Letters to a Fiction Writerby Frederick Busch, Fredric Busch
Here is a collection of inspiring letters from some of our most renowned and respected fiction writers on the craft of writing and the writing life. See more details below
Here is a collection of inspiring letters from some of our most renowned and respected fiction writers on the craft of writing and the writing life.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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Lee K. Abbott
Lee K. Abbott is the author of six collections of short stories, most recently Living after Midnight and Wet Places at Noon. His work has appeared in Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, and The Georgia Review, as well as in The Best American Short Stories and The Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. He is the Director of the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing at the Ohio State University, Columbus.
Fear, trembling, and secret delight: A distinguished
short-story writer learns that his son wishes to follow
him into the profession.
Speaking for Myself
So, son, at twenty-three you've decided you want to be, Lord love a duck, a writer, yet another master of what Fred calls the "willed word." Oh, man. Truth to tell, I feel more than a little crosswise about thisa whole lot, in fact, like what my father, your long dead and gone grandfather, must've felt the afternoon he all but split my hard head open with the understanding of what such an ambition can, or ought to, be.
You remember the story, right? I wrote about it once in "The True Story of Why I Do What I Do," an essay as bassackwards and topside down as this letter is likely to strike you. The shorter versionwhich, owing to time and disposition, is all I seem capable of todayis this: once upon a time (which, happily, is the way all the best stories start, at least the ones we survive), Gramps was in his cups,semi-blotto on the Cuba Libres he preferred. I was sixteen, maybe fifteen, but I wasdrum roll, Ringononetheless a writer. A frigging artiste: moody as a cat, self-absorbed, arrogant, wise with youth, an obvious pain in the keister to all, stranger and not, whose paths I crossed.
I don't know where Mark, your uncle, was that afternoon. Maybe at the Country Club, probably swimming. Me, I was in my bedroom, making up the stuff that only a boy too full of Playboy and Blackbeard the Pirate and William Faulkner can make up. At some point, Gramps was in my doorway, his eyes fixed upon me the way he always fixed them upon the animal, mineral or vegetable that had disappointed him. He had a titanic temper, you may remember. The world was broken, its upside sadly down, and he, because everybody else refused to do so, took the insult personally. Corruption, venery, want, deprivation, cheats and scolds, liars and double-dealers, the U.S. Army, golfChrist on a crutch, he had much to rage about.
"Come with me," he said.
You didn't say "no" to Gramps. You didn't beg to differ. You didn't quibble, as you and your brother are wont to do, or split hairs. You didn't debate, argue, contradict. Instead, when he said "jump," you said "how high?" So I, dutiful and smart, went.
We ended up in the bigger of the two utility rooms at the end of the carport. The day was hot, as are all summer days in southern New Mexico. The room was like an oven on broil, close with the smells of oil and grass clippings and gasoline and dust. We had stopped by the refrigerator on the way out, more ice for his cocktail, and for a moment, while we stood almost elbow to elbow in that room, I imagined myself, oh, ten feet above the pair of us, watching that man sip and savor, watching that gangly boy steel himself against another of the big booms life was already so noisy with.
Gramps, you should know, saved everything: napkins from nightclubs in Havana, pictures of occasions great and small, the novelty gallon of Johnny Walker Red for his hole-in-one, the track shoe charm he got for pole-vaulting cross-handed at Hebron Academy. It was all there, I was to find out shortly, in the steamer trunks and footlockers stacked to the ceiling against the far wall. Oh, geez, the stuff that was to come pouring out. The documents, the letters, the trinkets. Granny had been institutionalized for four or five years, I think, but he hadn't rid himself of her stuff either. The dress she'd worn for their wedding in Harligen, Texas while he was at gunnery school. The blanket I'd had as a baby in Panama. An album of photographs from their first trip to White Sands, the horizon bleached, the sky a wilderness of spookiest blue. All of it a record, if you will, of a small, sad clan doomed to much to and fro. The keepsakes and mementos that tell you where you've been and, by determination and luck, how you got here.
"Here," he said at last, "hold this."
I took his drink, its rum not the only thing in the room to lighten your head or burden your heart, and he went forward, surprisingly nimble for a man in his late fifties. Leapt over the lawnmower, shoved aside the gas can, pitched a rake and a hoe into the far corner. Then he went at those trunks, angry and deliberate both. Something had offended him, that was clear. Then, like a blow below the belt, I understood. It was me, his namesake. I'd flat out pissed him off.
"So you want to be a writer," he said.
From his lips, the word sounded foreignZulu or Hindi or Martiana word big with pain and with terror, but I didn't move. A part of methe neediest, I'm guessing; the bravest, I'm hopingunderstood that I was going to learn something in these minutes, something peculiar and significant and dire as a night on the moon.
And, son, I did.
It took him only minutes to pull down those trunks and footlockers, one tumbling behind him as he yanked another overhead. They crashed and banged, a couple popping open, inside nothing less than the insides of a dozen livesthe dreams and the fears, the hoopla and the horror, the detritus of Uncle Inches and Pay and Aunt Rosalie and his drowned sister Shirley and his dead brother Gideon and his drunk wife Elaine. The last of the things, the first. And me, I was in there, too. Report cards and a report from the school psychologist from the time I'd gone hysterically blind.
"Write it all down," he was saying, over and over, the clatter and clang no more to him than is the Persian our enemies nowadays speak. "Write it all goddam down."
The only line, Kelly, I remember from that essay this is the second telling of is this: In 1963, my father, drunk on Ron Rico and history, was taking seriously, in a way I hadn't or couldn't yet, what it means to be a writerthat ours is an obligation, maybe like that the saints have, to make sense of what, singly or as a tribe, has befallen us; that we, those with the language and the imagination and the memory, must bring shape and order to all that's locked away; that we, yeah, must write it all goddam downall that bedevils and beleaguers, all that mystifies and frightens, all that's revealed, literally and figuratively, when the "past" is sprung open before us.
Okay, I'm waxing again, right? Preaching, actually. Which, interestingly, is what, over the years, a lot of my students like me to do. They like me to pound the seminar table, to rant, to rail, to get up on my high horse, to hie to the high road and from it, like my father, wag my finger self-righteously at the dickweeds and dingleberries who, Lord in heaven, just aren't working hard enough between their margins, or between their ears. Still, you, like me umpteen umpteens before, asked for it, didn't you?
Me, I never set out to be a writer, at least not the way others have set out to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. No, I just wrote, one goofy yarn after another. Tales of swashbuckling and derring-do. Nick o' time escapes. My first book? A re-telling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Illustrated the darn thing, too. Stick figure drawings, sure, but Mrs. Chew, in the 10th grade (British LiteratureWilliam Makepeace Thackeray, Geoffrey Chaucer, Mr. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the whole dead race of them) let me, over three glorious days, read it to the class. Talk about validation, about the stamp of approval that saysto any who'll listen, albeitthat writing is as fine an endeavor to undertake as is, oh, the building of bridges and the suing of neighbors. Maybe as necessary, too. Certainly, in my narrow view and speaking only for myself, as essential to us and ours as any miracle that drips out of a glass pipet.
Which brings me, given the curious (il)logic I am a victim of, to my second point (expressed in purest Clintonese): it's the work, stupid. Bear with me a moment, okay? I am, as I am in all matters desperate and divine, about to belabor the obvious. My friend Bob Olmstead is fond of saying that we should be in the business of writing the story we can't. An interesting turn of phrase, no? And one, frankly, that's much preoccupied me since I heard it from the back of the canoe during a float Bob and I took one summer down the Juniata River in Pennsylvania. To be sure, his remark has something to do with artistic ambitionthe desire, pointed as lust itself, to be story by story, if not page by page, better; to take and pass every test offered by the imagination; to experiment and to risk; to charge around all the corners, personal and aesthetic, you find yourself typing toward. I also thinkand here I'm doubtlessly all alone in the canoethat Bob's observation has much to do with subjecting your work to the stiffest of critical measures, an exercise difficult and betimes troubling to undertake.
Feelings? Well, son, you can't afford to have them. Not about the stuffthe poem, the play, the story, the novelyou mean one day to share with a largely indifferent and always impatient citizenry. In short, yours must be work both meet and felicitous, as finely and carefully wrought as crewel. Yes, you have talent (but, then again, lots of folks have talent, don't they?); in addition, however, you must have the habits of character that are grit and perseverance and a thick skin and intelligence and self-discipline and no little courage. Indeed, you must have a command of the skills, the skills and techniques without which the magic cannot be made (remember, please, what William Gass says: that finding out fiction is made out of words is like finding out that your wife is made out of rubber). But, golly, you may not have feelings. You dare not, on pain of a punishment terrible and everlasting, feel too tender toward or too proud of your work. If art is the result of choices, conscious and not, we make, then make only those choices, line by line by line, that serve the tale, not the teller. You, except as a son and a yellow dog Democrat, aren't important; only the story is.
Tough, huh? Like too many on the planet, you've probably never heard of the poet Robert Francis. Well, Mr. Francis once argued, only half-seriously albeit, that writingpublishing, actuallyought to be a little bit illegal, that the writer ought to pay a fine for presuming to publish. Ten bucks a page, say. You've got a twenty page story, buster? That's two hundred of the dollars you probably don't have right now in your pocket. Quite a proposal, huh? A way, at a minimum, to keep the dilettantes and the tiresome wanna-be's out of the business. Still, it's one I believe vital to be mindful of. So, Kelly, are you willing to do the "time" for your "crime"? Are you willing to say that because the work is good enough, you're eager to pay the piper? Is the work worth the beer money, the movie money, the gas money, the rent?
An instructive anecdote: back in graduate schoolthis was '75 or '76I wrote a story for my mentor, Bill Harrison. It was, I see now, a stinker (a third degree felony, say). It was, frankly, a hootCalifornia breaking off and falling into the oceanwritten in an era when hoots, particularly those pouring out of the pens of Barthelme and Coover and Cortázar, seemed to be the only fictions the literate had an appetite for. Still, I was tickled, unreasonably so. I'd gotten off some great lines, phrases wound so tightly they threatened to spring up and poke you in the eye, a vocabulary Latinate enough to get the Pope grinning, its THEME about as subtle as a pair of Halloween wax lips, metaphors savvy enough to be underlined. In the words of my pal Phil Treon? Tits on a ten point. Yeah, the thing was greatstylish enough, I prayed, to put your dad between the covers of Esquire, if not the New Yorker. Your old man, son, was going to be a star.
So I showed it to Bill. He, as the Cajun comic Justin Wilson used to put it, cast his eye upon it. He smiled, his gold tooth twinkling. "Not yet," he said and hastened me back to the typewriter (yeah, the dark ages before Spell Check and all else got from the lower case god that is Bill Gates). Again, I sat before the thing. It was like waiting for a dog to sing doowop. I scratched my head, smoked another pack. "Okay," I told myself. "Maybe not the New Yorker. Maybe Anteaus." Time, I have to tell you, was taking its not-so-sweet time. ThenVoila!an insight (but one only as sharp, it would take me a while yet to find out, as the crease on the pants of a five dollar suit): a fillip there, a tweak here, more froufrou throughout, and, Mr. and Mrs. America, you've got yourselves another winner of the frigging Nobel Prize.
A week later, Bill was casting his eye upon it anew. But no tooth-twinkle this day. "Again," he said, and I, flummoxed and full of feelings, staggered back to the typewriter. I was smart, I told myself. I was able. I was, Praise Jesus, talented. So why wasn't this thing working? Why hadn't my mentor done a backflip over his desk and immediately dispatched my story to his high-dollar contacts in New Yawk City, the publishing capital of the country? This do-si-do went on for a month, no lie. Me, it, and Bill. More frustration, more drafts, more sly instruction. The Weekly Reader, I started thinking. Maybe Boy's Life. And then, on yet another afternoon with too much light in it and in the presence of yet another man who commanded my complete attention, I understood (you may picture a lampa kleig in this casegoing off overhead): though without the props that are trunks and booze, Bill was showing me how silly and perishable and merely crafty the story had been; how, among other sins I'd committed, I had sacrificed character to gimmick; how I'd put style ahead of substance; how I'd indulged in the cheap grab-ass humor of a sophomore; how I'd served up, in Terry Southern's memorable phrase, naught but flash and filigree.
Man, what a momentto know the difference, as Twain says about diction, between lightning and lightning bug. Me, I had been wrought up about which tab fit into which slotstory, alas, as contraption. But Bill, arch as a matinee villain, had been concerned that I learn what the writing was forthat LKA, thereafter and evermore, would never again write a story that cost him only time to get into English.
Yeah, Kelly, it's the story you can't, the one you'll wave under St. Peter's nose when the hour comes to exit this vale of etceteras.
Over a thousand words ago, I'd meant to be inspirational, son. Honest Injun. I'd meant to tell you, never mind the hugger-mugger of this prose, that writing, when it's going well, is better than sex; that many delights, unbidden and unpredictable, await on, say, page five or page fifty; that nothing stirs the gut more than a sentence that bends time toward beauty; that the voices you're to hear will be both scary and irresistible; that, effort by effort, you will improve; that the world, parlous and inchoate and peculiar and difficult, will nonetheless yield up its secrets; that you will be poleaxed by something you didn't know you knew; that, ironically and necessarily, you will not be satisfied with anything you produce; that, as Gertrude Stein said, you will become only older and different.
But I'm tired now. Another long day here in our shitkicker paradise. Another day with too much heart in it, too much brain. Another day when the keyboard, every ugly button of it, has let me down. I want to hit a bucket of balls, son. That's alljust me, the driving range, the lob wedge, high heaven, and only a backswing to fret about. Another "art" to perfect. I have, in the words of John Clellon Holmes, nothing more to declare. Except this: imagine you're here, on the deck, nighttime coming on hard from the east. Mom's gone down the valleyat Becky's, say, quilting. It's just you and me and Al the Wonderdog. I've got my Redeye, you your bottle of Bud. You're back from Sweden or Wales or Ohio, wherever the dickens you were last. I'm back from another trip to fatten the checkbook, me another hour nearer my last.
I've been talking the talk, son. Railing against the cowards and cry-babies who've ransacked the ivory tower. The harridans and the epicenes, the petty tyrants and the tin pot ideologues. Don't write drunk, I've told you. Or stoned. Get a reader, I've told you. Better yet, be a reader. Write fan letters. Show up for readings and the like. Fret not about fame and fortune. Take every opportunity to write well. Rewrite. Rewrite again. Pay your bills promptly. Say "please" and "thank you." Change your oil every three thousand miles.
Ah, it's late, isn't it, dreamland the only place left to go? So, this: write it all down, Kelly. The spit and string and sweat of us, the purl and sweep of our condemned kind. Write it all down. The hopes and fears we are, the yip and yike we are in the dark. The hand and head and heart of us. Write it all down.
Write it all goddam down.
and post it to your social network
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