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The story of how an aspiring novelist finally achieved his dream — with one tiny catch.

WE ALL HAVE DREAMS. Bobby Kennedy dreamed of things that never were and asked “Why not?” Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of getting to that mountaintop, hoping to hear freedom ring. My dream, ever since I was old enough to read, was to write a novel. And not just to write one, but to have one published. This was overly ambitious for an adolescent. But the books I was reading — about hot rods, baseball, and Hardy Boys mysteries — seemed like something I, too, might be able to write one day.

Then I read Hermann Hesse, J.D. Salinger, and Philip Roth, and I began to see that my dream was more of a challenge. These guys could write! And then along came Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, and James Joyce, and my dream began to show cracks. If I couldn’t measure up to the best, did I really want to flounder around in the minor leagues of literature?

I didn’t have an answer since I hadn’t tried writing a novel. So, during my freshman year in college, I decided to give it a shot. I gave it my best effort but came up short — by a few hundred pages and some seriously inept plotting. It made me aware that what I needed was experience. I went to Europe one summer, joined a Civil Rights march in Mississippi another. I traveled across the borders to Tijuana and Toronto, hitchhiked from New York to L.A., and had my heart broken by at least two coeds. By my senior year, I put my experiences into a second novel attempt. This time I completed it but put it away because it was too heavily influenced by writers I admired. I knew that I needed to find my own voice, not imitate anyone else’s.

After college, I joined the Peace Corps and wound up teaching in Ghana. I had read that William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying, one of his favorite novels, in six weeks, while he worked the night shift at a power plant. It was a short novel of just 60,000 words, and I challenged myself to see how many words I could write in the same amount of time. Six weeks later, I had actually completed my novel, which had double the words of As I Lay Dying but wasn’t even a fraction as good.