When I packed my bags to go off to college (the year was 1956) I included in my luggage a profound wish: I wanted to become a stellar writer of fiction — short stories, in particular. My teachers in high school encouraged me to follow my dream. They told me I had the “natural ability” to become a good writer. Maybe more. Which was why I was attending college in the first place. For a variety of reasons, things didn’t turn out this way.
For one thing, the school I attended, Thiel College, a small liberal arts school, located in western Pennsylvania: Thiel did not offer a program in creative writing. The nearest major on the books was English, a program, I soon discovered, that included lots of writing. Who could object to that?
My professors, that’s who. They did not view my “natural talent” in anything like the same way my high school teachers had. Try as I might, they gave me less than satisfactory grades. With four classes of English behind me, my average was a big, fat “D.”
Even worse, I learned that, in order to major in English, a student had to take a full year of English history, and another full year of American history. That was a major problem. Back then, given my tastes for the academic life, I would have preferred being lashed with a whip or being boiled alive to taking one full year, let alone two, of any sort of history.
As fate would have it, at the beginning of my third year, Thiel, for the first time in its history, introduced a philosophy major. Like other students at my level, I had taken a few courses in philosophy. I liked them well enough and (not unimportantly) my grades were much better than the ones I received from my English instructors. But major in philosophy? Remember, I went to Thiel to become a great writer of fiction. It didn’t take an advanced degree to see that studying philosophy was not directly relevant to fulfilling that ambition.
But, wait. Maybe philosophy was what I had been looking for, after all. After studying the matter in considerable detail, I discovered that a student could major in philosophy without having to take a course in English history. Or in American history. Or in any other sort of history. Talk about being at the right place, at the right time!
I wish I could say, then, that the main reason I decided to major in philosophy was because I had an unquenchable thirst for Truth, with a capital “T.” The problem is, that’s not the principal reason I chose to major in the subject. Not at all. The main reason had nothing to do with the search for Truth. I became the first philosophy major in Thiel College’s history because, by choosing philosophy as my major, I was able to avoid taking courses in … history. As they say in the southern states, in America, that’s the “gospel truth.”
Having decided upon a major, there was no turning back. You might say, I was just along for the ride. After graduating from Thiel, I secured both a M.A. and a Ph.D., by doing graduate work, in philosophy, at the University of Virginia. Then, two years later, in 1967, I joined the philosophy department at North Carolina State University, retiring in 2001, still writing philosophy, publishing over fifty books, including a dozen since becoming emeritus professor. Did I mention that three of my books were on G. E. Moore, the 19th-20th century English philosopher, all three related to Moore’s influence on the Bloomsbury Group? In other words, history, my one time nemesis, won me over in the end.
In any event, a day dawned, as I knew all along that it would, when I said, “Enough philosophy, already!” Whatever became of that young man who went off to college to learn how to write great short stories? How did I manage to lose any sense of connection with that aspiring writer?
One thing was clear. If I was ever to test the waters — if I was ever to see what sort of writer of fiction I was or could become — I needed to get down to the task at hand. I needed to see whether this-no-longer-young-man, whether this-daily-growing-older-septuagenarian could write high quality fiction.
The fruits of this decision have been published in two books, consisting of ten stories each: Maud’s Place and Other Southern Stories and A Better Life and Other Pittsburgh Stories, both available at Amazon.com. The stories collected in a third volume, Five Dog Tales, constitute five stories from these two collections. In each story, dogs play leading roles — different roles, to be sure, but leading roles nonetheless.
One thing I have learned during the past few years: writing fiction is hard! At least, the fiction I’ve written has been hard for me. Truth to tell, I am a compulsive re-writer. Even when I was writing philosophy full-time, I never met a sentence I thought could not be improved by the process of re-writing. In the books and essays I’ve written, as a philosopher, I’ve re-written much more than I’ve written. Vastly more, in fact. Turns out, when it comes to my fiction, this has been proven to be true in spades. Each of the stories in my three collections has gone through at least thirty drafts; often many, many more. Back when I packed my bags to go off college, I don’t remember that writing fiction was as hard for me then as it is for me now. As is well and wisely said, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”