Handy Lesson

updated 10/06/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1997 01:00AM

DON J. SNYDER WAS ONLY AN assistant professor of English at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., but he reveled in the academic life. On his $36,000 salary, he lived in a rambling, six-bedroom house with room to spare for his wife, Colleen, and their children. His teaching schedule left him plenty of time for writing and allowed him some 18 weeks of paid vacation a year. Cushy, indeed—and guaranteed to last a lifetime if he earned faculty tenure. "I was very popular with the students, and my peers didn't hate me," says Snyder, 47. "I thought I was safe."

He was wrong. In 1992, Colgate handed Snyder a pink slip, and although the terms were gentle (he could stay for another year, with a raise), his life began to unravel. At first, Snyder denied the seriousness of his situation and even tried to hide the truth from Colleen, 36, then pregnant. But when rejection letters—93 in all—began to accumulate, the reality dawned. "I was intoxicated by the privilege that I'd had for so long," he says. Just how far Snyder stumbled is evident in his acclaimed book The Cliff Walk: A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found (Little, Brown), which chronicles his two-year path of self-destruction before he ultimately found salvation—through manual labor and the steady devotion of his family.

Snyder had wanted to title his book American Sob Story, and for good reason: During his odyssey he accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills, tossed his cherished academic books into a bonfire in a melodramatic rage and even fantasized—before his wife's miscarriage—about selling their next child for cash. In the pettiest of class struggles, he and his son waged war against golfers near his home by shooting at them with toy arrows. Throughout, Colleen and their children, Erin, 12, Nell, 10, Jack, 8, and Cara, 6, stood by Don, managing at times on little more than a wad of food stamps. "We all are tested sometimes," she says. "It was not in my mind to just take off."

"What I learned," says Snyder, "is that in having less, we found a way to have more with our family." It's a message many think is worth heeding. Snyder's book is "a kind of Fired Everyman's tale," wrote the Los Angeles Times. Last March, Disney bought the rights to the book for an unspecified amount. The story, says producer Kathleen Kennedy, "hits a chord with a lot of people, especially these days, with issues of downsizing, people reevaluating their lives."

Although born to a working-class family in Bangor, Maine, where his father, Richard, was a printer and part-time mailman and his stepmother, Ruth, was a secretary, Snyder says he—like many other baby boomers—expected an exceptional life. For a while he was to have it, beginning with a full athletic scholarship to Colby College. There, Snyder found his calling as a writer; and after eloping with Colleen, in 1984, he attended the fabled Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Joining the Colgate faculty in 1989, Snyder became a popular teacher (he once came to class dressed as Walt Whitman, complete with a bottle of whiskey). Yet during his 1992 job review, his colleagues seemed less than enthusiastic about the minor novels he had written. " 'Publish or perish' doesn't mean that if you do publish, you won't perish," says Margaret Maurer, then department chairman.

For Snyder, the turning point came in the winter of 1994, when he finally set his academic illusions aside. Along the ocean-cliff walk near the rented house where his family now lives in Scarborough, Maine, he saw a large house being erected—and asked the construction crew for a job. He was hired on the spot for $15 an hour. During the next months, he says, he learned to find satisfaction in physical tasks, like nailing up cedar shingles: "You're not waiting for somebody to call you into an office and tell you it's good; you know that it's good."

Snyder writes that the American Dream has died; yet ironically it has roared back to life for him. With money from Disney he flew his family to Ireland for a summer of travel, and he's working on a novel—a love story. He's even teaching again, at the University of Maine at Farmington, where he has "quite a following," says creative-writing program director Wesley McNair.

This time, tenure is not part of the picture. Snyder's a part-time prof, and three days a week he can be found banging nails back with his buddies on the construction crew. "I've found a peace in working with my hands," he says. "A peace I can't part with now."

CURTIS RIST
MARK DAGOSTINO in Scarborough

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