Thursday, March 1, 2007

How Did It Get So Late?

In a recent essay in Poets & Writers by Walter Mosley, that estimable author spoke with some length and authority on the need to write every day, a fact that almost put me off until I got farther into the piece. Tired of such seemingly formulaic statements about what a writer needs to do in order to be a real writer, I nearly missed the payoff, which is that the mere act of writing, of sitting somewhere and focusing on the words and the context in which they will be used, produces serious waves of pleasure for the writer.

Having seen and heard Mosley, I could actually hear his low-key-but-gravelly voice radiate outward to me the pleasure he found in writing the essay.

Fortunately for me, the essay was in fact being read aloud--by a student in my Literary Market Place class in the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. In that class, students were responding to an assignment in which they were to bring in the opening of a work of fiction or nonfiction, a work of stunning magnetism or equally stunning awfulness.

There was no question where the reader stood--he was up to his eyeballs in Mosley. So was I, so much so that I was transported back over fifty years and about twenty-five miles away, to another class room, this one in Royce Hall at UCLA, where I sat, tired, stunned, and to my mind woefully unprepared for the final examination for which I now sat. Tired, stunned, unprepared--yes, but not, you'll notice, unhappy. The practical side of my nature, the relatively short side, had devised an elaborate study plan for the exam. I cheerfully cast aside the plan in favor of pursuing an idea for a short story that had come to my mind, and I am happy to report that the story grew in complexity and detail to the complete abandonment of my study plan.

How nice and lovely it would be to say that, I got an A in the exam--I didn't--an A in the course--I didn't--and that the story, with some revision, found a home in a prestigious journal. It didn't. I got a B on the exam, a B in the course, and although I subsequently lost the text of the story--those were typewriter days, not computer-with-backup days--I can tell you what it was about, who some of the characters were, and the locale. I can also tell you that the story introduced two characters who have grown with me throughout the years. Of equal importance, that one story, that missing story, made me realize something important about writing that I for years to come tried to obliterate. Whenever there was some major daytime-job event in my life, an exam, a research paper due, a job to attend to, a chore to perform, I could be sure to get that loveliest of internal messages, one that sounded with greater clarity than an erection or the tummy rumblings of hunger--the presence of a story in the landing pattern.

More often than not, I heeded the call of the story, all to the determent of my academic career, my ability to hold a job for long, and such semblance of a love life I may have had. At such times I was preparing myself for the precise things of which Mosley so eloquently wrote. Ah, but I was also leading a double life, subscribing to the theories of one particular literary agent who was sure he could have me churning out stories for what was then called the "slick" (as in slick or coated-stock paper) market. Not his fault, but my problem. I convinced myself that I did not know or understand story. How silly and how young! My narratives, my stories were about people waiting for things, looking for things, trying to deal with things that were on their face, absurd. One particular story, "The Capture of Ahmed," detailed the attempts of a man who had the same name and was probably then the grandfather of one of the characters I mentioned earlier, one who more or less grew up with me. I was paid thirty-five dollars for that story, which allowed me the luxury of going to the opening of the film, Around the World in Eighty Days, with some chums who were also writers but who also had daytime jobs. I was also able to pay for enough razor blades to last a month, a week's worth of cigarettes, and sufficient postage to send out more stories. The agent, seeing the story, scoffed mightily at its venue. I could have gotten you three fifty for that story, he said, a fact that infuriated me--but not for reasons you might suppose. He--the agent--was admitting that "The Capture of Ahmed" was indeed a story and that, by default, it is true, I had arrived at a voice and vision of what story is and where it should go. In short order, I dispatched the agent and threw in my lot with Forrest J. Ackerman, embarking on one of the more memorable weeks in my young writer's life. For nearly nine consecutive days, a special delivery letter arrived--special delivery was thirty-five cents in those pre-Halliburton days--containing a check for a story that had been placed in some pulp magazine. In no case was the check larger than fifty dollars, often some odd amount reflecting the fact that Forrest J. had deducted his commission. But there it was, and all I had to do was listen to it, to follow it, which leads more into memoir than reflection on technique and is, as they say, another story. Mosley was so on target. The more you write, the more you will write to please yourself. Let the text books talk about how good discipline is for you. There are some writers who, frankly, I wish weren't so disciplined. That, too, is another story. The story for today is, Are we having fun yet? And if we have written today, the answer is Yes.

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