Friday, January 13, 2012

And you call yourself a writer...

You are not the writer you set out to be when you in fact set out to become a writer.  For one thing, you had no sense of what a writer was like in order to become or try to become anything like him.  You had an eclectic group of writers who’d in fact had something to do with your wish to follow what seemed the path as apposed to a more elective one.  You were reading the likes of Mark Twain, James Joyce, Albert Payson Terhune, as well as writers of so-called boy’s adventure stories, into which you lumped names such as Howard Pease, Joseph Altschuller, James Fenimore Cooper.  At the time, you believed there was a Homer.  You also read Ellery Queen, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis.  You read Edgar Rice Burroughs and Zane Grey.  You were taken with the poetry of Ogden Nash, and from about middle school through high school, a nonfiction writer named H. Allen Smith.

You’d heard about a “lady writer” and thus checked in on Willa Cather, as well Marjorie Kinnon Rawlings, and because your mother had a card-playing friend named Edna Ferber, you also took up the real Edna Ferber.  Because your parents subscribed to the afternoon Hearst paper, you became acquainted with the flamboyant attorney, Earle Rodgers and thus his daughter, Adela, who with no intention, became a major force in causing you to think more seriously about the subject at hand, which was the writer you hoped to become.

After a time, you became a devoted follower of John O’Hara, but you had no desire to become him, only like him in that his short pieces appeared with some regularity in THE NEW YORKER.  You were also impressed that he was one of the first, if not the first American writer to use the word fuck in a novel, The Farmer’s Hotel, published by the then major house of Random House.

You adored much of the work of James Thurber but you had no desire to be like him even though, according to your perception, he “got a lot of stuff published,” your belief in those still naïve to the point where you thought being a writer meant you wrote things, then sent them off to be published, and they were.  There were, as yet, no intermediate steps such as revision, much less the risky business of submission.  You became aware of how much more—on an incremental basis—Mark Twain meant to you because along about that time, you began reading his nonfiction.  At the midpoint of high school, you became aware of a writer you thought it would be fun to be like, Max Schulman, who wrote loosely constructed novels that were funny.  You wished—and worked with a particular earnestness—to write funny things.  A significant reason why you were not the writer you wished to become was because you had yet to separate the jokes and posturing from funny; you were in fact too serious about being funny, thus you were unintentionally funny, a thing you could not yet see.

Being the writer you wish to be means admiring any number of writers, some older than you by centuries or at least generations, others significant in their relative youth to your age; it means the long, bumpy road to discovering who you are, then trying to capture that individual and his fantastic ideas in some format that will resonate to many who read it.

Sub-plots and complications, staples of fiction writers, attach themselves to your personal narrative with the awareness that you did not always know who you were, much less did you have ideas about what kind of writer that unknown you wished to be.

There was some help along the way when, one afternoon well into the game, after you had not only written many things but saw them through into print or production, you asked yourself in so many words what you wanted to write.  The answer surprised you in a sense.  The result was a short story.  You had no trouble with short stories because, still harboring some of your early beliefs about writing in general and story in particular, you did not believe you could write a novel, even though you’d by this time written a good many of them and published quite a few of those.

You finished this particular short story you wished to write, sent it off to a man you’d met at the dinner party of a good friend, then forgot about it, thinking it was more a gesture, something you did for one of the many tenants living within the edifice.  John Milton, then the editor of a prestigious review, took the story, and another, and another.  He said, “I guess you’re one of my regulars now.”  And you thought so too; doors opened in the interior, those separate, suspicious tenants got to hold the equivalent of block parties.  You started to get to know yourselves.

Then John Milton had a heart attack, from which he did not recover, but you did.

You are still not the writer you want to be; you do not think you will until you finish this intriguing thing before you in which you investigate and describe what you call the dramatic genome.  It will help that Lynn, your publisher, wants to do a collection of your stories, and it helps that you have a handle on this novel you want to write, and it helps that the assistant dean from the College of Creative Studies at UCSB wants to know how much you expect to be paid for teaching a course in narrative writing, but having accomplished all these things, you will only have arrived after the fact at what you thought it would be good to want to be at one point.  You’ll have read books, edited manuscripts, argued with friends and enemies, and perhaps discovered one or two individuals who’d been squatting within, not paying rent or contributing in any way, and you’ll want to know what they want and they’ll want to know how you come to call yourself a writer without having given thought to…and they will whisper something into your ear one night while you’re asleep and you’ll take the equivalent of notes in your sleep, waking up the next morning wondering what those notes were.  Days later, they’ll come to you when you least expect.  You’ll recognize the information as a clear indication of the kind of writer you’ve always wanted to be.  Then you’ll try to get it down on a note pad or the screen somewhere, and then the fun will begin all over again.

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