(NOTE: There once was a union maid, she never was afraid / Of goons and ginks and company finks / And the deputy sheriffs who made the raid. / She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called / And when the Legion boys come ‘round / She always stood her ground. / Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union / I’m sticking to the union, I’m sticking to the union. / Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union / I’m sticking to the union ‘til the day I die.)
Writing is hard and writers have to do it every day so they can call themselves writers and not just people who sit at laptops and typewriters and notepads when they could be serving in a soup kitchen or doing other unselfish public work. The act of writing is less important than what it produces: the story. Without our stories, we might as well be shoehorns or Dalmatians.
Every story has a beginning, middle, and end, and, as Jean-Luc Godard said about the cinema, not necessarily in that order. The story defines itself as the writer bangs on keys and scribbles on paper, and if the writer gets in the way of the process, the story is lost. It becomes a jangle of words without meaning or depth or soul. Stories are alive: they sing in strange choirs, have disparate images that meet one another without a formal introduction, and dance in peculiar arabesques called the human experience. They must be told with integrity.
Any story (or writer) is beholden only to the reader, for without readers the story is just an exercise in spelling and punctuation. Every writer has an ideal reader: Mom, Dad, partner, the next-door neighbor with the untamed bougainvillea, gas station attendant, seventh grade schoolteacher, or night clerk. A writer takes the effort to compose and make tidy a story for them, but others are invited to join the fun. No one is turned away from reading or writing. Stories are pure democracy, unlike publishing. Every writer, especially first timers, stumbles over getting his or her work out to the reading public. More rejection than acceptance can make them desperate enough to consider writing commercial fiction.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Writers pressed by lack of attention and remuneration will try other avenues to make a living. In his essay, “Bread versus Mozart’s Watch,” Lew Welch says, “I’ve got a job. I’m a Poet. Why should I do somebody else’s job, too? You want me to be carpenter? I’m a lousy carpenter. Does anybody ask a carpenter to write my poems?” The fiction writer is encouraged by agents and editors to embrace commercial fiction instead of carpentry, and commercial fiction can be defined as fiction that makes money for anyone except the writer. Workshops across the country and creative writing courses tout the possible financial rewards. Maybe not, maybe so: the suspicion is there is more money to be made teaching how to write commercial fiction than doing it.
Most commercial fiction workshops go through what will sell to agents and editors at publishing houses, ending with the hope a reader will be found that agrees with their combined sensibilities. The workshop teacher will start with a series of rules: Never start a novel with the description of a landscape or behind the wheel of a car, never use dreams, and never have a redheaded protagonist. These are based on what is selling at this moment and the person behind such nonsense is an idiot. Writing for today’s marketplace does not take into account that it changes, mostly just out of capriciousness.
What cannot be taught is the drive to tell a story. This is a genetic disposition, like freckles or appreciating chamber music. The drive is inside the writer, and all any good teacher can offer is the critical apparatus necessary to read and think clearly. Craft comes from reading, writing through mistakes, and regarding language as full of infinite possibilities to tell one particular story, the writer’s story.
WHO STILL LAUGHS
A writer writes everyday, heedless of holidays and vacations, also known as the curse of vocation. Elmore Leonard gets by on four good pages a day, but he’s been at this for a while. Emails and grocery lists don’t count as writing; long, strange letters to friends on the other side of the country only count if the writer keeps a copy for future use. Journals are important until they take over from the real work of characterization, plot, and setting. Every bit of writing is a prelude to sitting down at the keyboard to give a future reader your glimpse of paradise.
To quit writing is simple: get up from your desk and walk away. The story remains voluntary, whether reading or writing. Sending out the finished short story or novel to agents and editors is a process no one likes. Agents reply with emails saying, “I didn’t fall in love with (your novel here).” Editors of journals send out form rejections when they get around to it. Writing commercial fiction might be easier than writing with integrity, but the result is the same.
For those who can’t stop writing, who fuss about sentence structure, participle phrases, Oxford commas, and compound words, don’t stop. Keep going through the rejections and send your work out even though it will be rejected and hope you will find a responsive ear. Agents and editors will eventually capitulate. If not, the writer might turn to carpentry and the story worth reading will go the way of the Twinkie.
AFTER SO DAMN LONG, WHY NOT
THE DOG has been silent of late and, according to Mr. Detroit, the bark and whimper has been missed. So have the stains on the hallway carpet. To have THE DOG all year round and also make sure the author gets a royalty check of any amount next year, jump up and run to your local independent bookstore. Politely enter through the front door, stand behind the patrons waiting for gift wrapping, and ask for several copies of THE DOG WALKED DOWN THE STREET: AN OUTSPOKEN GUIDE FOR WRITERS WHO WANT TO PUBLISH (Cypress House, $13.95). Compliment the cashier’s reindeer sweater before handing over that credit card and wish staff and clientele the very best of jolly holidays. Patrons and workers at independent bookstores are as handsome or beautiful as their genders permit, and THE DOG is the best gift ever made from natural products, fit for family and friends and the nice woman who delivers the mail. Log on to www.indiebound.com for the nearest independent bookstore that eagerly awaits your business and polite manners.
NEXT: No Bones Before Bedtime
Causes Sal Glynn Supports
Doctors Without Borders Amnesty International