Story of a Story: How I Wrote My First Book

A pristine glacial stream on the Routeburn Track, South Island, New Zealand

The first time I shared anything I wrote was during a trip to New Zealand in 2016. My best friend Joe and I had just turned 21. He was on track to earn his infantry commission and I was finishing up my product design degree. Grim adulthood was fast approaching.

So we saved our money, planned for nearly a year, and left for the land down under (and slightly to the left) on New Year’s Eve.

We survived on gas station meat pies and freeze dried backpacker meals. We saw the Abel Tasman Sea, and the famous Routeburn Track. A family we met on a trek even let us stay at their cabin at Mount Tongariro (Mount Doom, of Lord of the Rings fame.).

Throughout the trip, I typed out email updates for the folks at home on my iPod Touch between hikes, during long overnight bus rides, and from my bunk in crowded hostels. People seemed to enjoy the stories.

Greenstone Valley, South Island, New Zealand

From left: The crew we met on the Routeburn track | My hiking sandals, rigged with Dr. Scholls inserts | The Abel Tasman Sea

After New Zealand, I lasted one more semester at school before I wanted out again. So I finished out my junior year at RIT in Rochester, New York, then joined up with AmeriCorps NCCC in July of 2016.

I was assigned to a team of nine 18-24-year-olds from every walk of life. We spent the next ten months as disaster relief volunteers following floods and tornadoes around the Southeast. We learned how to build houses and tear them apart. We operated forklifts, vans and dumptrucks. We set up and ran relief warehouses.

The work was often emotionally and physically draining with long hours in decimated areas. We lived out of suitcases and moved frequently. We slept everywhere from packed Red Cross shelters to backcountry campgrounds, usually on cots, or the floor, or the ground. But it was good work. When we weren’t absolutely miserable, we were having the time of our lives.

I kept a blog during this time, campily titled “AmeriVentures,” and was busily filling journals with notes from all the incredible places and offbeat characters (so, so many characters) we encountered on our working journey through the South.

Team Delta One and volunteers at our disaster relief warehouse in Albany, GA

Left + Center: Flood relief in In West Virginia | Right: on a special USFS trail crew in Kentucky

AmeriCorps taught me how to contract my whole life to what I could carry on my back; how to eat on the road for less than five bucks a day; how to find cheap or free lodging, and how to actually enjoy not showering for a week or more. Seeing the South this way had opened up a whole new world to me.

By the time our Corps graduated at the end of April 2017, the wanderlust bug had bit me hard, and I wanted more.

I had four months to kill before my senior year at RIT started in September. I got a maintenance job at a factory back in Jersey for the Spring. I gathered supplies, fixed up my car, and in June, my brothers and I set out to see the West.

We descended into the Grand Canyon and climbed the Continental Divide, wandered in mountain meadows and across sagebrush deserts, and met people from all over the world whose unusual lives had led them far off the beaten path. And I kept writing.

Aldritch Mountains, Oregon

Clockwise from top left: Empty highway somewhere west of the Mississippi | At an AirBnB in Arizona | Inside the Grand Canyon | Rock pinnacle at El Malpais, a volcanic wasteland in New Mexico | Rain on an off-grid homestead near the Rio Grande | Sunset in the desert

I’d worked hard in the first three years of my degree, so by the time senior year rolled around, I had plenty of time for fun.

I took a graphic design class, got my motorcycle permit, and joined the Tango club (I wasn’t exactly a natural, but it sure was fun). I got a job leading student service outings into the city of Rochester, and somehow landed a position as the features editor at the school magazine, which felt like getting paid to research things I was interested in anyway. I even got some articles published in my hometown magazine.

That was the first time I got paid to write. I was surrounded by writers, many of whom were a lot better than me—people who took writing seriously for its power to inform, inspire, and entertain. I learned a whole lot from those folks.

Some of my first official publications

I was given the incredible gift of graduating from college with no student debt. I had plenty of options. I knew I’d already had more adventures in 23 years than many people have in 40. I also knew my life was a rare blessing and I had to do something with it. I just couldn’t decide what.

So the day after graduation, I bought a candy-apple-red Kawasaki crotch rocket and dropped it on the first ride. After gaining a healthy respect for my new toy, I spent quite a lot of time on that bike.

During the two months I spent at home on the farm in NJ after graduation, when I wasn’t riding, digging in the backyard or not applying for jobs, I was writing. I don’t know why. I guess it made me feel so much more alive than the idea of the predictable nine-to-five my whole life had prepared me for.

During this time I made a mock-up cover for the story I was working on. I made it look like I’d been published by Penguin. I even made up my own glowing reviews. I posted it on Facebook as a joke, not thinking for a minute anyone would take it seriously.

They did. That was when I knew there really might be something to the whole writing thing.

My first cover mock-up. None of the reviews were real of course. Ferrol Sams, one of my favorite authors, was dead and thus unavailable for comment, but that didn't stop me.

I didn’t know what it takes to make it as a writer. I still don’t. But I knew this calling wasn’t going to go away, so I decided I’d give it my best shot.

To do that, I needed pressure, time, and space. So I sold the bike and on August 1st, I packed my car, headed back to Rochester, and spent all of my savings on five months’ up-front rent on an apartment—because no one would rent a decent place to a 23-year-old with no job.

I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t either.

I got a part-time job at a bakery to feed myself and keep the lights on. I would wake up before dawn, go for a run, and write for four hours before spending the rest of the day driving the box truck to and from the baker’s industrial freezer; tearing open pie boxes; and taking tips at the counter — then I’d go back to the apartment and work on freelance jobs if I had any. If not, I’d just keep writing.

If I’d worked anywhere but Colby’s Bake Shop in the fall of 2018, I’d never have made it. The women there fed me constantly, both literally and emotionally with enthusiastic encouragement, tiding me through the most fragile part of the dream: the first draft.

I furnished my first apartment from the trash, and slept on a camping pad I found on the side of the road in Colorado. A mattress wouldn't fit in my car.

By the new year, my savings were long since gone, and I had three months left on a lease that would be almost impossible to afford on 12 dollars an hour at the bakery. After five months cooped up in my basement apartment, I’d just finished the first rough draft of the story at 70,000 words, and I was 35,000 words into another story, too. I needed a break from writing.

It was around this time that my old professor offered me an AmeriCorps position in Rochester. I’d be helping him build a soft goods manufacturing non-profit that employed refugees. Their flagship product was, of all things, designer hair scrunchies.

I had no interest in designer soft-goods, I knew very little about refugees, I was getting tired of being poor, and as a lifelong suburban-farmboy I was honestly scared of a city that boasted one of the best heroin markets on the East Coast.

But this was my chance to try my hand at saving the world. Plus, I’d always wanted to live in a depressed city for a year, just to understand the struggles of the people forced to live there—and, so I wouldn’t be scared of it anymore. If that sounds incredibly naive, well, it was.

I accepted, and I spent the next year living and working in the city at an income around half the poverty level. Boy, was it an education.

Mural outside Rochester Refugee's shop

Rochester Refugee Sewing and Repair was anything but glamorous. My boss, Mike, had started the nonprofit a few months before with the goal of providing decent jobs to otherwise unemployable UN refugees living in the city.

When I got there, the operation consisted of a dozen or so antique home sewing machines crammed into a converted garage attached to a frankenstein house in Maplewood, one of Rochester’s poorest neighborhoods.

Over the course of the next year, we refurbished the front room of the house, cleaned out the basement, and acquired better machines. We figured out how to turn old t-shirts into high-end products made by refugee employees.

We pitched investors, built marketing collateral and expanded to more complicated products. Mike even put together an art show downtown and got us featured on several media outlets. We made a lot of mistakes, but we learned on our feet.

In between we had fun walking around the neighborhood with our adopted shopcat, Kitimaya; exploring the city with our new American friends and a stream of colorful volunteers; and swapping stories and food from around the world.

The first few months working full time at Rochester Refugee were exciting, but tough. I was earning a stipend of about six dollars an hour. Almost all of that went to rent, so I was still moonlighting freelance jobs whenever I could. My hard-won first draft was gathering dust.

The warehouse apartment.

In the spring I spent a couple months at a tiny AirBnB a few blocks from the sewing shop, but it wasn’t much cheaper than the old lease. Then, in June, my girlfriend’s dad offered me a great rate at an apartment attached to his construction warehouse in exchange for some renovation work.

Even then, I struggled to pay my bills. After almost a full year of 15-hour days chasing the dream, I was shot. I remember sitting down one night after the transmission on my car started slipping and praying, “Lord, if this is what you want me to do, you gotta give me something. I can’t do this anymore.”

The next day, I walked into the office at Rochester Refugee to quit. Before I could say a word, Rochester Refugee’s property manager, Djifa, who managed the organization's sprawling affordable housing operation, asked me if I wanted to make some money.

A week later I was cutting fifty lawns with someone else’s equipment, someone else’s gas, and someone else’s vehicle. If I ran behind the mower, which I often did, I was making fifty to sixty bucks an hour while getting a workout and listening to business podcasts. People would see me cutting lawns for Rochester Refugee and ask me to do theirs, too.

In a month, I’d earned enough to buy my own truck and acquire more equipment, and by the end of the season I had so much work I had to hire my brother to help me. Guys on the street started asking me to hire them, too.

That was when it finally clicked for me: you don’t have to be poor to help people. In fact, if you can make money, you may even have a moral obligation to make as much as you can, because the more you’ve got, the more you can give.

I made so much money landscaping a dozen hours a week, I could afford to stay on at the sewing project part time, pay all my bills, and start writing three days a week. Three whole days a week. With Sundays off.

You can’t make this stuff up. I had been seconds from giving up.

Top: working with some of the women at the sewing shop. Bottom, left to right: My dad gave me his old commercial lawn mower. It had to be jumpstarted, the clutch handles stuck, and it leaked transmission fluid, but it was free!

One of the properties I mowed for Rochester Refugee, a former zombie house that they've since restored beautifully.

My truck leaked every kind of fluid a car can leak, except windshield washer fluid. Figures.

By the time I finished the second draft of the book in October of 2019, the people and places of “The Flower City” had shaped the narrative as much as any of my previous adventures.

My first morning at the warehouse apartment, someone tried to sell me weed as soon as I opened the front door. Maybe it was the long hair and the dirty workshirts and the torn up jeans—for whatever reason, somebody tried to sell me weed almost every week.

I got adopted immediately by Boone, the retired roofer across the street. He introduced me once as “his blue-eyed soul-brother.” He and his wife Peggy, transplants from Georgia, fed me a regular diet of homecooked soulfood and sixty years worth of urban stories in exchange for a few simple chores around the house.

I made friends with “Old School” and some of the other neighbors at the crackhouse next door. There were drug addicts everywhere. Some wanted money. Others just wanted a hug. Really.

There were plenty of convicts on the street too. Some of them wanted me to hire them, and some of them wanted to hire me.“Batman” down the block offered to hire me for his landscaping service early in the summer. I helped him fix his lawn mower a couple months later and he asked if I would hire him. I could always tell when he’d been using. When he was sober he’d wave from down the block, but sometimes he’d just shuffle right past my front stoop without a glance. That was always sad. I liked that guy.

The abandoned subway in Rochester

Most of my life, I loathed the very idea of living in a place where you could see your neighbors at all, let alone all 300 of them. By the time I left Rochester at the end of the year, en route to Moab, Utah, I had a much better understanding of what a city is, and what it isn’t.

Can you believe I miss it?

My street on a winter day

The Lazy Lizard Hostel in Moab, Utah, was the destination of choice for completion of the third draft in January 2020—Mostly because it was in the middle of nowhere, it was cheap, and I’d been there before in July.

Fortunately, January was the off season in a town of 6,000 that sees over 3 million tourists a year, so I had an eight bed dorm almost entirely to myself for the three weeks it took to completely re-write the book for the third time.

I’d sold my truck to fund this journey, so I was on foot in a part of the country where distances expand forever. Not having a car (or money to hire one) helped me focus. I worked long days and finished the draft quickly. Even so, during those all-important morning runs and pensive walks (where we writers do our best work), I still found plenty of local serenity.

Desert snowman outside my window

Mill Creek Trail on the outskirts of Moab

When I finished the book at the end of January, I headed back to my hometown in Jersey to launch it, ahead of the next round of adventures.

The board has been set. The pieces are in motion. Time to play the game.

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