Premiere Issue! October 1, 2002
WHY I WRITE
Roger Ebert, TC Boyle, Lawrence Block, Tod Goldberg, Will Leitch, Claire Zulkey, Rob Walker, James Norton, Jade Walker, John Scalzi, Marty Beckerman, and Bob Sassone on why they put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard
I write because it is my job to write, and the only job I ever wanted. I published a hecktographed neighborhood newspaper in grade school. In high school, a mimeographed science fiction fanzine. In high school and college I was editor of the student newspapers. It was never a conscious decision on my part to write. It was what I did, and needed to do.
The experience of writing is another matter, one hard to put into words. I find myself in what is called the “zone,” and the words come out in orderly and quick procession. I am not in a trance, but am riding a train of thought fueled by instinct and long habit.
I think all professional writers sooner or later get to the point where the words appear as the result of a conspiracy between their skill, their knowledge, and their experience, with a minimum of conscious thought about the writing itself. Of course, rewriting and editing are different matters.
When I was 15, I got my first newspaper job, covering high school sports for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette. I labored over every lead, endlessly, until my fellow sports writer Bill Lyon (now at the Philadelphia Inquirer) told me: “Why don’t you wait until you get to the end to revise? Until you know how it turned out, how can you know how it should start?”
Using this advice, I found I was not so self-conscious about writing, and was not trying to pre-think every word and sentence. I learned that ideas came to me unbidden when they were needed. The best advice I can give a writer is: The Muse visits during the act of composition, not before.
Roger Ebert is film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times and the host of “Ebert and Roeper and the Movies.” His book “The Great Movies” is available now.
I cannot fix cars. I have tried many, many times, mainly because my father is an expert at fixing them, and I am an expert at breaking them down. Once, I killed a cat on the road. I swerved in time to miss it. That was good. My muffler then fell off and crushed it. That wasn’t.
I cannot tend bar. I tried this once, at a friend’s party. I tried to make a Cosmopolitan with tequila, grape juice and rubbing alcohol. Apparently, Cosmos are not supposed to be on fire. For that matter, neither are Budweisers. Or bar stools. Or waitresses.
I cannot broadcast baseball. When I was younger, I thought I could. I would turn down the television set of Cardinals games and pretend I was Jack Buck. My pre-pubescent voice would crack every time I tried to call a particularly exciting play, and my parents would make fun of me, and I would then stomp off and sulk in my room. Wait – does 25 count as younger?
I cannot carve ice sculptures. I cannot insulate your house. I cannot speak Arabic. I cannot bale hay. I cannot figure out whether I should cut the blue, red, or green wire.
The only trade I have in this world is writing. It’s the only craft I’ve ever shown any particular proficiency in. I know I should have some inspiring words that illustrate why my work will someday be studied as the very foundation of literary journalism. But I don’t. This is just the only skill that has ever inspired a girl to tell me I’m good at it. Shoot, why wouldn’t I devote my life to that?
Will Leitch’s “Life as a Loser” column runs weekly on TheSimon.com. He has written for Salon, The New York Times on the Web, New York Press, Nerve, Ironminds, Playboy.com, and The Sporting News.
“So are you going to kiss me or just sit there?” she asks.
I’m comfortably occupying the front seat of my Awesome 1984 Dodge MiniVan. She’s in the seat next to me, wearing a skintight pink shirt that shows vastly more than it hides. We’re parked in the driveway in front of her house: The engine is turned off and I can’t help but feel excruciatingly awkward. Our first date has gone pretty well, judging from the sound of things. But Jesus, I just met this girl. A fan of my writing, no less. Do I really want to throw myself into another one of these meaningless carnal escapades?
“I … uh … well, let’s see,” I stutter. “I don’t know, should we?”
Yeah, I sound like a real fuckin’ Romeo.
“You don’t like me?” she asks.
“No, I like you a lot. It’s just … I’m sorry, I broke up with my girlfriend a week ago and it just seems too soon to be doing this, you know?”
“Oh,” she says.
“It was really the first deep relationship I’ve ever been in,” I confide. “I guess it would be a little weird, going from that end of the spectrum to … I mean, you’re nice and all, don’t get me wrong, but obviously we don’t share some kind of deep emotional longing or anything.”
“Yeah…” She smiles and unbuckles her seat belt. “Well, it was nice meeting you,” she opens the door. “Call me, we’ll hang out again sometime. Unless you want to come inside, but I guess you wouldn’t.”
MEMO FROM BRAIN TO PENIS: Hey Penis, let’s not go inside!
MEMO FROM PENIS TO BRAIN [Re: “Bad Idea”]: Ha! Ha! That’s a good one, old buddy!
“Sure!” I joyously shriek. “Why not?”
We stroll up the walkway to her front door, which she unlocks very quietly. She holds her index finger to her lips, alerting me to the fact I shouldn’t make much noise; after all, we wouldn’t want to wake Mommy and Daddy, would we? No, we wouldn’t. Goddamn, something about the possibility of getting caught just sends a warm shiver down my testicles. Not yet, Penis. But soon. Very, very soon.
The door creaks open. The house is dark and the girl’s parents are fast asleep. My heart is pounding; adrenaline is coursing through my veins like black tar heroin. The girl leads me down the stairs and into her small bedroom, tiptoeing all the way. At some point in this mad process we lock hands, and I presently feel her grasp tightening. Our bodies subsequently commit to each other in Luscious Teenage Passion; her lips come closer as we fall onto the soft bed. Yes Penis, your time has come! Rise, Penis! Rise, I say! Rise, damn you! Rise!!
MEMO FROM BRAIN TO PENIS: For God’s sake, Penis, don’t you remember the beautiful relationship we’ve been in for the last three months? Haven’t you realized that Love is more fulfilling than Lust in every way that matters? Goddamnit, Penis! Tonight’s Squirm-Session won’t make a single difference to you tomorrow, but if you don’t give in˜if you prove just once that you’re more than a slave to your own hormonal impulses˜wouldn’t that be the true victory? The true “score,” as it were?
MEMO FROM PENIS TO BRAIN: Whatever, dude.
“Wait,” I say, still holding the girl in my arms. “Wouldn’t this mean more to you if we actually cared about each other a little bit? Jesus, don’t you want something deeper than this?”
(Long, awkward silence)
“You make me so wet,” she explains, proceeding to wiggle her tongue around the inside of my ear for a good ten minutes.
MEMO FROM PENIS TO BRAIN: Nice try. Sucker.
Marty Beckerman is the 19-year-old author of Death To All Cheerleaders and the forthcoming Generation SLUT. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Being a journalist is easy. Making stories up is much tougher.
Journalism is not “literature in a hurry.” It is just the art of writing what you know at a sixth to eighth grade level on deadline.
This is why I think going to journalism school for longer than a year is a waste of time and money. Sure they can teach you history, perhaps even ethics. But to learn the craft of journalism, you must do it. You have to get out in the field and practice, then return to the office for some expert editing advice.
On the street, you will learn to hone three skills:
Some folks are amazing observers. They can look at a scene of a crime or survey a political climate with eyes set to Unsharp Mask 50. They memorize license plate numbers, note the details of an interview subject’s appearance and read upside down.
Investigation is my particular brand of excellence. Being a good investigator requires the ability to ask questions and follow gut instincts. It’s about being an unstoppable hurricane in the face of slammed doors and “no comments.” Research is second nature to good investigators, as is the ability to understand the smallest fact and the big picture.
The final skill is writing. Contrary to popular belief, journalists do not make shit up. They watch, they ask and then they regurgitate. Some use notebooks or tape recorders to help preserve accuracy, but in truth, writing a story is simply a matter of taking all the facts and putting them on paper with as little slant or spin as possible.
A few journalists have a knack for penning beautiful prose; they can turn a profile into a masterpiece. The rest of us just try to inform and educate the public with crisp sentences and useful commentary from the sources on hand.
Yet, being a journalist can also cause your imagination to atrophy.
When I sit down at the computer and attempt to fictionalize, I find myself at a loss. I feel like Natalie Wood in “Miracle on 34th Street,” vainly attempting to pretend she’s a monkey when inside she’s convinced she’s just a little girl.
My next goal is to become a novelist, a successful one, but the practice of making stuff up is almost alien to my journalism-trained sensibilities. Even when I write senryu, a bastardized version of haiku, I’m focused on turning an observation into a moment captured in poetry. No pretending involved.
Writing fiction is much harder than journalism. I know how to observe and I can research anything. It’s the deadbolt on my imagination that leaves me stumbling over hooks, sagging middles and conflict resolution. How does a story get from Point A to Point B when everything has to be pulled from thin air?
Most writers come up with a plotline and then flesh out the characters and writing style. Not me. As a journalist, I’m used to covering people and events, so that’s where I always start.
Last October, Winter Christensen interrupted my walk to the subway station. He was tied to a chair and beaten to a pulp. He wearily lifted his head and demanded that I get him out of his unfortunate situation. I didn’t know anything else about Winter, but as soon as I got home, I obliged.
Recently, Mark Branson popped into my head. A 34-year-old Miami native who was severely injured while committing a heroic act, Mark appeared and asked me to share his story with the world.
I simply couldn’t turn him down. Hell, I couldn’t even wait until I got home to help. Instead, I pulled my notebook out of my bag and began scribbling his commentary. He dictated; I wrote.
I originally intended to turn Mark into a short story, but apparently he wants his own novel. The idea of writing another novel thrills and terrifies me. It’s challenging to start from nothing and create a sellable book. On the other hand, I’ve spent so many years as a journalist that I don’t know if I can write this story. Particularly since it won’t be a simple genre tale.
Writing the “Mark” novel would involve heading into unknown territory without a map. It’s like a woman who walks her dog every day suddenly thinking she should run in the Boston Marathon.
Can I make up a story at a leisurely pace rather than pound the truth into a computer on deadline? Who knows. But perhaps I can find a way to take the skills I’ve learned in journalism and apply them to Mark’s story.
It’s a novel idea. I’m certainly willing to give it a try.
Jade Walker is the overnight editor/producer of The New York Times Web site and the editor of Once Bitten, the monthly magazine for readers of vampire and paranormal romance. She has published five books, including the dark poetry collection, “Sex, Death and Other…” (paperback, Metropolis Ink, Jan. 2002).
There are a couple ways to approach this broad question. One would be to answer this: “Why I do write at all?” The reply: “Because, without some sort of creative outlet, I’d go crazy.” The great thing about having a creative outlet is that I’m given a second world to explore – a world that’s considerably smaller than the real one, a world where I’m the nominal boss.
At best, anyway. Having a creative outlet can also be like owning a doorway to my own personal prison of frustration, but that depends on how the writer’s block is coming along. It should be noted that while my own personal prison of frustration is mercifully free of anal rape, it also lacks delicious cornbread. Also, there are no other inmates to talk to. It’s pretty self-administrated.
More interesting, I think, is this question: “Why do I write, as opposed to painting, editing movies, sculpting, playing an instrument or composing music? Why the discipline of putting words together and trying to guide readers through an artificial, reconstituted world?”
It seems eerily possible that I came to writing as a result of a very nice thing my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Ludlow, said about a story I wrote. In retrospect, the piece was sort of a knock-off of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” but I’d like to think it had some of my own little flourishes to it.
Mrs. Ludlow – not always the sunniest of teachers – had just chewed out our class about the low quality of one of our creative writing assignments. “Except for Jim Norton – he wrote an excellent story about exploring a magical candy shop.” Or something to that effect.
And there you go. I was the exception. I had publically succeeded at something. In 5th grade, I wrote a speech for the Safety Patrols that got me nominated to take a free trip to Washington D.C., sponsored by the AAA. The secret: I’d written a joke into my speech. No one else had thought to do that, and, as a result, I think mine was the only one that really got remembered by my peers, who were doing the voting.
Maybe that’s the key: Writing has gotten me stuff. Writing has gotten me friends. It has gotten me multiple free trips, jobs, cash prizes, social advancement, girlfriends and an easily explainable identity. And when all that surface shit goes away, and when there’s nothing tangible and physical that will make me feel alright, writing is still there as a way to sort out and understand what’s going on, and rise above it.
You can’t extract me from the writing, anymore. Were I to stop completely, I would also cease to be myself. It would be an interesting thing to try for six months, but those are six months I don’t have.
James Norton is editor of Flak.
I once had a real job. Actually, I once had two real jobs. My first real job went something like this:
7:30am. Arrive at office. Drink coffee. Add non-dairy creamer. Turn on phones. Listen to voice mail messages from temps calling out sick from the only job they will ever get from me. Listen to voice mail messages from people who are newly temps and want that one job they will invariably fuck up beyond comprehension, causing them to forever wander the earth unemployed and embittered ˆ first at themselves, later at me, later still at the whole damn patriarchal society. Add sugar. Contemplate Krispy Kreme.
7pm. Leave office. Loosen tie. Bang head against steering wheel. Sit in traffic. Contemplate ritual suicide. Contemplate going back to school and making something of myself. Contemplate what, exactly, that degree in English has gotten me besides a crappy job getting people temp jobs. Go home. Eat Rice-A-Roni. Beg girlfriend to kill me.
Total time at job: Two years.
My second real job was a little better. It went like this:
9:00am or 9:30am or 10am (depending on whether or not I thought we’d be filing Chapter 11 that specific day or if my boss was going to be hung-over or if my main client was likely to call me). Arrive at office of a “direct response advertising agency ˆ which is code for Joint Where Infomercials Are Made, which is code for Company That Subsequently Was Discovered To Be In Cahoots With Its Main Client Over Some Exercise Machines That Didn‚t Work and Possibly Could Kill Small Children, Pets, and Haitian Immigrants and, Additionally, Was Funneling Money To Some Cult In Texas. Listen to voice mail messages from my main client. I’m now an Account Executive with a very fine cubicle and at least one client who is quite angry that his infomercial “The Magic Scrub That Will Make Your Face Break Out in Welts The Size of Cocker Spaniels Whilst Making You Look Twenty Years Younger” is not performing as well as he’d like in a few specific markets. Specifically, he says, “Spo-KANE is ‘sucking ass'” and “who the fuck wanted it in Spo-KANE in the first fucking place?” Go to men’s room with LA Times sports section in tow. Wait until my cubicle partner Dan finishes his twenty five minute bowel exercise before I can check the scores. Eat a bagel. Yell at some underling because an infomercial I hate and am somewhat responsible for is performing poorly in Spokane. I pronounce Spokane that way it’s actually pronounced, unlike my client, because I’m detail oriented, think outside the box, and am ready to throw myself on the mercy of the cult in Texas. Do some office-y stuff, like prepare for Secret Santa week, think about how to tell my boss that when he says “perfect-o” I want to reach my hand down his throat until I can feel his spleen. Make some calls to Ronco. Ask about getting one of those rotisserie cookers for my mother-in-law. Eat a bagel (they’re free and provided by the company that is about to be shuttered).
6:00pm. Leave office. Loosen my baseball hat (casual office – you know how ad agencies are). Bang head against steering wheel. Sit in traffic. Contemplate ritual suicide. Contemplate going back to school and making something of myself. Contemplate what, exactly, that degree in English has gotten me besides a crappy job working for an advertising agency that peddles Infomercials. Go home. Eat Rice-A-Roni. Beg wife to kill me.
Total time at job: one year.
That why I write. That’s why I’m a writer.
Tod Goldberg is the author of two novels, Fake Liar Cheat (Pocket Books) and Living Dead Girl (Soho Press). His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The Sun, Other Voices, and Oyster Boy Review,and has twice been short listed for the Pushcart Prize. He writes the award winning weekly column GOLDBERG in the Las Vegas Mercury and has edited two forthcoming travel books all about the city of Sin.
I write largely for the following five reasons. I suspect most writers write for the same five reasons.
1. I write because I can. I’d like to say I torture myself for my craft, but really, I don’t. Writing is the easiest thing I know how to do, which is why I do it; doing anything else for a living involves real work, and I don’t want any of that. I was fortunate that I realized early on that I was good at writing, since it allowed me to focus on doing that and getting a lot practice, instead of casting around trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. In terms of what I wanted to do and be, it was the path of least resistance. Now, to be clear: I am not the best writer out there. But writing is what I do best.
2. I write because I get paid. Despite the efforts of television, we remain a literate society. Our world needs words, and people to string them along in a comprehensible fashion. And if you’ll pay me to do it, I’ll generally be happy to do it for you. As a full-time freelance writer, I’m not a snob about the work I do; in my time I’ve written everything from 100,000-word books to one-word slogans for online ad campaigns. Whatever works. I have a mortgage and a child to send through college, not to mention a wicked video game habit. I write for money. Dr. Johnson would be proud.
3. I write because it’s fun. Well, and it is fun. It’s fun to expound on a whole bunch of subjects, to write stories, to think up clever lines, and to basically geek out on the English language. Even the supposedly dry ad copy and other corporate writing I do is fun, to the extent that it’s a challenge to write well in a particular format: Composing a clever line of text that is constrained to a certain character length is very much like writing in a particular poem format (although, admittedly, most poems aren’t exhorting people to, say, purchase shares in a mutual fund). Writing isn’t always fun — sometimes, like any sort of work, it can be a drag. But most of the time, it’s the most fun you can have typing.
4. I write because I have an ego. People write me e-mails telling me how much they enjoyed something I’ve written. Women who I’ve just met laugh at things I say and suddenly see me as marginally more attractive (I’m married, so it doesn’t do me any practical good. But who cares?); I even got a girlfriend in college because she was impressed with the way I wrote (I had other flaws, alas). TV shows occasionally book me to show up and spout off on a topic, which thrills my mother-in-law to no end. Because I write, more people know of me than I know personally. You may think this is a stupid reason to write, and I wouldn’t deny that. On the other hand, I dare you to be sitting somewhere and have someone you don’t know come up and say “I just wanted to let you know I like what you write,” and not crack a little smile.
5. I write because I want to be remembered. I’ll be dead one day, hopefully not anytime soon, and it’d be nice after I’m gone if someone remembered that I existed. One way to do that is to leave a nice long paper trail they can follow back to my life and how it was lived. I don’t mind if it’s not a lot of people; if it’s just some great-great-great-granddaughter tromping through the family archives for a school genealogy project, that’s good enough. So if you’re that great-great-great-granddaughter and you’re reading this now: Hey, there. Nice to meet you. Would you mind cloning me back into existence now? Being dead really stinks. And I have some more writing to do.
John Scalzi is the author of the forthcoming Rough Guide To The Universe, and the author of the groundbreaking shareware novel, Agent To The Stars.
Q: Good evening. Our guest is an obscure freelance writer. Welcome.
Q: Why did you become a writer?
A: It beats working. Ha ha.
Q: Try harder.
Q: Who was the first writer whose work made you think, Writing for a living is something I’d like to do.
A: I don’t remember.
Q: It was Stephen King, wasn’t it? You thought it would be fun to sit around make up scary stories.
A: Wait a minute, I was probably only 12 years old when I–
Q: Answer the question.
A: I think Salinger was —
Q: Well, in any case, you don’t write fiction.
A: Right. In college I started writing reviews, and then journalism. Actually Hunter Thompson was another…
Q: Give it up, okay? When you were in college you used to use this line about the writer as a “shy egomaniac.” Why don’t you use that line anymore?
A: Well, it’s a Keruoac line, and I’m thirty-three now — too old to be quoting Keruoac.
Q: [Rolls eyes.]
A: [Coughs] I, ah, guess I find comfort in the illusion that someone might be interested in what I have to say. Maybe the reason I became a writer is that I hoped someday someone would ask me why I became a writer.
Q: And that they would actually care about the answer?
A: [Pause] Yeah.
Q: Good luck with that. [Yawns.] Why are you here?
A: Well I was asked to do this. Nicely.
Q: And you couldn’t think of anything to say.
Q: Where does the word “hack” come from? Like in “hack writer”?
A: Why are you asking me that?
Q: Fine. Tell me a question that people ask you with genuine interest.
A: I guess a lot of people ask me how they can become writers.
Q Probably there’s something about the way you write that makes them say, “I could do that.”
A: Yes. I suppose so. What do you think I should say to them?
Q: Advise persistence. But don’t be glib. Remember that you’ve never really done anything but write or edit. It’s not like you gave up a lucrative job that involved some kind of specialized skill, all to
chase your dream. It’s not like you sacrificed. Besides, you’ve been lucky, and you know it.
A: Sure, but–
Q: On the other hand you ought to be encouraging. Just tell people not to give
up, that it takes time and effort to get the attention of lazy editors — actually, weren’t you a pretty lazy editor?
A: I’ve given some more thought to the question of why I became a writer. [Clears throat.] I think that the nature of mortality is such that —
Q: We’re out of time.
Rob Walker publishes the occasional Letter From New Orleans at http://www.robwalker.net. He is the co-creator, with Josh Neufeld, of Titans of Finance, a comic book about business.
I can play instruments, but I hate to practice. I like learning, but I don’t like studying. I can drink, but I get hangovers. I love somebody, but he’s not here. I like traveling, but I get homesick.
I like writing, and I like writing.
Writing is the only habit I enjoy that has none of the proverbial ifs, ands or buts‚ attached to it. I just do it. None of this “I’m brilliant but, like Mozart, it’s killing me as well.” It just comes simply, with no catches. No “but I have carpal tunnel syndrome…,” “but I don’t have any ideas…,” “but I’m too busy getting high…”
Could it be I enjoy it?
I guess that the practice of writing comes so naturally to me that the very question of why I write is hard to address. I cringe at the thought of something more spiritual or meaningful or incredibly pretentious like “It helps me work out my demons,” or “I can’t express myself any other way,” or “without it, I can‚t live.” Even if some of those were to be true, I would be weary of giving it a tag like “my craft” or “my words.”
I do it because it’s the only thing that I can do. No, wait, it’s the only thing I can do that I always like to do. There’s a big difference between the two. The second one seems that I have more going on in my life (even if I don’t.)
I write every day, whether it’s some long letters or emails, advertisements, plays, or just scrawling my name absentmindedly on a pad. Sometimes I’ll procrastinate writing one thing only to spend the rest of the day writing something else. That’s something. That‚s nerdy.
And, of course, when you get better at something, you enjoy it more and it seems easier. Unlike things such as volleyball, Italian or gymnastics, I suffer a much lesser chance of humiliating myself with writing. So I guess I‚ve been writing so long and so much since I started that there’s not much else I can pick up that would bring the simple pleasure of creating with relative ease.
I’d probably get frustrated, yell at it, quit, and then go write about it.
Claire Zulkey is a freelance writer and copywriter from Chicago, and cannot believe that she is being published alongside Roger Ebert. She has contributed to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Modern Humorist, Sweet Fancy Moses and more. Find her at http://www.zulkey.com.
I grew up in a house without books. Oh, sure, we had a few books scattered around here and there. I distinctly remember my mother buying and reading all of those V.C. Andrews horror novels with the weird kids and flowers on the covers. And we must have had a few classics on the shelf, leftovers from school assignments or books obtained from a friend of the family or books that just seemed to be there for one reason or another. But for the most part my home was a home of magazines and television.
There’s an old saying: “a house without books is like a house without windows.” And while I understand its meaning, my house actually had a lot of windows. The windows in my bedroom that overlooked one of my town’s main roads and the roof of the store where I would later drink way too much vodka . The windows in the living room where we placed red electric candles every Christmas. The window in the kitchen that overlooked the yard of the truly insane hag who lived next door (every night she would swear at us from the other side of the wall). And, of course, the giant window on the floor that showed me the world.
I’m speaking, of course, about our television set.
I still remember that set, not our first but the first that made an impression on me. It was a giant Magnavox, with wood panelling and a couple of cubby holes to keep things in. It was an actual piece of furniture that touched the ground. It was almost as big as the sofa. We got it when I was in second grade, around 1972. If you saw me running home from school that day, almost hyperventilating from excitement, you would have sworn that some school bully was chasing me with a flamethrower.
I’ve always had a dual personality. I’m constantly in a battle with myself (hey, I’m a Gemini). Part of me wants to be the world-weary freelance writer, aloof, always on the go, swinging in on a chandelier to save the day with my typewriter. No bosses, no time clocks. No time for staff meetings or Dilbert-like office politics. The other part of me desperatly wants to be Ward Cleaver, with a solid home, a wife, the two kids, the wacky neighbors, a lawn, and health benefits. All writers know that those two worlds can never exist together.
Then I met Rob Petrie. Well, if you define “met” as in “watched every single episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show approximately 75 times.” He had it all! He had style and was quick-witted and funny and wrote for a hit TV variety show in this big city called New York, a world of advertising and martinis and skyscrapers. But after work, he had a house. In the suburbs! New Rochelle, to be exact. 148 Bonnie Meadow Road. He had the beautiful wife, the cute son, the milkman, the neighbors who were also best friends. Jerry borrowed power tools from Rob and Millie swapped recipes with Laura. My God. That’s what I want. How do I get that?
I spent entire days at the library, devouring every single science fiction and mystery on the shelf. I would get a pile of books and sit there in the big chair and just get lost. I didn’t care if it was nice out or what was going on. I just wanted to read and learn how to write. In school, I was lucky enough to have some great English teachers that recognized my love of reading and really pushed me into writing. Miss Pszenny, Miss Githens, Miss Coleman, Mr. Breitenstein. I sometimes wonder where they are now. I want to say to them, “hey, look! I’m still writing! Thanks for the push!”
So, I write because I love to read. I write because I want to leave something behind when I go (and I can’t draw or sing). I write because it keeps me connected to everything and everyone else. Not just the people around me but the people I write and read about. I write because writing explains the world, or invents new worlds that have to be explained. I write because it sure as hell beats working for a living.
But mostly, I write because Rob Petrie did. And because I want to be married to Mary Tyler Moore.
Bob Sassone is editor of this magazine.
A writer, James Michener said, can make a fortune in America, but he can’t make a living.
I think the point is a good one. It’s hardly a secret that a few people get rich every year at their typewriters. The same media attention which fifty years ago lionized a handful of writers as important cultural leaders now trumpets the incomes of a comparable handful. The tabloid reader knows nowadays about paperback auctions and movie tie-ins and multi-volume book contracts with sky-high advances and elevator clauses…
I write for money, and if I struck oil in my backyard I can’t be certain I’d ever write another line. All the same, I try to remember that it’s only money and that money is just not all that important. I didn’t get into this business for money and I don’t stay in it for money. If I write something I don’t want to write, I’m giving up some personal freedom. Perhaps more important, if financial considerations induce me to forgo writing something I would really like to write, I’m giving up a large measure of freedom and defeating my own purpose in having become a writer in the first place.
I have come to believe that freedom is ultimately the chief attraction of the writing life. I believe, too, that we are about as free as we recognize ourselves to be. The more I realize that material possessions have little to do with my happiness and that money is accordingly of rather little importance, the freer I am to enjoy this life and to fulfill whatever potential I have.
And that’s as much as I have to say on the subject of living on a writer’s income. Now that I’ve said it, they better pay me for it. And fast.
Lawrence Block is a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America and has won several Edgar Allan Poe, Shamus, Maltese Falcon, and Nero Wolfe awards. He is the author of over 50 books, his most recent being the collection Enough Rope. Production will begin in January on the film version of his book A Walk Among The Tombstones, starring Harrison Ford.
For a long while there, I was a young writer, and then, for nearly as long, I was a younger writer (younger than whom, I used to wonder—Robert Frost?). Now I’m just a writer. Certainly not an old writer, no éminence grise, no member of the Academy with yellowed hairs growing out of my ears and nostrils, but a writer, I like to think, of wisdom and maturity, with a few good years left ahead of me. Still, I had a shock a couple of months ago, when an old friend stopped by on his way back from Mexico and revealed something to me about the age we’d attained—or were rapidly approaching. We were sitting at the kitchen table, and he’d just fanned out a group of photographs and narrated the story of each one: I saw the Zócalo, the soap-powder beaches of Puerto Escondido, the catacombs beneath some ancient church. There was a pause, and then he said, “You know, in a couple of years I’m thinking of retiring.” I was stunned. This was a vigorous man of forty-nine, a snappy dresser who’d made good money in his own business. “Retire?” I gasped, summoning up ghosts in carpet slippers hunkered down before the TV at eleven A.M. and slurping up lime Jell-O and bourbon. All I could think to do was fish through the glossy photos before me till I found the one of the catacombs, shrunken tanned hides and lipless teeth, the claws that used to be fingers, people laid out on slabs like fallen trees. I held it up. “This is my retirement,” I told him.
James Baldwin said that we write to give order and structure to a chaotic world, and this is surely part of it, maybe the biggest part, but there’s more to it than that. Writing is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm. Call it the impulse to make something out of nothing, call it an obsessive-compulsive disorder, call it logorrhea. Have you been in a bookstore lately? Have you seen what these authors are doing, the mountainous piles of the flakes of themselves they’re leaving behind, like the neatly labeled jars of shit, piss, and toenail clippings one of Vonnegut’s characters bequeathed to his wife, the ultimate expression of his deepest self? Retire? Retire from that? Sure, we’ll all retire, all of us, once they drain our blood and pump the embalming fluid in.
Unlike most of my compatriots at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the Seventies, and the major part of my own students now, I didn’t develop my addiction in the womb or drink it up with my mother’s milk. I wasn’t touched by an angel, I didn’t wear bottle lenses and braces and hide out in dark corners, my only friend the book, nor was I a Borgesian mole burrowing through my father’s library (for the record, my father didn’t have a library and never read a book in his life, aside from what might have been forced down his throat at St. Joseph’s Home, the Catholic orphanage where he was raised and educated as far as the eighth grade). No, I was a kid like any other kid. I played ball; wandered the vestigial woods of suburban Westchester, killing things; held my own in school, though it was like penal servitude. I was a good kid, I tried to please—as the children of alcoholics so often do—and yet somehow, at fifteen or sixteen, I metamorphosed into a wise guy. A punk. A cynic. A know-it-all. Partly, books were to blame—but not fully, not quite yet. The people I ran with—kids, that is—were the children of educated parents, middle-class and even wealthy parents, and they were sly, smart, and disaffected. Later there would be drugs, but at first there was only desperate-to-get-laid maniacal driving, the usual acts of vandalism, liberated booze—and somehow, miraculously, books. We were proto-hippies, but we didn’t know it. We just knew we were caught somewhere between the hoods and the honor students, and that we had a taste for Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac. Writing? Never heard of it.
At seventeen, I found myself in Potsdam, New York, at SUNY Potsdam, formerly a normal school, now still heavily teacher-oriented but leaning toward the liberal arts. And music. I went there because I
played saxophone and wanted to be a musician and because my academic record to this point slid down the scale from mediocre to hopelessly mediocre and nobody else would take me, even if I’d applied, which I didn’t. So there I was, in the frozen skullcap of the world, with my saxophone and my sheet music and little talent and no discipline. I flunked my audition and became a history major. Why history? I didn’t know at the time, or I couldn’t have defined it, but it had to do with writing. I didn’t yet realize it, but I could write, and in history—unlike, say, biology or math—what you did was write essays. I found my first mentor there, in the history department—Dr. Vincent Knapp, who himself had made his way up, hand over hand, from the depths of the working class. He saw something in me—in my writing and intelligence—and he tried to promote and encourage it. He was the second of my fathers, and I hurt him in the way of Allan Sillitoe’s long-distance runner and his father/mentor. I didn’t attend classes. I hung out with the losers.
But I read. I was introduced to Flannery O’Connor in a sophomore literature class and felt a blast of
recognition, and outside class, in the bars and in the company of a small cadre of people like me, I began to read Updike and Bellow and Camus, then Barth, Beckett, Genet, and Gide, as well as Isben, O’Neill, Sarte, and Waugh. The library was new, and it smelled of the formaldehyde in the carpets, and the books were new, the ones I was reading, anyway, and they smelled the way books still smell today, of glue and type and paper mills, a smell I grew to associate with pleasure—and with knowledge. After all, as a budding or even an enduring wise guy, I could be even wiser, more cynical, more sardonic
and knowing, if I actually knew something.
There was rock and roll, of course, which obliterated my early jazz leanings and made me a student of electrified rage (and which later led to the drums, more saxophone, and finally a kind of unmodulated howling into the microphone to the coordinated thrash of everything else), and then I began taking literature courses and discovered my next mentor, Kelsey B. Harder. Kelsey was chairman of the English Department, and he recognized in me the same talent for writing that had attracted Dr. Knapp over in History. I wounded him, too, with the weapons of indifference and alienation, but I wrote some essays for him and began to feel that there was at least something I could do and do well. I was a junior when I took my first course in creative writing, under the last of my undergraduate tutors, Krishna Vaid.
Krishna is a Harvard-educated Hindu novelist, much enamored of James Joyce, and he had a cultivated, continental air about him. The class mystified me. There were eleven people in it, all of whom were poets, and they were writing poetry that to me, at least, was incomprehensible. (Poetry and I collided disastrously in high school, when a pompous prig of a teacher read aloud the great poems of English and American literature in a voice so saturated with piety I wanted to set his hair afire, exhume the dead poets, and put them and their books on a slow barge for Patagonia.) Workshops in those days were still evolving and the conduct of Krishna’s class was fairly elementary. He would ask a few students to write something for the following week, at which time they would read the result aloud while the rest of us sat in mortified and uncomprehending silence, preparatory to saying absolutely nothing about it. This went on for several weeks before Krishna turned to me and said, “Tom, why don’t you put up something next?”
All right, why not? This was a writing class, after all, and if I’d been selected for it, I must have been a writer of some sort. Problem was, I’d never actually written anything—other than classroom essays, that is, and now I was confronted with the problem of coming up with something creative, be it a short story, a poem, or (wait a minute) a play. We’d been reading the absurdist playwrights in another class, one I attended sporadically and failed miserably, but which featured amazing material in the required texts: “The Bald Soprano”; “Waiting for Godot”; “Rhinoceros”; “The Balcony.” I was attracted to these works in particular because it was readily apparent that their authors were wise guys just like me—albeit very sophisticated, very nasty, and very funny wise guys. I wrote a one-act play. Ten or twelve pages. It was called “The Foot,” and it dealt with a couple grieving over the loss of their child to the jaws of an alligator; all that remained of him was his left foot, dressed in a tennis shoe, and set in the middle of the coffee table like a holiday centerpiece.
I should say that Krishna—Dr. Vaid—had a face of stone. He never showed the slightest glimmer of joy, transport, hate, hope, disgust, boredom, or mental affliction while my fellow students read out their convoluted and baffling poems. And so, when he nodded to me and I began to read my play aloud, I knew—or thought I knew—what to expect. What ensued was one of the sweet surprises of my life. Krishna began to smile and then to grin and chuckle and finally to laugh without constraint. Grudgingly, my fellow students (who, like me, were the lame and halt of the campus, bearing all sorts of scars both visible and invisible and who were unanimous in their contempt for one another and by extension one another’s work) began to drop a sotto voce chuckle here and there. When I finished, flushed with the sort of exhilaration that only comes from driving the ball over the net and directly into your opponent’s face, Krishna began to applaud, and so too, though it killed them, did my fellow students. That was it. That was all it took. I was hooked.
Examine the elements involved in this essential scene I’ve just described to you—visible triumph and public adulation, the trumping of one’s competitors, the humble acceptance of the laurel wreath, and the promise of dizzying triumphs to come. It was heady, heady indeed, and it would be usual to say that I never looked back, that I educated myself, worked diligently to develop my talent, and flew like a great stinking harpy eagle to the very heights of Parnassus, but that wouldn’t be accurate. I became hooked, it’s true, but the drug I craved required dedication, required work, and I soon found other drugs that required nothing more than an open mouth or a trembling blue vein to receive them. Oh, I wrote some short stories in the way I might have taken the clothes to the cleaner’s or mowed the lawn for my father (who sat in his Barcalounger cradling his drink as if it were about to explode), but I didn’t feel any urgency, any purpose.
I was twenty-one and I was unreflective and dope-addled, washed along in the hippie current like the spawn of a barnacle. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t care about anything. I fell in with some people—and their names are on my lips like the taste of sugar, but I won’t name them—and these people showed me how to cook heroin and shoot it in my veins, a skinny man like me with no fat to hide those swollen blue conduits to my heart. That lasted two years, weekends mostly, and then a friend OD’d and it scared the holy sweet literature out of me. I was no junkie moron, I was a writer, though I didn’t actually write anything, but I wasn’t hooked on that scene and those people and what we bought for three and five dollars a bag on South Street in Peekskill, where whole blocks were burned out and boarded up in the wake of the Martin Luther King riots. It took me two years more—and the term Quaalude speaks to me here—to get out of there, but get out I did. I wrote a story about those times—“The OD and Hepatitis Railroad or Bust”—and Robley Wilson Jr. published it in The North American Review. On the strength of that I applied to Iowa and Iowa accepted me. I’d never been west of New Jersey, and I didn’t know Iowa from Ohio—or Idaho, for that matter. But it wasn’t all that complicated, really: my girlfriend and my dog climbed into the car, we marked out the route on the map, and headed out on I-80.
It was late summer in Iowa, hills and square-faced buildings and leaves as green as a feat of the imagination. There was a party for new students on a muggy September day in one of those big old houses downtown somewhere, and I remember Fred Exley swaggering in with two shining and beautiful students in tow, one male and one female, and a quart bottle of vodka, from which he was swigging as if it were a big cold translucent beer. It would be many years later, when Pages From a Cold Island came out, before I understood where he’d been and what his frame of mind might have been like that day, but at any rate I was impressed: here was a writer. In fact, that first semester I had my choice of studying with one of five writers: Vance Bourjaily, Exley, Gail Godwin, John Irving, or Jack Leggett. I chose Vance, and I chose right. He became my next father/mentor, and the first one I didn’t let down. Because I was different now, I was hooked truly and absolutely, and I wasn’t going to let anything interfere with getting the words out—or at least wholly giving myself over to the trial for the for the first time in my life.
Something had happened to me, something inexplicable even to this day: I felt a power in me. I don’t mean to get mystical here, because science has killed mysticism for me, to my everlasting regret, but
suddenly, though I’d done nothing to earn it, I felt strong, superior, invincible. People said I had a chip on my shoulder—they still do—and I suppose that’s right, but what is cockiness, arrogance, whatever you want to call it, but a kind of preemptive strike against your own weaknesses? And without such a strike, what chance is there of succeeding? I felt a power. I wrote. I read everything. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the same time I started my M.F.A., and here I met the last of my academic mentors, Frederick P.W. McDowell, who taught me professionalism and a love of nineteenth-century British literature. (I once made an obscure point about an obscure poet while we were waiting to get into the classroom for his lecture, and he went silent a moment, gave me a wood-stripping look, and said, “Mr. Boyle, I have no doubt that you will ultimately have the discipline to complete the requirements for your doctoral degree, and let me tell you, not all of them do.”)
But Vance. Vance was a wonder. He was a rock, calm and collected, and his presence at the other end of the room as he paused to roll a cigarette or make a laconic point was deeply comforting. His was the first class I walked into at the Workshop, and it was all-male. I guess there were maybe fifteen or sixteen students gathered there, most older than I, and all but three (myself included) were writing about their experiences in Vietnam. My story went up the first week. It wasn’t about Vietnam. It was about being a hippie in a certain hippie milieu, one who shot dope, and it used a few repeated images to achieve its effect. Vance liked it. My fellow students liked it, with some reservations. It wasn’t exactly the kind of experience I’d had in Krishna’s class, but I was in a much bigger arena now, and the experience uplifted me (as did Vance’s advocacy, later in the semester, of my allegory, “Bloodfall”). In fact, the three writers I was fortunate enough to study with at Iowa—Vance, John Cheever, and Vance’s former student, John Irving—were all exceptionally generous and supportive. And that’s what a young writer needs to feed his addiction—that kind of praise and gentle criticism that leads to a wider ratification. Yes, you begin to think, I am a writer, after all. Not just in the little world I came from, but in the big world, too.
John Cheever was like a wind blowing out of some remote place. He dressed formally, in suits and bow ties, and he spoke with the accent of a time and place none of us had ever been to or even imagined. We must have been equally mystifying to him, with our raggedy hair and beards and clothes the Goodwill would have rejected, but he was game. He didn’t have much of an idea of what to do as a teacher, and this was complicated by the fact that he was drunk much of the time, and yet he read our stories carefully and praised them if they were worthy of praise. I kept making noises about “experimental writing” and hailing people like Coover, Pynchon, Barthelme, and John Barth, but Cheever would have none of it. He couldn’t make any sense out of The Sot Weed Factor and didn’t see that it was worth the effort of trying. Further, he insisted that his writing was experimental, too, but I didn’t really get what he meant till he published his collected stories five years later and I reread things like “The Death of Justina,” as dark and haunting a dream of a story and anything I’ve read by anyone. All good fiction is experimental, he was telling me, and don’t get caught up in fads.
For the next three years most of the writing I did was for my Ph.D., fifty-page analyses of Tennyson, Keats, and Matthew Arnold and the like, but I’d begun to feel a need for the rush of accomplishment that only fiction could give me and I wrote stories whenever I could. “Descent of Man,” “Heart of a Champion,” “We Are Norsemen,” “The Champ,” and “A Women’s Restaurant” date from that period, and these stories—mad, absurd, hyperbolic, but mine, all mine—began to appear not only in the smaller magazines, but in Esquire, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. I was a writer. Sure, I was—and there was the proof of it. But when I finished up at Iowa in 1977, I began to realize that there was one more step to take.
Ray Carver had been living in town a few years earlier, in the Cheever days (they drank together at the Mill, and I’ll never know why the local historical society hasn’t affixed little brass markers to the stools they perched themselves on during those long hard hours of draining glasses and lighting cigarettes), and now he was back to teach in the Workshop. Will You Please Be Quiet Please? had come out that year and confirmed what we students had known all along: that Ray was the best short story writer of his time. He amazed and inspired me. We talked about selling stories to little magazines—selling them, that is, once they’d been brought up out of nothing and given shape—but we didn’t talk much about craft. In fact, I can’t remember discussing craft with anybody then—it was just a given, a path you took because you were a writer able to assimilate all the stories there were and make something wholly different out of them and the discomforts and fleeting joys of your own circumscribed life. Anyway, Ray was the apotheosis of what I wanted to become, and I said as much to John Irving once—that is, “I don’t want to write novels, only stories, like Ray”—and John opined that I might change my mind someday.
He was right. I did change my mind. With a vengeance. I began Water Music on finishing my exams, and spent the next three years on it, all one hundred-and-four-chapters. I began writing in the mornings, seven days a week, the addiction full-blown finally and surely terminal now, and I’ve been working on that schedule ever since. I had no more idea of how to write a novel when I started Water Music than how to write a play when Krishna Vaid asked me to put something up for his workshop ten years earlier. I learned how, though, minute by minute, day by day, and I persisted single-mindedly despite the qualms of both my agent and editor, who couldn’t see how the stories of Mungo Park, African explorer, and Ned Rise, pícaro, would ever come together in any kind of even minimally satisfying way. Have faith, I told them, and plowed on, though my editor warned me to bring it in under five hundred pages (I did, at four hundred-ninety-six, but I cheated by typing all the way out to the dead white margin of every page).
Then the other books began to accrue and I started to get attention and to sit for interviews and try to articulate what I was attempting to do in my fiction—or rather, what I’d done. I can see how my books and stories are tied inextricably, how the themes and obsessions—the search for the father, racism, class and community, predetermination versus free will, cultural imperialism, sexual war and sexual truce—keep repeating. I can see this, but only in retrospect. That’s the beauty of this addiction—you have to move on, no retirement here, look out ahead, though you can’t see where you’re going. First you have nothing, and then, astonishingly, after ripping out your brain and your heart and betraying your friends and ex-lovers and dreaming like a zombie over the page till you can’t see or hear or smell or taste, you have something. Something new. Something of value. Something to hold up and admire. And then? Well, you’ve got a jones, haven’t you? And you start all over again, with nothing.
TC Boyle’s novel Drop City will be released in October. He is also the author of The Road To Wellville, The Tortilla Curtain, Stories, and other books. This essay originally appeared in The Eleventh Draft (HarperCollins, 1999).