Best Book Ever; How I Became a Writer
By Ken Magill
I just finished one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time. I want to say best ever, but there has to have been a better one somewhere.
It’s called Niagara Digressions by E.R. Baxter III.
[Warning: No marketing in this column.]
Coincidentally, E.R. Baxter III, or Bob, as I know him is the guy who convinced me I could make it as a writer.
And sadly, or thankfully, depending upon how you look at it, I am not in his book.
One of the things I like about Niagara Digressions—which is part memoir, part naturalist history, part non-screechy environmentalism and part meditation—is that his family has as much alcohol fueled hilarity and tragedy as mine.
In any case, one Sunday in the mid-nineteen eighties I was sitting in computer science lab at Niagara County Community College where Bob was, among other things, a creative writing teacher.
I was taking his course to help meet my English requirements. I had wanted to be a writer since I was five but I believed writing was an impractical aspiration, so I was a computer science major.
On that particular Sunday in the mid-eighties, I was working on a project for my assembly language course. Assembly is a low-level programming language.
Outwardly, my assembly language project was simple. I just needed to create an if/then path. If the code equaled 1 the computer was supposed to do one thing—I don’t remember exactly what. If the code equaled 2, it was supposed to do another.
I wrote the code, and tested it. It didn’t work. I tweaked something, tested, it didn’t work again.
I fiddled with that program for six god awful hours force feeding ones and twos into that stupid program. Six. Hours.
Then it hit me. Man, did it hit me.
Assembly requires the coder—me in this case—to reserve space for all variables.
I had correctly reserved four spaces for the variable “code.”
In assembly—and maybe others; I forget—spaces have a value.
As a result, I was asking the computer to compare space, space, space 1 to 1, and space, space, space 2 to 2 and act as if they were equal. They were not.
“Of course!” I shouted, startling everyone in the room. “Space, space, space one doesn’t equal one! And space, space, space two doesn’t equal two! Everyone knows that! I mean, who in this room doesn’t know that!?
“You know that, right!?,” I shouted to a worried-looking fellow computer science major. “Who doesn’t know space, space, space one doesn’t equal one and space, space, space two doesn’t equal two!?
“You know who doesn’t know it? I don’t! Why!? Because I’m an idiot, that’s why! F*ck! Me!”
I then went out into the hallway and lit a Marlboro. That was when I was a cigarette smoker and tobacco use indoors in public spaces was acceptable.
As I smoked that cigarette, I thought about some of the things Baxter had said to me over the course of the semester.
I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he made clear he saw some writing potential. He’s not effusive, so my guess is it was something like: “You don’t like computer science and you’re a pretty good writer. You might think about switching majors.”
And that was enough.
When I lit that cigarette on that Sunday, I was a would-be programmer. When I stubbed it out, I was a writer. I stuck out the assembly class and managed a C, but did it as a writer.
Considering the writer I’ve become, Baxter would be excused for disavowing this whole story and accusing me of making it up.
But he is, indeed, the guy who convinced me I could become a writer. So anyone I’ve ever made laugh or anyone I’ve ever taught anything through my writing for various outlets over the years can thank Baxter. Likewise, all the folks I’ve offended or infuriated can thank Baxter.
I am humbled that anyone who could create something as magnificent as Niagara Digressions would see any potential in anything I’ve ever written—especially the stuff I was writing back then.
Can you say self-indulgent twaddle?
Thanks, Bob. Nice work—on Niagara Digressions, that is.
On Me? Well, there are a lot of people who wish you’d have kept your yap shut.