I am Mark Wiertalla
by Mark Wiertalla
I have never thought much about what I would call myself if I had the choice, and I’ve learned this pen name thing is pretty tough. It’s a good thing my parents had the foresight to solve that problem for me. Eventually I’d like to find an Italian-sounding name. That would be cool and kind of sexy and a good fit for me. Or perhaps a combination of the street that I grew up on, my mother’s maiden name, and the name of my favorite pet. That might be clunky, but it would be less likely to be registered as a domain name. It was easier choosing names for my children. At the advice of my editor, I’ll stick, for now, with the name that I brought to the dance.
I’m a product manager for a software company in the Silicon Valley. I’m not a writer by profession or by training, but I can rationalize my qualification to write a column because in business I’m always communicating through keyboards, flat panels and overhead projectors. I’ve written a couple of novels. There is a significant difference between a good novel and a boring novel, and I like to assess my novel-things as a quality between good and boring; let me use the word creative. During the last two Novembers I participated in the National Novel Writing Month contest and, after producing 50,000 words within the span of only 30 days on two successive occasions, I emerged a winner. My work so far has been exclusively fiction and for mature audiences. (We won’t be seeing any of that work here.)
I’m the father of three children. My wife claims that she has always been faithful and, because each of the kids appears to bear the burden of my family’s gene pool, I’ll assume that I am indeed their father. For those of you reading this profile on government-issued desktop computers, rest assured that this status is consistent with each of my tax returns over the last 25 years. But I am only certified and qualified to hold this conversation with you because I am also a dad. There is a critical difference between fatherhood and dad-dom. It only takes a single successful sperm cell to achieve father status. However, dad-dom requires more than basic physical biology, and I’ll be writing in this column about the soft skills and the lifelong commitment to the prime objective. The prime objective, by the way, is to create and nurture children into the kind of adults who will buy a street sheet for a dollar and use Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success as a guiding principle in their lives.
Each of my children is an adult, currently ranging in age from 19 to 25. Two of them – girls, both – have left home. The oldest works in The City (San Francisco to those of you that don’t live in the San Francisco Bay area), and she keeps an apartment with a girlfriend in an East Bay suburb. The second is a senior at Sacramento State and works full-time to cover the rent for her Sacramento apartment. While there is evidence that the third is still boarding at La Casa Dei Sogni with my wife and me (wet towels on the floor of the guest bathroom, laundry baskets overflowing with young male clothing staged outside of the laundry room, etc.), he works full-time and comes and goes on a schedule that only the energy of a nineteen-year-old can sustain.
The general theme that will carry through my columns is my life in an empty nest. My intent is to avoid the warm, nostalgic “I remember when” stories (everyone has their own versions, anyway) and focus instead on my fatherhood experience in the moment. I’ll write about how my life has changed – and continues to change – as I transition from an active, full-time nest keeper to the role of consultant dad.
Another character on my real-life stage is my wife of 26 years. Like me, she is a professional. She has always worked outside the home in some way, and still she has always been the principal homemaker. Cook, seamstress, ambulance driver, cabbie, conductor of the household cacophony. While our children were not latch-key kids growing up, they didn’t come home from school to warm cookies and mom-in-an-apron, either. Early in our marriage I decided that I needed a partner who would continue to grow with me and the best stimulant for growth would be sustained education and interaction with other adults. I learned that lesson from my mother.
I’ve talked about the who (me, my wife and the kids), what (being an empty-nester), when (in the moment) in this series of columns (where), so now it’s time for the why. First, it’s not about “I want to be a writer.” That was my grandmother’s dream, and one that she realized, by the way. If this were an ill-defined ambition (I’ll try writing), then I would have just resigned myself to writing the next software Product Requirements Document. I’m also not willing to bet my retirement upon a writer’s salary, so this is not going to help me move on to a second career. But I am motivated to express my thoughts within the unfamiliar confines of a non-fictional format.
Writing as therapy. Years ago during a rough period in our relationship, my wife and I learned to express ourselves through diary writing. Frankly, I found diary writing to be as difficult as eating oysters on the half shell. I could get it into my fingers, but there was no way I could finish. Still, the experience helped me learn that, in addition to abuses of my vocal chords, I could release tension – and express joy and laughter, which are just a tad more constructive – through my finger tips. With practice I eventually found my writer’s voice. Writing keeps me balanced and provides me a channel for expression. And it probably keeps me from dumping a boxful of tacks across the parking lot at the train station, too.
Legacy for my family. When I was a teenager, my grandmother wrote a family history in the last years before she died. It was a painfully long outline of who begat whom (BOR-ing), but she wrote it in the face of the ultimate deadline, and I admire that today. Only the immediate family could relate to this type of work, assuming anyone in the immediate family had the patience to read past the prologue. I have a copy of it buried in a carton, stacked under other cartons in the garage, and it will be unearthed after the next great shifting of the Hayward Fault or perhaps after my wife and I finish our move into the new house. The scientists tell me one of these things is very likely to happen in the next 70 years. But I did read it, umm, mostly, about 25 years ago. I’m just a little ashamed to admit that I don’t remember anything about her book. (By the way, a book is the end result of actually publishing a novel. Twenty five years later, she’s still managed to stay one-up on me.) But I do remember thinking, realizing, that her book held half of my family’s history. And it was the only place on the planet where that much information on our family and how I came to be could be found. Twenty five years later, it occurs to me that now is the time for me to take ownership of capturing the essence of my life – all the stuff that represents the way my brain is uniquely wired – and not rely on someone else to perform forensic research several generations from now using Google and Wikipedia. This is the way, through writing this column, that I’ve chosen to reach across the coming years to show my great-great-grandchildren just what kind of man their great-great-grandfather was. Whether they read these columns or bury them at the bottom of an unnamed directory on their C: drive is something I’ll leave for my great-great-grandchildren to determine.
Creative discipline. I enjoy writing. Writing is the process of creating. I’ve found the novel-in-30-days hobby holds me captive in the creative mind. During those 30 days I have more energy, and fewer obstacles in my life seem like obstacles. I am more attuned to the lives and the dynamics of interrelations thriving around me, and I look outward for inspiration. There is a saying – “to think is to create” – and the more time I spend thinking then the less time I spend watching television or listening to an iPod or reading someone else’s novel. I find myself not just asking “what if?” but acting on my passions and desires, defining the “here’s how” and then living my life to its fullest. What I haven’t had (until now) is a schedule for creativity. I expect this column will help me develop that skill.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *