Saturday, January 4, 2014

A sealed, secret, personal letter to Jeff Goins from no. 286

Note that this is NOT an Open Letter. Were this a paper letter it would be folded into a wax-sealed envelope. Due to conditions of Jeff Goin's 500 Word Challenge, I get no writing credit unless I post this letter on my blog, so here it is. If your name isn't "Jeff Goins" you can't read it. It's much too personal and full of mortifying secrets to be read by the Internet at large. Instead maybe find some baby otter photos to look at. Thank you.

Dear Mr. Goins,

It's Day 4 of the 500 Word Challenge and I have no idea where the words will come from, but I'm showing up at the keyboard and trust the words will too.

At 3:42 PM Eastern an incredible 799 people have signed up for your challenge. I'm one of them--number 286 in fact, a good number for a computer person--and thought I'd drop you a note and let you know what this particular one means.

Early success can be a curse. The popularity of my "Turnip Man" and "Captain Klink" comics, surreptitiously passed around during elementary school classes, gave me a taste of the amazing satisfaction gained by creating something and finding an appreciative audience.

After years of similar triumphs, by high school I had my answer whenever anyone asked what I wanted to be: "A writer."

In the first year of college I majored in journalism, wrote for the school newspaper, had an internship offer from the local city paper. One problem: I hated journalistic writing, and so did what any sensible person would do; figuring I couldn't make a living as a writer, I changed my major to actuarial science, for no other reason than I read in a magazine that it was a good job. It made sense at the time, and bystanders are accustomed to blaming these sudden moves on my red hair. Perhaps you get that too?

Fast forward to the second semester of my senior year in college. Three years as a math major, a few months away from a bachelor's in actuarial science, and a company already has me placed at a job in Kentucky post-graduation. All set, it would seem.

But no. Captain Klink and Turnip Man and a hundred stories since have started a throbbing in my gut, an ache strengthening as the diploma approaches. Red head. I grab my student dossier from the math department at Altgeld Hall--a cramped and fantastically unpredictable building that I love, by the way--and stride across the UIUC campus to the English building.

I'm no longer a math major on the brink of graduation; I'm an English major (specializing in British literature) with a lot of catching up to do. A sympathetic student advisor juggles my credit hours and determines I'll need a summer and two semesters to change that BS to a BA. So be it--I'm back in the game.

I'm writing and I'm writing and I write my way to that English degree and looking to become a smoke jumper in California after graduation--a fellow recreational skydiver is already out there and all I have to do is go. Someone performs a play I wrote at the university's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Then someone in Georgia wants to be my literary agent. So of course I go to Georgia and get an apartment.

What happens next should best be abbreviated, but bits of it are on the 10 o'clock news and my now former literary agent needs to focus all his energies on staying out of prison. Fortunately I know how to put a roof on a house and pay the first month's rent. A friend finds a job for me in a corporate accounting department--rescued by those math skills! I have a knack for computers and get recruited by the IT department after a few months.

Seduced by corporate employment and a rapidly increasing salary, I'm enjoying myself, gainfully employed in the technology field. Time, lots of time, rushes by and it's suddenly today. A wife, four kids, three dogs, two rabbits and a hermit crab. Life is rich, rewarding, and abounding in love from family and friends. Not easy, by any means--the valley of the shadow leaves its scars and wrinkles on anyone old enough to walk very far.

But the throbbing returns. I'm not so old yet, but old enough to know we're all running out of time, and I'm not writing. Haven't for many years. The Captain Klink and Turnip Man comics are long lost, and there's no student advisor to help me juggle the time I have left.

I've been reading your works for some while now, and at the perfect moment, a small fraction of time that could have easily passed without consequence, I see your challenge: Write 500 words, don't edit, show up. Not the great American novel, but an exercise.

Red head. I'm in. Thank you Mr. Goins. Number 286 is writing again.

Truly yours,



  1. I'm not Jeff and I read it anyway. LOVED IT! Awesome writing. Keep it up! You got my attention with actuarial science- my sophomore-at-community-college 19 year old son wanted to go into teaching but is now switching to actuarial science at Temple next year's a good job and he can make a lot of money. And he LOVES math. But he is also a musical whiz so I hope he keeps that.....and he's quite a writer as well. I bet he'll find someway to work it all out together like you did as he goes through his life! Thanks for writing the letter to Jeff. Keep up the good work. Sorry - not sorry - for reading.

  2. Many thanks for your encouragement, Beth! Your son sounds like a promising renaissance man, and it sounds like you're supportive of whatever direction he chooses--I've always been grateful for my parents having been the same way.

  3. Loved your letter, Mark! When you said in your introductory comments that it was NOT an open letter, my eyes were inexorably drawn to the first lines of the letter. Dunno why . . .

    It sounds as if your life has been one adventure after another. Congratulations for entering into the #my500words adventure wholeheartedly. I even did double duty tonight. Here's the tweet I sent to Jeff. @JeffGoins Did #my500words tonight! Did TWO! Which one? Hmm. Gratitude List Being A Chauffeur

  4. Thank you, Elizabeth! I'm off to check out your blog--wait--two in one day? We'll be expecting that level of output from now on, you realize...