Who has not had a Walter Mitty moment? Who has not entertained the thought of a different life, a different job, or of living in a better place? Unlike James Thurber’s fictional character who never made good on his dreams, Michael Ditchfield recently made a career- changing decision to follow his dream, to be a novelist.
Mr. Ditchfield’s epiphany occurred after a frightening accident. Three years ago he and his wife Lynn were driving to the funeral of a good friend in Bangor, Maine. It was a warm winter day. Snow was piled on the sides of the road, melting. It got cold late in the day and the water from the melting snow froze as it ran across the road.
“We turned onto the major highway and our truck started spinning across the road during rush hour. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Lynn leaned over and said ‘It’s going to be okay.’” Then they hit a car, spun some more, and ended up in the fast lane facing the wrong way with a completely dead, bashed-up truck, cars flying by them.
Within minutes there were police and fire engines everywhere. They had survived. “I thought, ‘oh my God, I could die at any moment.’” Mr. Ditchfield recalled. “Life is not safe.” He asked himself what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life. “Being a therapist is really gratifying but I realized I really wanted to write. I feel I was called to do this.”
He is now writing a mystery novel about a mystery writer. The story has a second novel, another mystery, folded inside it. He works six days a week at his laptop. This is his third novel.
Mr. Ditchfield has lived with his family on the Vineyard for more than 30 years, mostly in Edgartown. A product of the 60s, he has retained a love of rock and roll, motorcycles, and a sense of social justice. He still has a touch of his native English accent and all of his slightly dark English humor. As he discussed his work and the epiphanies that have gotten him to where he is, his impish smile and smooth bald head give him the aura of an eternal child.
Mr. Ditchfield is married to Lynn Ditchfield, a former Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School teacher who now runs the Adult Community Education (ACE MV) program on the Vineyard. They have two grown children, Brian, an actor and writer who works for the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival, and a daughter Mara, who is in the New York University graduate drama program in Singapore.
Born in 1949 in the northwestern town of Preston, England, Mr. Ditchfield spent much of his childhood in London. He recalls that his first creative story, in elementary school, was entitled “Scott’s Antarctic Expedition.” In the story he claims to be the sole survivor. “Scott, a British hero, had frozen to death 40 years previously,” he said. “I’m only 10. The story gets an F. Fiction and non-fiction are different, I’m told. I don’t quite see it that way.”
In 1963 The Beatles played in South London. “I heard John Lennon sing ‘Twist and Shout’ and never quite recovered,” Mr. Ditchfield said.
He was 16 in 1965 when his father, a reporter/editor with Reuters, was transferred to Washington, D.C. Moving from London, he remembers, “Was leaving a place where everything was already breaking loose. In D.C., everything was still pretty conservative, the whole city was segregated.”
There were only two black kids in his high school in northwest Washington and they were from African embassies. “I didn’t last there very long,” Mr. Ditchfield said. “I finished up at one of those alternative, hippy schools.”
He attended Federal City College, now the University of the District of Columbia, for one year in 1968 as one of only a handful of white students. “It was an interesting cultural experience, and I am so glad that I did that,” Mr. Ditchfield said. “To be immersed in Afro-American culture was terrific.”
He met his wife during the time he played drums in a rock and roll band. She was in a feminist theater group. When he realized he would rather listen than play, he quit the band and spent three years studying political science and creative writing at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.
After graduating, Mr. Ditchfield worked in the Georgetown Hospital for three years as an orderly in the operating room, “just trying to make some money.” Then he got involved in organizing a union of hospital workers and stayed there until that was done.
During this period, he wrote a number of plays. One was produced in New York. “I’ve really never made any money writing, which is why what I am doing now is such a leap of faith into the unknown.”
Funds were cut for a program Ms. Ditchfield worked in at a community college. He was struggling, unsuccessfully, to make it as a political cartoonist after leaving the hospital work. “I saw myself as another Jules Feiffer, but I didn’t have a Village Voice to latch onto,” he said.
Mr. Ditchfield told his wife he wanted to move to the Vineyard where his sister lived and his father had retired to. She initially said no, but then said if he could find a year-round house to rent, she would move. “I came up and within about an hour I had found a year-round house.” It was late 1980. They arrived on Martha’s Vineyard with two kids and no jobs.
On the Vineyard, “I tried carpentry but I was terrible,” Mr. Ditchfield recalled. Then he tried house painting. “I draw so I had a steady hand and I started to write again.” After about four years of painting he had an epiphany. “I decided I had enough painting houses and decided to go into social work.”
He went back to school at Simmons College. He was hired almost immediately after graduation by Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, where he had interned for two years. He was there for four years working primarily with kids. Then he worked with Colonial Nursing Service while developing a private practice, seeing the elderly. “I really liked seeing old people.”
He ran a creative writing class for people with Alzheimer’s at The Anchors in Edgartown. “It was wonderful.” They put out a book of poetry, “The Writing of Vineyard Elders.”
“It was really the writing of Vineyard elders with dementia,” Mr. Ditchfield said. “It was amazing. You could plug into this creative place that seemed to transcend the limits that they were working with.”
He worked as a full-time therapist for 20 years during which time he also wrote, turning out a number of plays, several of which were produced at The Vineyard Playhouse, and two novels.
“The Last Will and Testament of Marlboro Patch”, his first novel, was written the late 90s. His son Brian turned it into a movie. In the second “Marlboro Patch” book the main character moves to the Vineyard and becomes a private investigator who gets involved with a double murder on a hippy commune in West Tisbury in the 60s. It is still untitled.
But Mr. Ditchfield is still holding on, firmly, to his writing dream. His current project was selected as a finalist in the The William Faulkner — William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for a novel in progress. This, he said, has given him the confidence to continue. “This one is going to make it,” he said, his face as confident and brilliant as ever.