15 November 2014

Incognito


by John M. Floyd

A few weeks ago I did something a bit different. I went to a weekend conference that had nothing to do with writing. But then, after I got there, it did.

First, a little background. While I was at Mississippi State University in the late 1960s, I was a member of a national engineering fraternity called Theta Tau. I pledged the local chapter (Kappa Beta) in the fall of my sophomore year, I somehow got accepted into their ranks, and for the next three years I went to the meetings, worked on community service projects, attended the banquets and dances and outings and recognition events, and made lifelong friends. I even hand-carved, as all pledges were required to do, a hammer out of a block of wood; it now hangs on the wall of my home office, above my computer.

In an unusual turn of fate, our two sons Michael and David wound up being engineering majors as well, and when they attended Mississippi State in the 1990s they also became members of Theta Tau. (Not that it matters, but I graduated in electrical engineering, Michael in chemical engineering, David in biological engineering. Michael's now a chem. e. with DuPont in West Virginia, and David--who went on to medical school afterward--is a physician at a hospital here in Mississippi.) So my sons are also my brothers, in the fraternity's record book, and when the MSU chapter of Theta Tau hosted a celebration of its 50th anniversary last month, all three of us attended the event (the reunion, actually), and spent the whole weekend on campus.

NOTE 1: It was a particularly good time to return to our alma mater. Thanks to the unpredictable blessings of the college football gods, Mississippi State's team has been ranked #1 in the nation for more than a month now. That lofty rating might come crashing down this weekend, when they play Alabama, so if you're reading these words on Saturday, November 15 . . . well, I hope you read them before the 2:30 kickoff.

NOTE 2: Our daughter Karen also graduated from Mississippi State, but she majored in music. A good choice, for two reasons: (1) she loves it, and has taught music in a local elementary school for the past ten years now, and (2) three out of five should be enough engineers for any one family.

Getting back to my story, Michael flew in from the Far North early that weekend, and the three of us Floyd boys piled into my car and drove the 120 miles to the little college town of Starkville. We met a lot of old (in my case, really old) classmates from Days Past, we ate a ton of barbecue at a cookout and bonfire that night, and we were given tours of the fraternity house, the engineering buildings, and the campus in general. I managed to learn a few things (example: the Simrall Electrical Engineering Building is the site of the largest high-voltage laboratory in North America), I unearthed some pleasant memories (most of which were related to dorm life and the campus pool hall), I ignored some unpleasant memories (most of which were related to classrooms and all-night study sessions), and I had a great time exploring and sightseeing.

So how does all this relate, even vaguely, to writing? I'll tell you. A lot of these old engineering buddies I ran into that weekend had become--you guessed it--writers. Some had begun writing long ago and others were fairly new to the task. Admittedly, many turned out to be authors of technical material: instruction manuals, articles for trade journals, hi-tech how-to books, etc. (Even I wrote a check-processing software guide, during my career with IBM; that literary endeavor is not one of my pleasant memories.) But lo and behold, some of these longlost friends were writers of fiction. Several had published or were working on novels, and a few--bless their little scientific hearts--had written short stories. Some had even read my short stories, or were kind enough to say they had.

Which begs the question: Could a background in engineering, math, technology, etc., naturally point someone toward a second career in writing? Since overachievers in any field can be a bit self-important at times, could ego play a part, here? Could such people feel more of a need to "enlighten" the world with their written words? Maybe--but I doubt it. Many of the engineers I went through school with were brilliant, but some were almost reclusive and a few, very honestly, didn't seem to have enough common sense to come in out of the rain. In my view, the answer is simple: In almost any large group of people these days, if and when they feel comfortable enough to chat for a while among themselves, you will discover a surprising number of folks who have decided to try their hand at writing. They might be aspiring or professional, secretive or open, traditionally-published or self-, literary or genre, fiction or non-, talented or pathetic, but there are a great many writers walking around out there in the world. As the little girl in Poltergeist said, "They're heeeee-ere." They're just hard to identify, in the wild.

I have yet another theory. I think writers who are less than well-known sort of enjoy eventually revealing the fact that they're writers, especially if they're revealing it to a gathering of colleagues or peers. Nobody brags (although they probably should) about being an engineer, but almost everyone who writes is proud of being an author. There's a certain fascination about it. "Whoa," says the wide-eyed nonwriter--"I've always wondered what that would be like."

I am no exception. I enjoy being a writer. A few months ago, having been asked many times at booksignings and writers' conferences, "Do you have a business card?"--and having replied many times that I did not, except for my old IBM cards--I finally gave in and ordered several hundred preprinted cards from an outfit online. The information on my newly-acquired business cards is short and to the point: my name, the word WRITER, my e-mail address, and my website name. And even though I seldom find a need to actually use them, I did hand a few cards to my old classmates and fraternity brothers during our little reunion last month. In the middle of all the discussions about robotics and thermodynamics and research grants and aeronautical design, I was able to grin and say, "I'm a writer now."

It felt good.

6 comments:

David Dean said...

What a nice piece, John, and what a wonderful family you have.

As for the Mississippi State-Alabama game...well, just understand that the largest share of my family resides in 'Bama!

John Floyd said...

Thanks, David. Writing this--AND spending that weekend with my boys--was a lot of fun.

As for the game, I also understand that the largest share of SEC football talent usually resides in Tuscaloosa. Still keeping fingers crossed, though . . .

Leigh Lundin said...

John, you'll be one of the few who'll understand if I admit I was a Triangle pledge.

Some types of engineering are ideally suited to plotting. With a background in software architecture and design, I'm acutely aware of structure. Probably the main issue of engineers is not 'over-engineering' a novel, that is, not being pedantic and trying to shoehorn in every detail. So generally, I agree!

John Floyd said...

Leigh, you came to mind many times when I was putting together this column--both you and I were/are tekkies who somehow morphed into writers. I agree that our backgrounds often seep into the way we approach the writing process. For one thing, I have to outline (mentally) the whole story before I start writing--as we have discussed, that path sometimes changes as the writing progresses, but I simply have to have that structure in place beforehand in order to create an effective story. Only one of my many quirks . . .

Jeff Baker said...

Wonderful to hear, John! Nice to see your sons and your Alma Mater!

John Floyd said...

Thanks, Jeff. When we got home my wife asked me why we hadn't taken more pictures, maybe get one of the three of us together. Good question. I have a theory about that, too: carrying an iPhone in your pocket all the time has made it so easy to take a photo, you tend to forget about the need to take photos.

We did have a great weekend, though.