I wanted to be a writer long before I could read or write. As a child, I wrote down whole stories using glyphs that no one but me could decipher. I was one of those rare kids who longed for the first day of school, because that was the day every secret about reading and writing was going to be revealed to me.
I grew up in the seventies in the small city of Ypres in Flanders —which is the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. My youth was quite uneventful. I went to high school in the eighties. I liked languages and sciences alike; my favorite courses were Latin and Math. My teachers praised me for my writing skills, but soon I found a hobby that was more appealing from a social point of view. After school hours, I went to an Art Academy. By the time I was sixteen, I easily spent more than ten hours a week in the oil-painting atelier. I went to a boys-only high school; the Academy was an opportunity to meet interesting girls —and obviously I also liked drawing and painting.
Oil painting was also the answer I gave people when they asked me what I wanted to study in college.
“Why would you do that?” was a common response. “You’re smart enough to study sciences or engineering!”
To please those who disagreed with me, I took the entrance exam for civil engineering. After five Math exams in five days' time, I was ready to accept my failure. One week later, I was surprised to hear that I passed. Suddenly everyone I knew was telling me: “Now that you’re admitted, you have the moral obligation to start studying civil engineering.”
I gave in, but as a compromise, I chose to major in architecture, in the hope that this would allow me to put my creativity to good use. That’s how I obtained my degree in civil and architectural engineering. I make it sound easy, but it took me seven years to get my diploma, whereas other students only needed five years.
During my engineering studies, I rediscovered writing. I was staying in a one-room apartment in Ghent and sleeping in a room that smells of oil paint and turpentine wasn’t ideal. It made me decide to give up painting and to switch back to writing.
In the early nineties, I entered a handful of writing contests, winning a couple of honorary mentions and a bookshop gift card or two. In 1994, the last year before I would graduate from college, I had the "bad" luck of winning the Literary Prize of the City of Harelbeke with the story “Icarus Falling”. My first place made me $700.00 in cash and a selection of books. That may not seem much today, but for a student, it was a lot of money. From that moment on, I honestly believed I was a great writer. I thought I would succeed in making a living with my pen. Occasionally, reality reminds me of this episode as classic joke. I was young and inexperienced.
I refer to my first first prize as bad luck, because in hindsight, it wasn't fortunate that I won that prize so early in my "career". I married in 1995 at the age of twenty-five. I became a father in the summer of 1996. When my wife was pregnant of our second child, it became obvious to me that I would have to find a real job to put bread on the shelf. Reluctantly, I stopped writing and started a job as a software developer. I changed jobs three times in the first two years of my career. It wasn’t until I signed my fourth contract that I began enjoying the work I was doing.
I even started writing code in my spare time. I wrote a software library that could be integrated into web and other applications to create PDF documents on the fly. I called it iText and in 2000, I released it as free and open source software in the hope that other developers would also find it useful. Little did I know that it would result in me building my own business.
In 2005, iText had become so popular among developers that I was asked to write a book about it by the American publisher Manning Publications. I accepted the offer and wrote a book that would sell 12,500 copies. A couple of years later I was asked to write a revision; that second edition sold another 10,000 copies. In a sense, I had made my childhood dream come true: I was a published writer! I didn't see it that way, though. My "iText in Action" books were technical books; I dreamed of writing fiction.
In the meantime, I had left Ghent University to start my own business. I founded a first company for iText in 2008. It was incorporated in Belgium, and that was probably a mistake. The company almost went bankrupt in its first year in business. My "product" was free and open source software. Potential customers in Europe didn’t understand my business model. I really got tired of hearing the question: “Why would we pay for something that is free?”
In 2009, an American friend came to the rescue. We had met when he visited Belgium for a conference. He asked me if he could buy me a coffee in return for my signature in his copy of my book. When he heard how I was struggling trying to build a business, he said: “You should have started your company in Silicon Valley!”
He incorporated a second company for me in California in 2009. It was successful from the start. To make a long story short: we opened an office in Belgium in 2011, an office in Boston in 2013 and an office in Singapore in 2014. In only a handful of years, the small company I started in 2008, grew into an international group with employees all over the world. In December 2015, I succeeded in realizing an exit. I sold the companies, but I had a commitment to stay on board for three years, until December 2018. Once that commitment ended, I was free to start a new career.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the boy from the small city of Ypres in Belgium made the American Dream come true. On the first day of 2019, I had the liberty to chose whatever life I wanted to lead. I remembered my dream of being a writer and I made one and only one New Year’s resolution: in 2019, I would win at least one writing contest.
One year later, on January 1st 2020, I looked back on three wins, of which the Literary Prize of the city of Gorinchem in The Netherlands was the most prestigious one. Five stories won a publication in anthologies. I’m especially proud of two stories that were selected by the Dutch publishers Godijn Publishing and Uitgeverij LetterRijn. Three stories made it into a Dutch literary magazine; two in “Schrijven Magazine” and one in “Literair Tijdschrift Poesia”. Apart from those achievements, I won ten nominations. Two stories are still making a chance of winning the GP Fantasy & Science Fiction Award in the Dutch city of Arnhem in March 2020. The funniest contest was a Flemish "call for dictations". My story was nominated, and served as a trial dictation at the Antwerp Book Fair in October; the winner’s story was used in a spelling-bee event that took place in December. I was also very proud when two stories made the long-list in the monthly Australian Furious Fiction contest; apparently my English wasn't as bad as I suspected.
You can imagine that it wasn’t obvious for me to come up with a new resolution for 2020. I didn’t consider “winning more first prizes in Dutch or Flemish contests” as a serious option. There are only so many writing contests one can win, especially if your “territory” is limited to The Netherlands and Flanders.
Encouraged by my long-list places in the September and November editions of the Furious Fiction contest by the Australian Writers’ Centre, I decided to raise the bar: I would search for opportunities that would force me to write more stories in English. That’s a bigger effort for me because I’m used to write stories in Dutch, but it’s also a bigger challenge because there is more competition. The contests to make the selection in an anthology published by Dutch publishers usually result in one to two hundred submissions. That’s only a fraction of the number of submissions in contests in English that are open to the world.
My New Year’s resolution for 2020 made me discover Reedsy. I promised myself to write at least five stories a month in response to Reedsy’s weekly Creative Writing Prompts. That should result in at least sixty stories of 1,000 to 3,000 words by the end of the year, a total of 60,000 to 180,000 words.
If I succeed in keeping my own promise, I should have no difficulties making a New Year’s resolutions for 2021: make a selection of the best stories I wrote in 2020, hire an editor to edit them, and publish them in a book. I'm already overachieving: January hasn't ended yet, and already I wrote six stories for contests #23, #24 and #25. This seventh "story" could serve as a draft for the preface.
To be continued!