Wednesday, March 11, 2015

He thinks writing a story is hard; wait til he tries to writer a letter

When you are not engaged with thoughts of how to execute what you think of as chores or daily activities such as which market to shop in for the household and your cat as opposed to which market to shop at for your own groceries, your thoughts often turn to projects on which you can expect to spend a good deal of time.

Around the time you achieved advancement to executive editorial stages with most of the publishers who employed you, a chunk of your day was spent with correspondence, where your ideal letter was one sentence.  After a time, you recognized that such letters more often than not bewildered their recipients, necessitating a second letter addressed to the same recipient about the same matter.  

One such exchange of the one-sentence letter stays with you.  Thank you, you wrote, for inviting me to speak before your organization (name here) on (date here) at (place) here, which I am pleased to accept.

The response was telling.  We're glad to see that you received our invitation, the response said. We wonder if you intend to accept it.  From this and subsequent exchanges, you got the notion that a one-sentence letter might well seem to take less time, but in fact did not.  You could have at least asked if they had a particular subject in mind for you to discuss and at what length they might like you to discuss it.

You revised your approach to the single paragraph, which said as much as the one-sentence letter, but accomplished its ends by using more words.  In your judgement, recipients of letters want more words, but not too many.  An added aspect of your experience:  good idea to embed a question your correspondent will have a difficult time answering and as a consequence will forebear any added conversation.

You learned this last gambit before you became an employee, craving the companionship of long letters to persons you knew and liked.  But long letters from you brought significant responses, all of which were short.  You might well enjoy writing long letters, but in your experience, the persons you knew did not like to read them.  As for short letters, their brevity had to carry with it the appearance of chattiness.

These times, before you worked as a salaried editor and later, when you did, had the effect of nudging you toward the discovery of your true narrative voice.  Letters, you discovered, were as difficult to write as the stories you'd written and were attempting to write on your evening hours, after the publishing day was complete.  Time was an issue, but so was word choice, attitude, and desired effect.

How, you asked one of your mentors, the splendid mystery writer, Dorothy B. Hughes, does one make the time for writing beyond getting up early or staying up late, and please don't tell me both, getting up earlier and staying up later.

Her answer was the same as the one another mystery writer, Joseph Wambaugh.  Writing is a difficult craft.  If you attempt to do it in combination with something else, you'll probably achieve a degree of competence in both, but the world is already filled with competent writers and mid-level editors, struggling to maintain their mid-level status.  

One afternoon, during your downward spiral at a publishing company at which you'd risen through the ranks to become editor-in-chief, you found yourself well along the road of so many others who were nearing the end of their tenure.  Your budget for a personal secretary had already been withdrawn.  You'd been given the option of using one of the departmental pool secretaries or writing your own letters and doing your own filing.  This particular afternoon, you were struggling with the content of the letter you were typing yourself, thinking how clever of you it was to use the initials ae as a suggestion that you still had a secretary when, in fact, ae was your ironic joke for alter ego.

On this particular afternoon, you understood how difficult letter writing was, and your understanding took in the awareness that writing fiction was also difficult; so was writing reviews or essays.  You stopped by the president and vice-president of operations offices, thinking it time to schedule your farewell lunch.  The fact that you could not schedule this farewell lunch for another two weeks spoke volumes to you.  

You're reminded of this concatenation of events because of a recent event in which a student, hearing class and your responses to a story, took the approach that writers were geniuses and he was not.  Sure, there were some things wrong with his story.  Sure, there was a dated quality about it.  Sure, there were some anomalies.  But this was a damned good story and, in a way reminding you of Huck Finn's comments about not realizing how difficult it was to write a book, said there was no more to say and he was rotten glad of it.

While the student was having his say, you found yourself thinking things you knew better to say to him.  Wait, you thought, until he tries to write his second story and his third if he thinks this was hard.  Wait until he becomes so successful he is given an editorial position, and has to write letters.

All of it is difficult, gut-wrenching and frustrating in the way it flattens us out like the lump of masa that has been patted, pressed, and moulded into a tortilla before being plopped onto the grill to warm.  Within the difficulty, the joy is embedded.  If experienced enough, the process pushes us beyond masochism and sadism into the closest approximations of happiness we will experience.  We will have erected a universe, a planet, a sun, and an entire cast of characters, each of whom nourishes the fervent self-absorption of being so right that thoughts of compromise or accommodation are unthinkable.

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