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Writing


I’ve abused you lately with my short fiction. Many of you prefer my memoirs and off-the-cuff observations. I’ll try a more balanced approach in the future though no-one has ever accused me of being balanced.

I strike while the iron is hot or, to abuse a saying, at least while it is plugged in (a story there, I’ll try to get to it soon). Because of the realities of my productivity, or lack thereof, I must write what’s in my head at the moment.

About one in ten of my short story ideas result in an actual story. One in ten actual stories are worth sharing. One in ten of the shared stories, I consider to be good. One in ten of stories I consider good, probably, actually are.

Nevertheless, I’m going to offer advice based on my experiences though I lack credentials to do so. Think of this as, not a sermon from the Mount but, a plea and a confession from the gallows.

1. Write. A lot. Even if most of it is bad which it will be. Most of the stuff you think is good will be bad if you wait a day or two to reread it. By the way, that last step is critical. Make sure you destroy the bad stuff so it is never accidentally discovered after you pass so you don’t suffer embarrassment posthumously. Note: don’t drunkenly burn the manuscript in the bathtub and set off the fire alarm as I once did.

2. When you’re not writing. Read. Read good stuff. Reading crap will cause you to write crap. Danielle Steele – crap. George Saunders – good. Got it? The good stuff is not just literary classics. There are a lot of great contemporary writers out there but you’re unlikely to find them on bestsellers lists. Incidentally, if you’re writing to get rich and famous you are a bigger fool than I am and I’ve set the bar pretty high. You’re better off playing the lottery.

When I was living in Cleveland, in my twenties, hanging out at Publix and Kay’s bookstores downtown, among other places literary, I developed a process inspired by my book reviewing work. Caveat: this requires a bit of pre-knowledge about the lions of literary fiction. If you’re a reader and writer of genre fiction, I can’t advise you but I can pray for you.

The process: You should no more buy a book for its cover graphics than a bottle of wine for its label. Instead read the reviews on the back of the dust jacket. Not so much the content of the review as the name of the reviewer. If Philip Roth says a guy is great, even though you’ve never heard of him, he probably is. If you find he is truly worth reading, read all of his work. Pay attention to the reviewers on the dust jackets of all the books and follow the trail. It’s a form of social networking that existed before the computer.

In summary so far: write, write, write, read, read, read.

3. Learn where and when you write best. I work best early in the morning or in the evening. The afternoon is a wasteland for me. I’m engineered for siestas, perhaps. I can’t write in solitude or complete silence. I lie. I once could. I can no more. Vacuums fill my head with messy apartment thoughts. Messy relationship thoughts. Messy business thoughts. I need white noise. I wrote an entire novel at Arnold’s bar. Not a good novel. Not a publishable one. I’m just saying I cranked out 64,000 words over four months amid the chaos that is the bar scene. I didn’t destroy the failed novel. I am parting it out like a car in the back yard. A piece here, a piece there. As short stories.

Carry a journal at all times. Keep it by your bedside. Take it to the bathroom. Don’t get confused and wipe your ass with it. There’ll be plenty of shit in the journal as it is.

4. Experience life. If you can afford to travel, by all means, do so. When I was flush, I went to Europe every year (sometimes twice a year) to se-set my mind (I also learned that America is #1 only in all the ways that don’t count).

If you can’t travel physically, travel in your head. Find ways to stimulate your imagination. One way, of course, is to read. Other ways are through new music (don’t listen to the same stuff all the time). Find unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar people. I’m a creature of habit like everybody else and I have to work hard to follow this rule.

If you starve your imagination, it will die. A writer with a dead imagination is a typist.

5. Be courageous. Non-writers and amateur readers often confuse the writer with his fiction and may judge you harshly. Fuck them. Experiment. Insult and offend. If you’re afraid to explore, hire a P.R. firm and a focus group and get the hell out of my way. Write for yourself and hope you reach others as a result. If you write for a target audience you’ll never find yourself. Better safe than sorry is terrible advice for a creative writer. During my corporate years (the only period I truly regret although it provided the money for travel) I self censored. Trying to fit in corporate America is to be a part of a hedge where bits of your personality get trimmed off everyday. If your goal is safe, pleasant conformity you are not and never will be a writer.

6. To have the time to write and read and live and successfully piss people off you need to turn off the fucking t.v. Sell it if it’s worth anything. Use the money to buy a good bottle of Scotch or a night on the town or a hooker or to play the ponies. Or buy a rueben which would still represent a good deal. If you forget or choose to ignore everything else I’ve said, remember this: Nothing in life is worth less than a television.

Excuse me, I’ve got work to do.

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