This is the third in a continuing series of posts about my experience (limited as it is) as an author. Click here for a complete index of all the stories in this series.
It began… with an invitation in a small hand addressed envelope. The end result has been a serious reevaluation of my life goals.
If you have been following my Author’s Journal series, you know that I like to have a killer opening line or a killer opening paragraph. It just so happens that the above paragraph (with a couple of extra words thrown in where the ellipsis is) is the opening paragraph of an article I wrote for Indianapolis Monthly Magazine that was published in the September 1987 issue. The story was titled “The Reunion”. That opening paragraph also serves as an appropriate opening paragraph of this particular story about how “The Reunion” came to be.
Cover of Indianapolis Monthly Magazine September 1987 in which my our award-winning article “The Reunion” appeared. Unfortunately no mention of it on the cover.
Table of contents Indianapolis Monthly Magazine September 1987
I’ve already written a blog page giving some of the background of how I wrote the article but I think in this version I’d like to go into a little more depth. If you have never read my article, I’m going to suggest that you stop now and go read the article first. If you don’t have time to do that here is a brief overview of what it was about. Here is a link to “The Reunion”
“The Reunion”: Cliff’s Notes Version
“The Reunion” is an autobiographical true story of a class reunion I attended at James E. Roberts Public School IPS #97. The school was built in 1935 as a school for handicapped children mostly in response to the polio epidemic. It was one of only 2 special education schools in the entire state of Indiana when I attended there from 1960-1973. The other one was in Gary Indiana. If you had any kind of handicap or disability anywhere else in the state of Indiana you could not go to school. The local school district would provide you with a homebound tutor which was a poor substitute.
In 1969 the Indiana General Assembly passed the “Mandatory Special Education Act” which required all school districts throughout the state to provide special education programs “in the least restrictive environment”. It’s a bit amazing that such a law needed to be passed because the Constitution of the State of Indiana required that all children be given a “Free and appropriate public school education.”
The legislature gave school districts 4 years to implement this law which was the year I graduated high school. My mother had worked diligently with an organization known as the Council of Volunteers and Organizations for the Handicapped (COVOH) to get the law passed. She often said “Sometimes we build our bridges behind us.” Meaning of course that even though I would not benefit from the law, future generations would. Most school districts created their special education programs integrated into regular school buildings. While you might need to take a long ride on a short bus to get to the special ed school, at least there was the possibility of interaction between special ed and regular ed kids. Wherever possible, handicapped kids were “mainstreamed” into regular classroom programs.
So while Indianapolis Public Schools had been ahead of the times by even having a special education school, after the passage of the Mandatory Special Education Act their segregated approach to special ed was behind the times. In 1986 the school was closed and all of the children were either mainstreamed into regular education programs or moved to a different special ed school that only served the most severely multiply handicapped children.
The envelope I received was an invitation to a reunion for all of the Roberts School alumni no matter what year they attended. It was to say farewell to the institution. For me it was an opportunity to look back, remember the good times, reflect on the bad times, do some forgive and forget kinds of things. If you want more details… read the article.
To understand how and why I wrote “The Reunion” you need to understand where I was in my life at that point. So here’s a little bit of background…
Although I attended Roberts School all the way through high school, my last three years of high school I only attended half days at Robert. The other half of the day I attended my local neighborhood high school Northwest High School. After graduating from Northwest I attended IUPUI and earned a BS degree in computer sciences. I worked for two years as a computer programmer at the Indiana University Department of Medical Genetics located in the research wing of Riley Children’s Hospital. After two years, I developed congestive heart failure and after recovering I no longer had the stamina to work an eight hour day. I attempted to start my own work from home computer consulting and programming business that I called Cyborg Software Systems, Inc. However it never really went very far. It wasn’t so much a career as it was a hobby that barely paid for itself. I ended up putting more money into the business than I took out. By 1986 I had pretty much given up on it.
Although I was an active volunteer at my church teaching the Catholic faith in Thursday night classes for people who wanted to convert to Catholic, and I was active in other church activities, I really wasn’t doing much with my life. I spent a lot of time on the CompuServe online network which was sort of a predecessor to the Internet. Working as a moderator of an online discussion forum I was able to access CompuServe for free. It was very expensive costing approximately six dollars per hour to connect. I could not have afforded it without the free access.
I was doing a lot of writing at the time. Most of it was a personal journal that I would occasionally share with online friends especially a woman named Pamela Bowen who was a newspaper editor from Huntington West Virginia. Her professional opinion meant a lot to me and she convinced me that I had a way with words.
One of the problems with all of the online writing that I was doing and journaling that I was only sharing with a small number of friends was that it seemed like I was spending more time writing about life than actually living it. I would go out. Have some experience. Sit in my office all alone and write about it for a week. And then maybe get the courage to go out and do something else.
If you read the entire article you can understand what an emotional experience it was for me to attend the reunion. This was something that was going to require a lot of introspection and journaling to work through everything that it happened and all of the memories that were dug up as a result of attending the reunion.
Rather than just share these thoughts with one or two friends online, I begin writing the story of the reunion as a series of messages in a disability discussion forum on CompuServe. You may have noticed that the format is slightly episodic and that’s how it was originally written as a series of I’m thinking perhaps a dozen separate messages.
The reaction to the story was phenomenal. Lots of people online had wonderful things to say about it. It wasn’t just my editor friend Pamela although she thought it was great as well. I printed out copies and shared it with family and friends who were not online. There was a growing pressure from everyone who read it that I should try to get it “published for real” because in those days online publishing didn’t really count for anything.
Of course telling the story was a catharsis for me. It was a way of getting it all out of my system and putting it all behind me. I didn’t really want to deal with the issues once I had written it all down. It’s sort of like one of those spiritual exercises where you write a letter pouring all of your demons out onto paper and then burning the page afterwards.
Enter the Enneagram
I don’t recall when I first heard about Enneagram but I think it was perhaps a few months before I attended the reunion. The Enneagram is a psychological theory of human personality that is based on ancient teachings of Sufi mystics from Afghanistan and dates back nearly 2000 years. As a modern psychological theory it didn’t take off until the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1984 Maria Beesing, Robert Nogosek and Patrick O’Leary published a book titled “The Enneagram: A Journey of Self Discovery”. My friend Judy Chapman attended a weekend seminar with Patrick O’Leary at the Beech Grove Benedictine Center. She came home very excited about it and loaned me a copy of her book.
The Enneagram postulates that there are 9 different personality types. It’s not the first system of classifying personalities. You’ve probably heard of Type A, Type B, and Type C personalities. There is also something called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which has 16 different personality types. While most classifications of personalities can be determined by test, Enneagram does not lend itself well to such methods. Other personality types such as Myers-Briggs is based on “conscious rational choices”. The Enneagram however goes deeper and asks what is your inner motivation behind your external behaviors. The only way to accurately know one’s Enneagram type is to take a course on the subject under the guidance of a skilled facilitator and then to try to discern one’s own type from that knowledge. If someone tries to tell you your Enneagram type then you don’t really own it and you cannot benefit well from the insights obtained through the study of the system.
I could write an entire book about the Enneagram so I’m not going to go into much detail here. (In fact I narrowly missed out on the opportunity to write such a book but that’s a story for another day.)
Short version is that Enneagram has 9 personality types numbered 1 through 9. There is no value such as one is better than nine or vice versa. It turns out I am a type FIVE. We are basically introverted, knowledge seeking people who live inside our heads. We observe the world but don’t often participate in it. Maria Beesing who was one of the authors of the book taught my first Enneagram retreat weekend course. She told a parable about a type FIVE. (There is an embarrassing story about my initial misunderstanding this parable that I will tell elsewhere someday.) The parable goes something like this…
Once upon a time there was a FIVE who had spent their entire life collecting knowledge. One day they decided that their gift to the world would be to write down everything that they had ever learned. They went to an upper room in their ivory tower surrounded by great tomes of knowledge. Books piled to the ceiling everywhere. They begin frantically writing down all of their collected knowledge. During the process they realized how incomplete their knowledge was in certain areas so they studied more and more books trying to complete this great work. They became so obsessed with writing that they forgot about everyday necessities like sleep, hygiene, food. Eventually they died of the effort. Someone else came along and discovered them. They took care of the body and then set about cleaning up the room. They could not make heads or tails of all of the writing because it was not yet organized in a coherent form. They gathered up all of the papers and destroyed them.
Although I had already discerned myself to be a type FIVE, this particular cautionary tale really convicted me. That’s what I had been doing with my life. My office was my ivory tower. I would sit and write for hours at a time only occasionally coming out to get more input for what I was going to write. And although I did share it with very few people, is the idea of putting it out in public for everyone to read was antithetical to my nature. One of the other stories they tell about a FIVE is that they are the kind of person who will not loan you a book for fear it will come back with the pages empty.
I mentioned that I did some teaching at my church. The way I would typically prepare a lesson would be to study the topic and have about 10 times more information collected in my head than what I would actually share in the lesson. Another indication of my Enneagram type. But I also could see the personal rewards that I got when I did share my collected knowledge. With the positive feedback I had gotten about the reunion story from online friends, real-world friends and family perhaps trying to get it published wasn’t such a bad idea. If I was going to break out of the compulsive behavior of an unredeemed FIVE, I think I needed to try publishing so that this work wouldn’t stay in the ivory tower and get thrown out with the trash.
Indianapolis Monthly Magazine
Somewhere along the way I saw a TV interview with a woman named Deborah Paul who was the editor of Indianapolis Monthly Magazine. She said “I never feel like an experience is complete until I’ve written about it.” Now there was a person who understood my perspective. I could have said that same thing. So I figured if I submitted an article to them, it might be well received by a person who thought that way.
I took the online messages and merge them together into a slightly more cohesive narrative. Fixed some spelling errors and cleaned up some grammar. I submitted it to the magazine sometime late in 1986 or perhaps early 1987 I don’t recall exactly when.
A few weeks later I got a note back from Ms. Paul saying that she was about to send me a nice rejection letter but she started reading the article and couldn’t put it down. She didn’t know what to do with it. She showed it to some of the other people at the magazine and they didn’t know what to do with it either but they found it quite compelling. She said she would get back in touch with me in a few weeks.
The follow-up was a phone call from her. She said that there were problems with the article.
- They never publish first-person essays
- It doesn’t fit the format of the magazine
- It is way too long
She finally decided that just because they never published anything written first person before didn’t mean that they couldn’t start doing it now. She said “I am the editor and if I want to change the format of the magazine I can do it.”. Unfortunately it was still way too long. She said to me “You put your soul on paper. I’m sorry to say we only want half your soul.” She gave me the option of taking it somewhere else and hoping that they would publish it or having them publish a stripped down version. While she could have edited the article herself she realized that it was such a personal matter that she wanted to give me the opportunity to resubmit a shorter version. I very gladly agreed.
Ultimately what was published took out a few more paragraphs than I took out in my edited version and she actually added back in a couple of items that I had taken out.
Because it was somewhat school related they decided to hold it until their September 1987 issue.
After it was published, they routinely had a first-person feature in many other issues (even though I think some of them were ghostwritten by staff members based on interviews).
First page of “The Reunion” as it originally appeared in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine September 1987
I’ve already chronicled some of the events that occurred after the publication of the article. The short version is that the magazine won awards for publishing my article and several other human interest stories. And I won “Best Magazine Feature of 1987” awarded by “The Indiana Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists – Sigma Delta Chi”.
Please take a look at this article titled “Making of the Reunion” for more details about the awards and some contact I had with people mentioned in the article. I also dug out some old VHS tape that I shot at the reunion and uploaded it to YouTube. I also wrote about what the old school building is being used for now. It has been turned into an apartment building. Read all of that in this article which also includes a link to the YouTube video shot at the reunion event.
Making of “The Reunion”
If you read the end of the reunion article, I had come to the conclusion that I was going to not just live my life in the ivory tower (although I didn’t use those words). I talked about applying my computer skills to assistive technology for the handicapped, I talked about not giving up on pursuing relationships with women, and I speculated that I would write a book perhaps an autobiography.
That first goal I’ve been pretty successful. I write tutorials on the Adafruit Learning System about various assistive technology devices I’ve invented. Here is a link to the technical articles I’ve done for them. Although I never have gotten married. I did have several more very successful relationships with women. And I did write a book. Actually 2 editions of a book. It wasn’t the autobiography I was planning on writing. I was concerned that would be too introspective and put me back in the ivory tower. But I did publish a book about computer graphics which will probably be the topic of the next installment in this series.
When I attended my third Enneagram seminar in August 1987 right before “The Reunion” was published I got to thank Maria Beesing for everything she had taught me about Enneagram and I told her how I had gotten down from my own ivory tower and gotten published on my first attempt. I later shared with her the story of the awards it won. I attended a total of 10 Enneagram workshops including a two-week training program which certified me to teach the course that Beesing and O’Leary teach. Although I have not taught that particular course I have integrated Enneagram topics into other teaching that I’ve done. There are dozens of other stories I could tell about how the insights of this system have helped me grow personally and to understand myself more fully.
This wasn’t the only article I had published in Indianapolis Monthly Magazine but we will save that story for another installment.
The bottom line is that the positive experience I got from writing that article, getting it published, getting wonderful feedback, and actually winning a top award in its category have encouraged me to keep writing all these years. But I don’t let that writing be a substitute for actually living my life and I make sure that when I write something I actually share it with people.