My new novel Cezar’s Last Mark is not dedicated to any supportive family member or muse. The dedication reads, To my freshman English professor at the University of Chicago, who, after commenting on my dismal prose, advised me to quit thinking in Turkish.
Writing is not a talent delivered by the Gods through a lightning bolt. It is a craft that is refined and perfected with much practice, not to mention extensive reading of other writers. As you can tell from my dedication, my writing career began in a deep abyss. Soon after emigrating to the US, I began college and my term papers revealed severe shortcomings.
I did take my professor’s advice and taught myself to think in English, thereby getting comfortable with a style dramatically opposite of Turkish, with different grammar and sentence structure.
My first foray into writing was a diary into which I made irregular entries – in English. Then, in the early 1990s, at around age 35, I developed an interest in short stories. After reading a few how-to books I proceeded to write stories that mostly ran aground. Two from that era survive and were included in Appassionata, a collection of short stories decades in the future. The effort was a failure and I gave up.
In 1999 I was appointed editor of San Joaquin Medicine, a quarterly magazine published by our local medical society. Why me? I suspect because no one else wanted the job. Most doctors are either awful writers or are loathe to write. I accepted – with some trepidation – and went on to write editorials and reportage pieces for the next twelve years, in the meanwhile gradually sharpening my skills. My colleagues who read the magazine took notice and offered me compliments that egged me on.
In 2006 there was another unsolicited invitation, a wine blog for the Stockton Record, our local newspaper. The paper sought out multiple wine professionals to write about our vibrant wine scene. One of them was Larry Johansen, owner of Wine Wizard’s at which we held weekly private tastings. He turned the invitation over to me.
I didn’t know what a blog was. I quickly found out. It was an unusual blogging job because there was an editor with whom all essays had to pass muster. The other recruited writers turned out no different than doctors. They soon quit writing and I was left as the only contributor for years until the paper gave up and shut down the blog. By then I had enough experience to continue on my own, free of editors.
Blogging, as I discovered, is an excellent writing exercise. One has to make impact in a concise, tightly worded format. It was a good rehearsal for short stories.
Having thus spent years refining my skills, I embarked upon my first book, a memoir of my training in neurosurgery, entitled Dogmeat. It was a modest, 74,000 word effort and, as a work of non-fiction, did not involve any creative writing.
In the process of publishing Dogmeat, I acquired a personal editor, Mim Harrison, who was to edit all my subsequent works. She became a major influence. I divide my writing career into two phases, pre-Mim and post-Mim. In the latter I was sharper and more adroit because of Mim’s edits and suggestions, all of which I took to heart.
After publishing Dogmeat in 2014, I summoned the courage to return to fiction and short stories. This time, with Mim’s assistance and encouragement, the stories flowed out at an amazing pace. The result was Appassionata, a collection of seventeen fictional stories published in 2016. Appassionata was a laboratory in which I experimented with different narrative forms, tenses and subject matter. I did not know it then, but I was gearing up toward a novel.
The confidence boost I received from conquering the short story format catapulted me into novels. By then all the ducks were lined up: I had the necessary writing habits, patience to revise, revise, revise, and I had Mim who gave honest advice about what was and was not publishable.
And so here I am, nearly half a century after my English professor ‘s proclamation, having successfully completed two elaborate novels. It took painstaking work and a strong inner drive to write for which I frankly have no explanation.
More about those two novels later.