I’ve heard it said that everyone has a book in them. The question is do they write it. I have about five that I’m peckin’ away at one by one. The reason many don’t get out is that writing is like golf: “It’s a game for someone who feels good about themselves–and wants to change that…”
The easy part is the idea. Everyone has an idea; ideas are all around. Sometimes it’s about something within you. Sometimes it’s something that happened around you. The intimidating part is organizing the totality of it and then beginning to put it down on paper. My word for this part of the process is discipline. The late great Tom Wolf sat down every day at the same time and committed himself to 1200 words. Hemingway would sit down for two hours. Sometimes at its end, he had nothing on the page; it was blank. Sometimes he had greatness. There are variations on this discipline theme.
I have a curse and a gift. I have many more ideas that I can possibly deal with. The curse continues with my being 74 and developing arthritis. For some reason, I need the communion between my fingers and a keyword. I don’t dictate nearly as creatively as I type. The gift is that once I get an idea I write for days, or longer, without ever getting near the typewriter. The process goes on in my head and I’m fortunate during these times I don’t get run over or someone doesn’t call the police and have a net thrown over me. However, once I sit down my little gift comes into play. The ideas come out easily and in order. Rarely do I get stuck, a not-so-professional term for writer’s block. I write until I can’t anymore. I’m either done or my hands have given out.
Along the way, with gift or not, one needs teachers and mentors. Some go to school specifically to take writing either courses at a university, a writers camp, or with a small group built around a writer. The later, greater Philip Roth got his idea for the career maker “Portnoy’s Complaint” from a student essay in a class he taught. So its backwards but the point is the same. Some run up against teachers along the writer’s road in ways that are unavoidable. My 7th grade English teacher, an eater of poor grammarians, my brother, a bully of sloppy sentence writers with spelling errors These are “learn or perish” teachers. But as I began to write in my profession, I ran into real writers who were real critics, one named John, whose last name is long gone, was the editorial page editor of the Miami Times. The page was his so what went on it had to meet his “specs.” Since newspapers run on deadlines, one had to correct quickly or quit. At times he was so demanding that I once said to him, “The war between editor and writer is the war between the forces of dark and those of light.”
There was H. Brandt Ayers, editor, and publisher of the Anniston, Alabama Times. “Brandy,” as he was known, was a southern, liberal legend. His teaching came from my reading what he wrote. He never wrote a first sentence that didn’t make you want to get the end of the column. He was brilliant at it. He also believed in writing what people wanted to know about and to find that out he hung out at the barbershop. His advice was that every town had a barber shop, whether they cut hair in it or not.
There were many more, I’ll only mention one because of who he was. Neil Simon, who I lost custody of in my divorce, liked something I wrote. He dropped me a note: “Funny– but needs work.” He wrote his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn,” 14 times from first capital letter to last period. Tore it up, threw it away, started again. He once said, “There’s nothing funny about writing comedy.” Sid Caeser once got so angry during a writer’s meeting that he took hold of Howard Morris and held him out a skyscraper window ostensibly to get his creative juices flowing. Getting it right is the perseverance part of writing.
Finally to find your voice you have to read others. I am often a writer of long, lively sentences. I’ve read a lot of Dickens, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy. I am committed to reading every book on the Guardian Magazine’s “Top 100 Novel’s Ever Written.” Why that list? I have a bias towards those who write the Queen’s English and there are a lot of them on the list. The other was the reputation of the venerable publication. “Reading,” as my 7th-grade tormenter would say, “is the key to writing.” “Those who read, write. Those who don’t, can’t.”
The worst part of writing is editing. Successful, read “wealthy,” writers have professionals for that. Editing what you yourself have written is a tricky business. Your brain knows what should be on the paper. Your eyes, in league with your brain, tell you it’s actually there when it often isn’t. My friend, another John, a professional editor, said good self-editing is a process of fooling yourself. He recommended steps. One was to read the work backward. There is no flow of ideas; you only see are the individual words, making it a lot easier to spot the errors. Then he said, read it all for content. Here you are making sure all the ideas are in the order they are supposed to be in and are as complete as you meant them to be. Finally, read it for grammar. Oh yes, and there should be a bunch of hours, if not a day or two, between each re-read, which means if you’re on a deadline, you better start writing well before the clock strikes 12. Of course, today we have spell check, grammar check, and programs you can buy that edit as you go along. All the writer has to do is remember to use them; many don’t.
So now, you’ve written something. Comes then the reality that if you are writing for someone else, you have to get it to them. This is called publishing and marketing. It is a process that makes writing the easy part of the task. For this piece, however, both the idea pouch for my normal 1200 words or such is empty and my wrist hurts, so come again friend, and you’ll pass through with me the gates in Hell that say above,–“Publishing and Marketing–Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.”
Bill Gralnick is addicted to writing. If you’d like to share the fruits of his addiction, he writes a mostly weekly blog published mostly on Sundays at http://www.atleastfrommyperspectiveblog.wordpress.com. He welcomes feedback.
His two books are available online:
“Mirth, Wind and Ire–Political and Social Commentary with a Little Humor Thrown In.” at http://smashwords/books/view/692523
“More Mirth, Wind, and Ire….” HTTP://smashwords/books/view/758411
Astounding as it may seem, it costs nothing to open the Smashwords account that allows purchases and the works sell for the near-giveaway price of @2.99 each.
Read–it’s good for both of us.