Thursday, July 1, 2010

Letter to a Young or Middle-Aged Writer

Dear Young or Middle-aged Writer,

My first letter from an older writer that was sent specifically to me--as opposed to the ones I read in books and magazines--came from a man who wrote a now forgotten TV masterpiece, Mr. Peepers. He didn't give me much in the way of advice, where this letter to you differs in large measure.  This letter is going to be as filled with advice as Moby-Dick is filled with whales.

Mr. Peepers was a TV show to be enjoyed then much as I enjoy The Wire and Treme now.  In that way and others, I have grown.  The Mr. Peepers writer said we would likely meet some day and have a sandwich somewhere.  He was given to statements like that, I learned.  We in fact had quite a number of sandwiches together, mostly at the home of a crazed and dangerous producer, but that is another story, isn't it?  The story here is that I was looking almost without thinking about it for mentors and teachers who actually knew something about writing as opposed to having taken upper division and graduate-level education courses and/or knowing the correct terms for such things as predicate nominative, or pluperfect subjunctive.  This drove me by default and inclination to known places where writers hung out, places that were mostly cocktail lounges with exotic and portentous names such as The Garden of Allah, The Fog Cutter, and Mr. Smith's Back Fence.  In all of these places, I learned it was best not to switch drinks during the course of a carouse, a painful lesson, really, because, as you will come to discover, writers--even those who no longer drink--have favorite things to drink.

Writers of my approximate generation were fond of sharing information with younger writers, and I was certainly younger in the sense of gaining service in some of the above named places and the likes of Barney's Beanery and Mae Burke's Lounge next door to the Fox Wilshire theater on the strength of a forged identity card which, to demonstrate the imaginative reaches available to young writers, was an application for a small aircraft pilot's license.  You see the wisdom creeping in already; get a plausible fake ID.  I rode the coattails of being younger for some years, something at the time I thought had to do with talent but which really had to do with older, shall we say more seasoned writers no longer wishing to serve in elected capacities in various organizations, transforming me to secretary and later vice-presidential, and regional presidential roles in the likes of The Mystery Writers of America.

I am no longer a young writer, a fact that does not appear to upset anyone.  Nor am I an old writer, which is a status that seems to be accorded to writers who grumble a good bit about not being able to find publishers for their last two or three books.  Although they are my seniors, neither Laird Koenig nor Barnaby Conrad is considered an old writer because they not only produce, they are published, nor do they grumble about the things old writers tend to grumble about.  I am, then, an arrived writer, neither young nor old, rather producing, and finding new ideas landing with some regularity on my shoulders much as Conrad's late African Grey parrot, Madison, would land on his shoulder for a prolonged visit.  My arrival has nothing to do with the kinds of recognition you are undoubtedly thinking about or at least hoping to achieve in the sense of it allowing you to make your living in this dangerous and mysterious way rather than taking on something which, to your complete bafflement, you have a huge talent for that many of your peers recognize.  By "arrived" I mean a delicious stage of having burned required numbers of bridges, relationships, and unhealthy expectations, a kind of comfortable cynicism, you might say, an awareness of the absolute indifference much of the world has to authors beyond such polite questions as "What the fuck have you published?" and perhaps even "What's your field?"

A number of affluent fathers have asked me to recommend suitable places for their sons and daughters to attend university, thinking these young worthies will be, as the fathers put it, "be brought up to the speed of a good income in minimal time."  My answers rarely satisfy them and any number of them have told me that they can see why I am considered funny.  "You have to know,"  I tell them, what funny truly is as opposed to what jokes are.  The concept of you telling a joke is one thing,"  you tell them in all seriousness.  "The concept of The Cosmos as a narrator is quite another."

I will be pleased to answer your questions as best I can.

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