Keep It to Yourself
You know the last thing in the world people want to hear from you, the very last thing they're interested in? The fact that you always have wanted to write, that you cherish dreams of being a writer, that you wrote something and got rejected once, that you believe you have it in you-if only the people around you would give you a chance-to write a very credible, if not great, American novel. They also don't want to hear that if you did start to write, there would be some things you just couldn't write about.
Your parents don't want to hear it: They want you to grow up to be a decent person, find a way to make a good living, and not disgrace the family. Your girlfriend, boyfriend, or spouse will put up with this writer-talk for weeks, months, or even years, but none of them will love you for it. Your writing, to them, is like a case of genital herpes. It's possible for them to love you, but they'll have to overlook the writing. (Have you ever seen anyone sadder or more downtrodden, more prematurely gray, than a poet's wife?) Your kids, believe me, are not going to like the idea of your writing. Think how bad it is for them when you wear gabardine slacks to a PTA meeting. Then think of the crashing humiliation they're going to suffer if you begin publishing short stories or, God forbid, a novel.
So don't tell them. Don't tell them anything about it. Especially when you're thinking about beginning. Keep it to yourself. Be discreet. Be secretive. There's time enough-all the time in the world-to let them in on the secret, to let them know who and what you really are.
Look at it from their point of view. Civilization is based on everyone "pulling together"; you may, for instance, live on a street with houses and lawns. We're expected to mow lawns, not roll around on them naked. If we own a car, we're expected to drive it, not fill it up with soft-boiled eggs. There are rules we live by, which have to do with meals three times a day and clean underwear and showing up to work on time. Absolutely everything we do is based on some structure or other: We sit on sofas and walk on treadmills and put hats on our head and shoes on our feet.
But the minute somebody begins to write-or to make any kind of real "art"-all that structure comes into question. It's no coincidence that repressive governments go after their artists and writers first. Daily life is serious business. It's hard enough to put a civilization together. And one artist is-theoretically, at least-capable of bringing down the whole damn thing.
It's my experience that you first feel the impulse to write in your chest. It's like a heartache. It's like falling in love, only more so. It feels like something criminal. It feels like the possibility of unspeakably wild sex.
So, think: When you feel the overpowering need to go out and find some unspeakably wild sex, do you rush to tell your mom about it?
In these first weeks-or months, or maybe even years-when you yearn to be a writer, especially if you live someplace that isn't L.A. or New York or San Francisco, keep your longing to yourself. If you're a guy, think of your writing as a beautiful girl and yourself as a stalker, lawless and freaky. If you're a woman, think of your writing as your lover; you certainly don't go prattling on to your husband about your lover.
The wonderful thing about your inner life is that it's your inner life. Think about your writing when you're making toast or suffering through a meeting at work or spacing out watching baseball on TV. Something's in your head, or your chest, that wants to get out. But keep it in there for a while.
Hemingway said-we all know this-that to talk about your work is to give it away, to weaken it, to take away its magic and its strength.
Jane Austen, they say, wrote on a sofa in the drawing room but kept a bit of sewing nearby to cover her writing in case someone came in.
Gertrude Stein got miffed when someone-was it her brother?-wasn't sufficiently appreciative of her work. "Very well, then," she said, "I will write for myself, and for strangers."
So when you're riding in the car with your husband or pushing the kids on their swings or sitting up in bed reading next to your wife and you blurt out: "I . . ." make sure you don't follow it with ". . . think, if I were writing a thriller, I'd set it in Martinique, because then I could use that dark skin as a symbol of philosophical negritude and the high temperatures as a symbol of hell," because you're asking for the reply-whether it's stated aloud or not-"What on God's green earth do you know about negritude, you tiresome, misguided nutcase? We already live in Barstow, where the temperature climbs well over 110 in July and August. Isn't that hell enough for you?"
Writing begins in thought. If you blurt out, "I . . ." then complete the sentence with: ". . . always think Dijon mustard goes best on ham sandwiches, don't you?" Or "I . . . vastly prefer a PC to a Mac. I'm glad that's what we bought." Or "I . . . think I'll go on down to the car lot tomorrow and check out those new VW Bugs. Want to come along?"
Remember that when you start writing on a regular basis you can do it unobtrusively, on the sly. People don't have to know about it until you're confident and ready. You can be writing a thousand words a day-and one charming note or its equivalent-without anyone noticing. But you can think about writing all day and all night, the way the virtuous-seeming woman yearns for her lover or the stalker, who works behind the cash register at the convenience store, dreams about his prey.
Write your stuff, hide it, let it stack up. Reread it. Don't worry about it. Don't look for perfection. To switch metaphors, your first writing is as delicate as a seedling. Don't show it to some yahoo who wouldn't know an orchid from kudzu.
Your thousand words only takes minutes, moments. This first chapter, short but important, suggesting your first step, came in at 1,275 words and took an hour and fifteen minutes to write in the first draft. I've had years to think about silence, though, lots of time to figure out what I'm passing on to you now: Protect yourself. Be careful whom you tell. Because the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer.
What's Your Material?
While you're being quiet, keeping your literary aspirations to yourself, pay attention to the world around you. Listen. What's your "voice," what's your material, what's your genre, what are you trying to say?
It takes a while. You can go a surprisingly long time without figuring out the kind of person you are and in what direction your life is taking you. I was thirty-two, had two kids and my Ph.D., was coming up on my second divorce, and had already written my first unpublished novel before I got the beginning of a clue. That darling second husband of mine and I had been conducting a stormy relationship for quite a while, so stormy that I found myself in therapy.
I was a frazzled hippie, and the therapist was an elegant woman with very beautiful hands, bejeweled. She whiled away her hours at work doing needlepoint. One afternoon, as I was recounting some misdeed of my short-fused husband, my voice began to rise and rise and, in the middle of a long narrative, I shouted a few times, with feeling, "I can't stand it! I can't stand it!"
Without looking up from her needlework, the therapist remarked, "Oh, you seem to be standing it all right."
It was one of those moments. I saw the little office in Beverly Hills, the two of us, one composed and amused, the other bedraggled but gaudy and caught dead to rights, busted: Queen of the long sentence. Much given to exaggeration and embellishment. Addicted to italics. Empress of the long-held grudge. In possession of an "Irish memory." That is to say, I could remember in photographic detail every awful thing that had ever happened to me but had a little trouble bringing back the good stuff.
But I was already beginning to publish some magazine pieces, and within the parameters of my "suffering" and my faithless husband and all that, I was beginning to have a pretty good time.
I began to listen to myself talking on the phone, because writers talk endlessly about finding their "voice," and what better way to find your voice than by listening to your own voice? My conversations then generally revolved around two topics: my crazy second husband-that rogue!-and my crazy nutcase mother. My vocal tone was usually a high-pitched rant-'n-rave, punctuated by rounds of hysterical laughter, because by then I knew I seemed to be standing it all right.
"So, you know what he did then? There he was, in the home of his girlfriend, and his shirt was hung right there over the doorknob-I always wondered what happened to that shirt-and there she is sitting on her little couch sobbing, and he's in a chair, falling over laughing, and I'm sobbing along with her and I'm saying, 'All right, Tom, you have to choose between us right now,' but he's laughing so hard he can't even get the words out . . ."
"So what did you do then?"
"I guess I just went home. Because I had to take care of the baby." (Voice rising again.) "Because she had that terrible fever! A hundred and five degrees! And he's out fucking his brains out with the dreaded Jennifer!"
I'm not saying I would have picked this voice, or this material. But there it was, insistent as steam from a teakettle. In my dreams, I would have had the measured, morally right voice of E. M. Forster, who wrote the best twentieth-century novels in English as far as I'm concerned, but I didn't have that voice. There was no point in trying to be "cultured." I had the education, but I didn't have the voice. At another level, I would have loved to have the voice and the material of C. S. Forester and write those terrific Horatio Hornblower novels, with a lot of eighteenth-century navy men striding the quarterdeck and having coffee and burgoo for breakfast; but it was not to be.
So, listen to your own voice. Are you a tough guy? (My second husband once called me on the phone and shouted, "What do you want?" then got so flustered when I reminded him that he made the call that he hung up.) Are you a seducer? A big silly? A philosopher-the kind of person who, whatever happens, you find yourself making up a theory about it? Are you fond of team sports? The movies? What's your small talk?
Now, let's go one step deeper. What's your inner voice talking about these days? It's always there (in my case, anyway) muttering along. Over time, if we're not mentally ill, we've learned to tune out that voice, but if you're a writer-or an artist or an actor or a comedian or a composer-it's time to tune it back in.
If you're a woman, how many times have you interrupted some guy's reverie with "What are you thinking?" (And if you're a guy, how many times have you given an automatic answer?) Imagine you're driving along in a car. Maybe you're driving or maybe you're the passenger, or-if you're a kid or a grandparent-maybe you're languishing in the back. The scenery is going by. You've driven this route a hundred times. You're in a daze. What's in there, in the daze?
Some self-help book made the statement a few years ago that men "thought about sex once every six seconds." The then-editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review looked at that sentence (a few of us were hanging out in the office, choosing books to review) and blurted out, "Every six seconds! It has to be more than that!" The guys snickered; the women kept mum. But then there was more discussion, which came down to something that sounded closer to the truth: Maybe men wouldn't think about sex very much at all for hours, days, even weeks, then they'd think of it fifty times a second. They'd think of nothing else.
What's going on in your mind?
Here are a few things I've caught myself thinking about over the years. I think of a truck falling over a cliff and just happening to land on a convertible that has my second husband in it. That's it! It's all over! For weeks, days, years that thought was my constant consolation. A year ago, I gave a fairly elaborate dinner party and for as much as a month, I'm ashamed to say, my brain kept printing out: Shrimp with couscous? Couscous and shrimp? Pine nuts in the couscous? Asparagus vinaigrette or asparagus with butter and capers? Shrimp vinaigrette? Vinaigrette on the couscous? My mind pleaded with itself to stop. But that part of the mind is unregenerate. It would blare on: Five minutes to braise the shrimp? So when do you start the couscous?
Admirals and generals have loftier thoughts, but their brains probably work the same way. Flanking action? Frontal action? Flanking and frontal action? What about a blow job? No, that can't be right! Air strikes? Sea strikes? What about that leggy ensign?
Maybe Mother Teresa had an inner voice that was fully tuned to "aid the poor; help the dying," but most of us have stranger and more unpredictable material.
So as an artist, I might want to ask myself, why a truck coming out of the sky to obliterate poor Tom? Why not a slower, more painful death? Why is he driving a convertible when he doesn't even own one?
Mary McCarthy built a flourishing novelistic career out of shrimp-and-couscous questions, and threw in gardening questions too: "She would leave him . . . after the peonies bloomed."
Who are your villains; who are your heroes? (Remember, we're just thinking in a general way here, about material.) Start with your childhood-your parents, of course. Which one of them wouldn't let you go to the ball game? Which one dropped you into the deep end of the pool to see whether or not you could swim? Which one of them made fun of your clothes or made sure that you got a particularly awful haircut? Conversely, who took you fishing or typed your term papers (without grousing about it) or taught you to drive or play cribbage?