I fear being exposed as a fraud—an intellectual fraud—not quite smart enough to hold my own in the company of degreed and highly degreed writers. I carry the weight of this fear mostly because I grew up a dumb jock in a household of non-readers.
At an impressionable age in the mid-1970s, I recall a Schrödinger’s cat-worthy set of mixed signals emitting from my role models when it came to education, particularly higher education. “Do good, but don’t do that good” in school seemed to be the general consensus in a predominantly blue-collar neighborhood comprised mainly of cops, plumbers, masons, and door-to-door insurance salesmen.
It seemed more honorable to become a “working class hero” than a lifelong liberal arts scholar with a stupendous lack of career direction, common sense, and enterprise. The latter description fit my Uncle Bob to a tittle. He was my father’s socially dysfunctional brother, a sniveling shadow of a man who lived at home with his mother long before student loans made it a pervasive and acceptable domestic practice. He was both book smart and perpetually out of work. An academic boob, they called him.
Uncle Bob was my first encounter with a person who revered textbook theories over indisputable everyday facts, such as the cold-hard economic reality of monthly bills requiring a salary to pay them. He was a two-bit gambler with a Rain Man-like streak for reciting statistics (baseball, horse racing, and lottery results). He also suffered from acne scars so hideous that it made him a pariah in his own family, self-conscious to the point of not being able to make eye contact. If Uncle Bob personified the grown-up consequence of a lifetime of reading, then you might understand why I as a young boy chose to shift my attention to sports and girls.
I recall too an older, frequently down-and-out cousin whose deep knowledge of esoteric subjects seemed to infuriate my dad. Forever haggard and unkempt, my bearded, Harley-head cousin was orphaned in his late teens, but his hardships seemed to pale in comparison to a man who had been forced to work in a factory at the age of nine to help put food on his family’s table.
In an era defined by horrific working conditions and a shameful absence of child labor laws, my father rode a bus daily to the same textile factory where he toiled at the same machine that had killed his father in 1939. Serving his country in the Korean War years later may have seemed like a furlough next to the long hours he spent inhaling the dust, chemicals, and dyes of the yarn that he sorted at an old, mechanized mill in Lyndhurst, N.J.
If Uncle Bob personified the grown-up consequence of a lifetime of reading, then you might understand why I as a young boy chose to shift my attention to sports and girls.
As a roughneck product of a working poor family, my now 81-year-old father may not have understood or foreseen the significance of post-secondary education, nor its direct relation to better job prospects, but I know that blaming him for my lack of discipline in school is a copout. I dropped out of college because I was a lazy, unfocused student and I didn’t value the prospect of a degree in English.
When I unceremoniously stopped attending classes, I was a wide-eyed 22-year-old sportswriter with a weekly column, working for my hometown daily newspaper and taking home a halfway decent full-time salary. I possessed delusions of becoming the next Dick Young or Pete Hamill. Moreover, I carried a sense of pride in seeking the self-educated path of hardscrabble writers. Who needed teachers when I was flying high on Hemingway, alcohol, weed, and libido?
Because of the stigma attached to being a college dropout, I’ve long hidden this fact from friends and associates by not bringing it up or slyly sidestepping the issue in conversation. I’ve long been ashamed of this “black mark on my record” and perhaps the recent death of Steve Jobs and his college dropout status has subconsciously drawn me out of the closet and made me face my fears.
Self-confidence, however, does not quell my fear of being judged by a jury of my publishing peers as someone who hasn’t paid the dues necessary to be a card-carrying member of the literary community. There’s a side of me that knows I haven’t read nearly enough of the right books to sit in a roomful of editors and writers and not feel like I’m in over my head. It’s a curse not unlike The Scarlet Letter which I well remember being assigned, but can’t remember reading.
Who needed teachers when I was flying high on Hemingway, alcohol, weed, and libido?
My fear of being flogged in public and recording it for all eyes to see again has come home to roost. I once wrote an Op-Ed piece about my hazing experience as a freshman on the high school football team. I documented the humiliation of having upperclassmen tape me to a wooden bench in my underwear, cake me with shampoo and baby powder, carry me prostrate to a ball field, and lean me up against a backstop, only to be pelted with locker room paraphernalia and then promptly abandoned by the sudden onset of a thunderstorm. I survived that embarrassment and lived to laugh and write about it, so why not invite a symbolic literary castration?
I now present you The Top 10 shortcomings that I, Dan Cafaro, possess as the publisher of a literary press:
10. My university transcripts are as spotty and blemished as the arms of a heroin junkie with psoriasis.
9. I watch too much TV because I believe that exceptional television dramas such as Boardwalk Empire, The Big C, and House are nearly as satisfying as reading a great book.
8. I spend too much time analyzing my fantasy baseball and football teams.
7. I listen to too much music and none of it is classical.
6. I sometimes prefer reading Esquire and Rolling Stone magazines to reading novels and literary criticisms.
5. I sometimes shop for books at Amazon even though I’m always preaching ad nauseam about supporting indie bookstores.
4. I sometimes watch the movie instead of reading the book because there’s way less of a time commitment with cinema and it doesn’t take nearly as much concentration.
3. I typically would much rather attend a concert or theatrical performance than go to an author reading.
2. I don’t have the talent, discipline, or encyclopedic smarts to write a novel, so instead, I support the arts by publishing other people’s works and have become impressively efficient at losing money in the process.
And the No. 1 shortcoming I possess as the publisher of a literary press:
1) I’m an intellectual hypocrite with a Lovecraftian fear of roof rats and a ravenous appetite for Katrina Gray confessionals, spicy literature, and linguini with clam sauce.
So now you know some of this man’s greatest fears from my uncouth inside out. How about your fear(s), or are you too afraid to share?
Yay! You’re human! Fuck the “right” way. It’s inbred with the same ideas and mistakes anyway. Self-awareness plus a work ethic (even a cyclical one) is where imagination develops color.
John Cheever, Roberto Bolano, Samuel Delaney, Dan Fante, Mark SaFranko, and too many more who “only” had the BA, worked as a janitor at Chico State, flunked out of this or that degree-granting institution, or published a first book past the age of 40.
No worries, Dan. You’re in literary company.
But stay focused and sober(!), and don’t get caught up in the romance of it all. 😉
A minor quibble is that no matter what you wrote above, in fact, you could teach yourself and train to write a novel.
i’m not a publisher—but i take my writer’s hat off to you. we don’t have many fears or sins in common, alas: i also shop at amazon (and for my kindle); i also love movies and music (some of it classical but i’ve studied composition so i’m contaminated); i can’t concentrate on anything for long; haven’t been to a theatrical performance or a concert in years; i’m starting a new novel (as a writer, not a reader) every month; i get distracted too easily by other stuff; i should spend more time with my family and less time online; i’m too impatient when it comes to success; i read spottily, hardly ever read a book from cover to cover these days; i find excuses where ever i go (this last one, rationalizing old and new mistakes, is a great compensation for getting old); i used to be afraid, too, of being exposed as a fraud but when i realized how many smart people share that fear i decided it was a condition of living the intellectual life rather than a congenital abnormality. enjoyed this!
Love this essay & its salty confessions! (and love that uncle, he certainly belongs in a novel). From a fellow college drop out, I salute you!
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Or as the inimitable Augusten Burroughs so spicily puts it: “I like flaws and feel more comfortable around people who have them. I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.”
Thank you for egging me on and respecting and supporting my desire to purge.
I’m not sure what’s led me down this road of “salty confessions,” but if it can help me develop a colorful imagination, I’m all for it.