I can pinpoint exactly when my dysfunctional relationship with the English language came to life: the Spring of 1977. I was nine-years-old and Sean Cassidy’s cover of The Crystals’ 1963 soul/pop classic “Da Doo Ron Ron” was quickly becoming a hit in its own right. As a dedicated fan of “The Hardy Boys Mysteries” TV series, I was trying to figure out why a guy with such a cool acting gig would also want to sing for a bunch of screaming girls, but let me remind you I was nine.
Most importantly, I had a story due for school. (Holy hell, I was in third grade and already on deadline.) Our teacher had assigned us to write a short story on any topic for the class. Once written, we were to read our stories to our fellow students.
Now, I should probably cop to being class clown wannabe. I lived to crack wise and get a laugh from the classroom, so the opportunity to write a story was a golden opportunity to the young knucklehead that I was. This was my big shot at classroom-wide fame and adoration.
The only problem was that — like nearly all writers — my brain opted to leave me destitute of any decent ideas. I had to think, which isn’t necessarily any nine-year-old boy’s strong suit, especially when that rattle-headed pre-teen happens to be yours truly.
So, like Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of T.E. Lawrence wandering into the desert to ponder a successful siege on Aqaba, I sat down in the middle of a stack of Mad and Cracked magazines and hoped their lunk-headed satire would point the way.
And praise Alfred E. Neuman it did! Ideas coalesced like a self-assembling jigsaw puzzle: I had been reading a Mad magazine movie parody; there were ads for the upcoming release of “The Exorcist II” on television (do yourself a favor and savor the comments on that link); and I thought Sean Cassidy’s singing was lame — I knew what I had to write.
My Shot at the Big Time
The next day, I patiently waited my turn to tell my tale. Once up, I stood before a semi-circle of my cross-legged classmates on the carpet and began orating. My story hung on a simple shtick: I had been possessed by the demon Sean Cassidy and, when he would take over my mortal form, I’d black out and start singing “Da Doo Ron Ron.” Dumb, right? Well, I set the room on fire; absolutely torched it. Those kids were crying they were laughing so hard.
To a room full of third graders, I had instantly transformed into the comedic genius of my generation. Imagine David Sedaris, Al Franken, Douglas Adams, Jenny Lawson, Andy Borowitz, Nora Ephron and any other writers you think are funny rendered down in a giant cooking pot and the remaining glop poured into the frame of a goofy grade-schooler wearing Toughskins and a Toledo Mudhens tee. That’s who I was — to my people. I then understood why all writers need an audience: it feels fucking amazing to get any reaction.
So, yeah, it was at that moment I realized I loved writing, and every English class of every year, all the way up my senior year in high school, I couldn’t wait to do my writing assignments. I lived for it, and dabbled in different styles, tones, and topics. I tried everything on for size, and didn’t care if it fit well. I just wanted to write, and was having a riot doing it. If my style was the literary equivalent to David Byrne in an comically oversized suit, I was still shakin’ that ass.
So, obviously, when the time rolled around for me to head to college, I went to Cal State Sacramento to study Political Science with a focus on International Relations.
Wait, What? International Relations? WTF???
There are a couple reasons for that decision: First, my brother, who is 20 years my senior (I’m the baby of the family), had already served in the Peace Corps and was well into his career as a foreign service officer for the State Department. He was learning multiple languages and living in corners of the world most people didn’t even think about, and it really inspired me in a big way.
Second, even as a young person I was fascinated by foreign policy and global events — so much, in fact, that I helped found my high school’s Model United Nations team. While most of my peers were trying to score nickel bags of weed, I was debating the Reagan Administration’s policy on Nicaragua in a General Assembly staffed entirely by diplomats with a top age of 18.
This is when I learned that interests are not the same as passions. Passions are callings that live in your spine; you have to do them. An interest is something you can take or leave. If what you’re doing doesn’t drive you to exist the way a passion does, you’ll soon learn to loath it if you’re fed that interest in heavy doses.
Case in point: Have you ever studied International Relations? Scientists are still developing the computers that will one day calculate exactly how boring those classes are. While I found world events fascinating as a lay person, the classroom discussion of both the theory and practice of geopolitics and foreign policy was academic Lunesta — and the resulting boredom was murdering my GPA. Off-campus parties started obscuring school and my grades were in a death spiral. I was in trouble.
Back on the Good Foot
After a long think about my passions as opposed to my interests, I switched to Cal State Fullerton‘s Journalism school. What field would better combine my passion for writing and my interest in current events? Besides marrying my wife, that will go down as one of the smartest decisions I ever made. Why? Journalism teaches budding writers inestimable lessons, and the primary, underlying lesson J-school students learn is discipline.
Writing makes you feel free, and like kids kicking in a field, young writers want to stretch out in a million different creative directions at once, but they don’t understand the value the necessity and value of structure and style.
Well, mountains of rules govern effective news, feature and column writing, and learning those rules and working within them requires discipline. Hunkering down and working to understand those fundamentals gives young Journalists both the foundation and structure for growing as a writer throughout their entire career.
In the same way a jazz musician will never reach the point of expert improvisation and interpretation until he or she learns and practices scales, so too must young print journalists understand concepts such as the inverted pyramid, effective lede writing, and AP style. And once they grasp the fundamentals, they can start to work creatively within the structure. Suddenly, those rules become tools, and thus begins a lifelong journey with whatever craft or art you pursue.
A Life in the Trades
After I got my Journalism degree, I stringed for a number of local news outlets and freelanced some corporate communications gigs until I finally landed a full-time position as an associate editor on a trade magazine for the telecommunications industry.
You’ll hear some writers and journos snicker upon hearing “the trades,” but those people are either dilettantes or haters. Let me explain how this works: When you first get into J-school, you want to be the next Bob Woodward, but as you start to learn the business, you realize that most people on dailies are reporting for small town papers that don’t pay all that much. You might get lucky and eventually land a spot on a big metro daily, but chances are you’re going to be writing up city planning commission meetings in Fresno.
Case in point: A couple years after graduating, I landed an interview with The Desert Dispatch in Barstow. They wanted to pay me $250 a week plus gas money to cover county affairs. For anyone unfamiliar with Barstow, it is a tiny desert town that was even smaller in the 1990s, and it sits in San Bernadino County, which is a 20,105-square-mile stretch of mostly deserted dotted with other small towns. (Basically, it’s slightly east of the middle of nowhere.) Can you imagine driving all around that territory trying to cover county business? For $250 a week? I would still find myself trapped in the desert had I taken that job. Besides, I was earning more splitting my time between freelancing and doing desktop publishing at a Kinko’s (nerd alert!) that was walking distance from the beach.
I halted the job interview midway through to tell the editor I wasn’t right guy for the position. As I made my escape away the Mojave, I recalled the sage advice that my managing editor from my internship, Tom Vasich, gave me: “Kopf, get in the trades. That’s where the money is.”
I followed that advice and I discovered that’s also where the readers are. I never looked back. The trades gave me a golden opportunity to provide real service journalism for narrow readerships with whom I could build real editorial relationships.
I won’t lie: editing magazines, both print and online, is nutty work, especially in today’s advertising market. However, I have truly enjoyed my 25-year (and counting) career. I have worked with smart, talented people, with phenomenal backgrounds (holders of history-altering patents, veterans of major media outlets, educators, and a shit-ton of JDs for some reason), and have learned and progressed as an editor and writer throughout that time.
One Thing Missing
However, I missed writing creatively — badly. So, I started dabbling in doggerel and short stories for several years, mostly for my own entertainment and some that I’d share with friends. That was roughly 15 years ago.
I never planned to do anything with it, but that all changed in 2014, when I started writing Tea in Crimea, a serial-fiction project about Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests and Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. (You can read the whole backstory on that project; it’s a fairly interesting/ridiculous cautionary tale for other authors.)
By the time I finished the first draft of the manuscript I realized I had the makings for a solid novel. The whole endeavor felt phenomenal. For the first time in my life, I had tackled an aggressive creative writing project, and only wanted to write more. I never looked back.
And that’s bring us to here. I launched this page to showcase some free short stories, talk about books I like, maybe make a blog post here and there, and publicize my own novels. I’m on a journey and not sure of the destination, but I hope you’ll come along for the ride.