Complementing my interviews, today’s Author Spotlight, the three hundred and thirty-sixth, is of humourist, fiction and non-fiction writer Allen Smith. If you would like to take part in an author spotlight, take a look at author-spotlights.
For many baby boom writers, invoking the popular television show “Leave It to Beaver” is the easiest way to describe their white bread, middle-class upbringing, complete with stay-at-home mom, working father and a brother who shares their bedroom. For Allen Smith, it hit even closer to home. “I went to high school with Jerry Mathers – the Beav, from the popular television series,” Allen says. In fact, they played on the same football team at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California and hung out together on the weekends driving out their neighbors with what marginally passed for loud, objectionable garage band music.
Allen Smith was born and raised in Van Nuys, a suburb of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. The youngest of two brothers, he lived an idyllic life free from violence, divorces and poverty. A time when kids could walk safely to school and the worst thing anybody expected them to do was pinch a few cigarettes or smuggle a copy of their dad’s Playboy into the Faculty restroom.
In 1967, Allen graduated from Van Nuys High School – the same institution that boasted more famous alumni like Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Tom Selleck, Natalie Wood and served as the cinematic backdrop for “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “My Stepmother is an Alien” and “The Wonder Years”.
After graduating from high school, Allen enlisted in the U.S. Navy during the height of the Viet Nam war era. As an eighteen-year-old, ripe for the draft, it seemed like the thing to do until he figured out they actually shot at each other over there. After completing boot camp, Allen volunteered for duty in Viet Nam to stay off of ships. In true military fashion, he was promptly sent to Oahu, Hawaii for two years where he spent his days working with gorgeous officers’ wives, holding their hands and helping them find housing while their fighter pilot husbands risked their lives flying missions over the war zone. Because he was too young to get into the bars and rejected by all of the local girls, Allen spent every afternoon and weekend surfing until his brown skin took on the look of a used oxford. Eventually, he and his brother (who transferred from the U.S.S. Enterprise to be with his sibling on the island) rented a two-bedroom house on the tip of Waimea Bay, with mangoes growing in the yard and the most famous big-wave beaches up and down the street.
After being discharged in 1969, Allen knew that he wanted to go to college – largely because of Dustin Hoffman’s adventures in the movie, “The Graduate”. The first two years, he merely went through the motions, sowing his wild oats, barely managing to graduate with an Associate of Arts degree. The following fall, he got through the first two weeks at California State University, Northridge before succumbing to a severe case of hepatitis and had to drop out of school.
The fall semester was nearly over by the time Allen regained his health. So, the question was, “Now what?”
Bitten by the ski bug in 1965, Allen loved skiing, the mountains and all things cold. Faced with a blank slate and the opportunity to either wait for the next semester or go where his heart took him, he accepted a job at a local ski resort, working as a lift operator, ski patrolman and ski instructor, followed by a summer in Europe. It wouldn’t be the last time skiing became a major part of his life.
After several restless years living in the mountains, Allen decided to pursue a “real job,” moved back to Los Angeles and enrolled at the Royal Barber College in downtown Los Angeles, where he spent the better part of a year shaving, trimming and delousing the homeless until he accumulated enough hours to take his barber’s license examination. A year later, he earned his cosmetology license and cut hair at several posh salons during the height of Disco Fever, sleeping with the majority of his clientele, until an angry husband with a gun made moving to San Diego seem like a good idea.
After 10 years of buzz cutting, bobbing and shingling every form of frizzy, highlighted, layered and processed form of split ends, Allen returned to academia to finish his bachelor’s degree. At the same time, he got swept up in the long distance running craze of the early 1970s and enrolled in the Exercise Physiology program at San Diego State University, eventually earning his Master’s degree and certification as a Preventive and Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist with the American College of Sports Medicine. His first job offer took him straight back to Los Angeles where he became the Director of the Executive Fitness Program at the prestigious Los Angeles Athletic Club on the corner of 7th and Olive.
Another 10 years went by before Allen became bored with taking responsibility for other people’s health and started looking for yet another new career. The answer was computers – those clunky, gray office machines that occupied the entire corner of your desk. Smitten by computers in 1980 (long before the Internet or home computers), he started looking for ways to make himself marketable to a new field. Because of his teaching experience in graduate school, he was given the chance to train new computer users at a local import company, while spending nights inhaling users’ manuals before anyone caught onto to the fact that he don’t know the first thing about what he was doing. “For the life of me,” Allen says. “I have no idea why they hired me.” Nonetheless, a new career was born.
By 1996, after working in a number of different technical positions, Allen was offered a chance to combine his love for skiing and working with computers when he moved to Colorado, working for Vail Resorts. His mission was to keep more than 200 computers on Vail Mountain up and running in between powder runs in Vail’s famous back bowls. “To this day,” Allen says, “it was the best job I’ve ever had. I skied over 140 days a year – and got paid for it.”
Allen is still living in Vail and teaches skiing full time during the winter while focusing on his writing during the summer. He’s currently wrapping up his third book, “The Zygote and the Pink Canoe” (you’ll have to read the story to figure that one out) while he continues to write for local newspapers, magazines, the web and other freelance assignments.
“inhaling user manuals” I love it! And now from the author himself:
I am an award winning, syndicated writer living in Vail, Colorado. In 2006, I was a Humorpress Semi-finalist for “Birth Anomalies I’d Like to Have”, and a Finalist for my essay, “For Better or For Worse: Man Takes Marital Vows with Himself”.
I have been featured on NBC News, ABC’s The View, KYSL Radio, TV8 Vail and Plum TV16. I have also been published in The Writer Magazine, The Denver Post, The Aspen Times and was a founding writer for Lance Armstrong’s wellness website, Livestrong.Com.
My first book, “Ski Instructors Confidential: The Stories Ski Instructors Swap Back at the Lodge” was published in 2005, is in its second printing and sold around the world in book stores and on-line.
My second book, “Watching Grandma Circle the Drain” (AuthorHouse, 2011) has received rave reviews on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million and dozens of independent websites and blogs.
I have also contributed to “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners” (2010) and “The Gigantic Reader” (2008). I’m currently wrapping up the manuscript on my third book, “The Zygote and a Pink Canoe,” another collection of humorous and satirical essays.
I started dabbling with writing while I was completing my graduate thesis, “The Relationship Between Glycosylated Hemoglobin and Plasma Lactate Accumulation in the Type II Diabetic During Sub-maximal Exercise”. After spending 10 hours a day reading and writing about blood, I was desperate for a way to break out and exercise my suppressed sense of humor. So, I stole a few sheets of department letterhead and posted an “authorized” list of approved thesis topics. They included subjects like “The Effects of Chest Hair on the Aerodynamics of Russian Women Pole Vaulters During High Altitude Training” and “Blood Doping in Male Pre-pubescent Chess Players”. It was a hit. It even got a laugh from the department chairman.
Another similar exercise occurred when I was working for the U.S. Army in Munich, Germany. Bored with the doldrums of my daily routine, I posted a memorandum from the base commander explaining the new restroom policy. Concerned with the senseless amount of time being wasted visiting the restrooms, he implemented a policy whereby employees were allotted two, ten-minute visits per day, based on the first letter of their last name. Miss your appointed time? You had to wait until the next day. I knew it was a success when my office mate swallowed it hook, line and sinker and ran down the hall to complain about the new policy. I left a short time later…
Since then, I’ve enjoyed poking fun at everything in life – the more serious, the better. Nothing is off-limits. And, like many standup comedians, I’m constantly looking for fodder on the hundreds of newspapers and websites I peruse on a daily basis. It doesn’t take much to get me going. I recently heard about a program for incarcerated inmates who bring homeless dogs into their cells to teach them sound domestic values in exchange for companionship. I thought to myself, “That’s great for the inmates, but what effect is that going to have on the dogs?” The result was an essay about an impressionable dog that ended up smoking cigarettes, getting tattooed, joining a prison gang and smuggling cell phones and other contraband into Leavenworth State Penitentiary.
Another idea came from simply going out to dinner. On a first date to an expensive restaurant, I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t interpret half the items on the menu. Instead of asking the waiter what Haggis canapé giardiniera on brioche toast was, I just ordered it – and half a dozen other foreign sounding dishes. The result was one of my favorite essays, “The $84 Windpipe”. I’ve also written about things like going online to find a sizzling Russian bride, the challenges of naming a newborn baby, challenges in personal hygiene and what it’s like to be stuck in Purgatory (only to go on to be reincarnated as a Jewish chicken).
One of the keys to great humor writing is finding something most people can relate to – the simpler, the better – then inject emotion, stress and tension into it. Voila… You have the beginnings of a great, funny story. It’s a winning equation that Jerry Seinfeld and other successful comedians have used for years in standup routines, screenplays and magazine articles.
Another thing I do that results in great outcomes is extensively researching the subject before writing. I approach comedy articles as if they were non-fiction topics. For instance, I wrote an article called, “The Happiest Peak on Earth” about a father who promised to take his young children on a Mount Everest expedition. By the time they were released from school for their vacation, the climbing window had closed. Did he cancel the trip? Absolutely not. He just changed the climbing location to the Matterhorn – not the majestic peak towering over Zermatt, but the cement behemoth in the middle of Disneyland in Anaheim, California – 147 feet above sea level. I included genuine locations like Pixie Hollow, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and the Gibson Girl Ice Cream Parlor on Main street and wrote the story as if I was describing a life or death summit to the top of Mount Everest – including equipment, food and challenges. Accurate, tight articles result in wonderfully humorous stories.
Writing great stories starts with a great idea. What you do with it depends on your creativity and the courage to take the subject somewhere where it’s never been before.
You can find more about Allen and his writing via… website: www.snowwriter.com or his blog at www.snowwriter.com/blog.
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