I’ve always been a writer, though it took me awhile to realize it. In school I struggled with chemistry and algebra, but I was always comfortable with words. I was fortunate to have a mother who valued reading and teachers in both high school and college who were excellent teachers of writing.
I came to writing fiction later in life, after law school, a brief stab at practicing law, and then many years in legal publishing. I started taking classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and at the University of Minnesota, wrote a few stories, and even published a couple in small literary magazines. I wrote early in the morning, before work, on an IBM Selectric that I bought from my law firm for $50 right before I resigned.
Then, in what I suppose you could call an early mid-life crisis, I quit my job in publishing, sold my house, and moved to New York to enroll in the MFA in Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. It was one of those life-altering decisions you can’t quite explain but at the same time seems inevitable.
At 36 I was a poor graduate student, often homesick, renting a room in a run-down house with no insulation six blocks from campus, trying to fit in with the twentysomethings in my workshops, some of whom asked me why the heck I would give up a good job, a nice house, and pretty much everything else I had to get an MFA. (It was something that, in the middle of the night, I often asked myself too.) I earned money for food and rent writing biographies for a legal encyclopedia and working at the college fitness center, where I trained students and faculty on using the equipment so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.
While I was in graduate school I also did an internship with a literary agent who paid me in train and subway fare and occasional free tickets to readings and invites to literary events. I volunteered to be a visiting writer at an elementary school, where once a week I sat on the floor with eight or ten third and fourth graders and we told stories.
I spent many afternoons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library and, when the weather was nice, sitting on a rock in Central Park, just because I could.
I fretted constantly about my student loans.
But no matter what, I wrote everyday, mostly about what I’d left behind: the Midwest, my career as a reluctant lawyer, family and relationships. Somehow I managed to turn all of that into something resembling a book, which after much more work over many years would become Oranges, my first published collection of short fiction.
After I graduated it was back to reality in Minnesota, where I got my old job back but also talked my way into adjunct gigs teaching composition at various colleges. I started teaching fiction writing at the Loft, where everything started for me as a writer. The experience I gained teaching eight and nine year olds came in surprisingly handy.
In 2002 I started teaching writing fulltime at the University of Minnesota, and over time eventually moved into teaching courses related to other subjects as well…including law, which gave me the chance, nearly 20 years later, to finally understand and appreciate all the things I missed in law school the first time around.
And I’m still writing.
And I paid off my student loans.
You can’t ask for much more than that.
— Gary Eldon Peter
Author of Oranges