and wrote the play as a tribute to him. The director was delighted with both the play and the story behind it. During the contract negotiations, my only stipulation was that on opening night a seat be left vacant on the front row in Bob's memory.
It was the least I could do for someone who continues to inspire me all these years later.
[* For those who don't know, short shorts are stories less than 750 words long.]