Or, Yet Another Story Telling You How to Write Stories
There. I’ve gone and admitted it: I’m a curmudgeon.
Definition of curmudgeon
1: a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man
2 archaic : miser
— curmudgeonliness play \(ˌ)kər-ˈmə-jən-lē-nəs\ noun
— curmudgeonly play \(ˌ)kər-ˈmə-jən-lē\ adjective
But here’s the thing: I’m 68 years old and so burnt out by modern life that I am proud to be, indeed, deserve to be crusty and ill-tempered.
“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Attributed to Ernest Hemingway
I was like you once. I’d read article after article in books and magazines and on the internet all pretending to teach me how to become a gazillionaire best-selling author overnight.
Eventually, I saw the irony: none of those articles were actually written by best-selling authors.
They reminded me of the Creative Writing class I took my first year at uni. “I’m going to need your help,” said the professor. “The thing is, I’ve never taught creative writing before, and I don’t know just how the hell I’m supposed to put an academic grade on a creative effort.”
This, from an Oxford-educated Ph.D.
Nevertheless, I persisted. ( See what I did there? That’s called a trope, or for you younger whippersnappers, a meme.) I read and studied and studied and read for years, all the while filling copious notebooks with my writing. Notebooks I would routinely burn,not yet having learned the value of the history of my development as a writer.
But no matter how many real authors I read–Hemingway, Stein, Corso, Ferlinghetti–I never achieved enlightenment, satori, or whatever you want to call it, until I had my epiphany whilst watching “Throw Momma From the Train.” The blinding revelation came when the Billy Crystal character uttered these profound words: “A writer writes.”
And reads. Now I can honestly claim that all those hours I spent in the library at Brooks Air Field in San Antonio during my high school years were preparing me to be a writer…although my inner curmudgeon insists on honesty, and so I have to admit that wasn’t why I was doing it.
I was avoiding my depression. That’s what 50 years of hindsight—which is always 20/20—shows me. It was something I had been struggling with since birth. I just didn’t understand what was going on until I was in my mid-30’s, when I started on my first antidepressant medication. Later, through years of therapy, I was finally able to see what I had really been going through whilst hiding in the library.
Still, one of the benefits of being me is that I have always been blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with an excellent memory. How excellent? I still remember things that happened to me when I couldn’t have been much more than 2 years old. And while everyone of my generation can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot, I can recall the same details about standing in the street in front of my grandparents house on Kingsland Avenue in the Bronx, where we all gathered to watch Sputnik fly overhead.
And while I recall all of the adults being terrified, had I had the vocabulary at the time, I would have said, “Most excellent! Far fucking out!”
It was one of those days in the library when I first devoured Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, which would one day become the basis for television’s Six Million Dollar Man. It was also when I discovered the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and in them, Sherlock Holmes.
My Emergence as a Writer
I never consciously thought of myself as an author; that title seemed too exalted for my scribblings. But here I am, 50 years later, and I’ve come to realize that that’s exactly what I am, for good or for bad.
So when other people ask me for My Secrets to Becoming an Author™, I can come up with no better suggestion than what Billy Crystal said: “A writer writes.”
Even when you have no idea what to write. Again, quoting Hemingway, “Write one true sentence.” It will all flow from there. Write.
And read: you can’t become a great (or even a mediocre) writer unless you read a lot of books. I don’t care what the subject is: just read. Study the author’s technique and language. It sounds easy, but for me, reading as an author is one of the hardest things I ever do.
Harder, because while I’m reading for enjoyment, maybe even trying to figure out whodunit, I’m also trying to see how it is written, how the author is using her command of language and technique to tell her story.
Ultimately, then, writing is a skill or an art. And like any other skill or art, it takes practice.
So stop reading what this curmudgeon has to say, and go write something!