[My following essay appeared in the 2018 California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch Anthology. The title of this anthology is: Voices of the Valley: Journeys.
ABOUT MY WRITING by Ben Leiter
Lots of people talk about it. If I say I’m a writer, which I don’t for a lot of reasons, the response— “Oh, you’re a writer? Neat. I’ve always wanted to write. I have some really good ideas for a book on . . .” —pick a topic.
I stand there. I listen. Well hell, then write something. What’s stopping you?
By now, I know their self-deceptive, rehearsed litany of excuses.
My wife/husband will feel ignored.
There’s no time.
My job is too demanding.
Can’t get in the mood.
Need to do more research.
Must set up a quiet space in the house first.
Want to take a writing course.
I’m working on some ideas.
Don’t want to embarrass myself.
Need an agent.
Waiting for retirement.
Add yours to the list.
Several statements are in order for writers to know:
A novel is fiction.
Writers write what they know.
Writers should write what they care about.
All writers betray.
All writers are liars.
All generalizations are false.
First of all, to write, you have to show up. That means a lot of BIC. That’s writer’s shorthand for “butt-in-chair.” (We writers do have a sense of humor.)
Some authors say writing saved their lives.
Some say it saved their sanity or returned it, like our friend, J.D. Salinger.
One writing cliché pushed my fears aside and started my typing: “All first drafts are shit.” That’s credited to Papa Hemingway. I didn’t know you were allowed to do that—innumerable drafts. There’s a fine little pony in my personal pile of manure—somewhere.
Guess I thought a writing muse sat next to Leon Uris or Alice Munro and whispered in their ears as they typed away.
Then I found out.
Perseverance pays. Papa H. rewrote the ending to one of his books seventy-nine times.
Salinger carried drafts of Catcher in the Rye throughout the war in Europe, including combat zones. He was profoundly depressed and found a way to temporarily relieve his depression by giving it to his teenage alter ego and protagonist, Holden Caulfield.
Talk about depressive. William Styron, whose work is poetic and easily readable at the same time (unlike John Updike’s work) was struck by clinical depression. Styron said, through a character named Farrell, in Sophie’s Choice, “People have been known to drown in this place. And they never even find the bodies.” He was talking about writing. Later, Farrell says, “Son, write your guts out.”
Talk about source-conflict. John Updike drew his material directly from actual family and friends, triggering hard feelings.
I came across these excerpts from the diary of John Steinbeck when he was writing Grapes of Wrath.
“No one else knows my lack of ability the way I do… ”
“Go get her done. And I’m afraid she’s a little dull.”
“My work is no good, I think—I’m desperately upset about it . . . I’m slipping. I’ve been slipping all my life.”
“Vacillating and miserable . . . I’m so lazy, so damned lazy.”
My favorite Amy Tan reflections on writing, from The Best American Short Stories 1999:
“This was one of those moments that cause people to either join a religious cult, spend a lot of money on psychotherapy, or take up the less drastic and more economical practice of writing fiction.”
“The truth is I write for more self-serving reasons—that is, I write for myself . . . I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably go crazy. Thus I write about questions that disturb me, images that mystify me, or memories that cause me anguish and pain. I write about secrets, lies, and contradictions . . . I write stories about life as I have misunderstood it.”
“After thirty pages . . . I abandoned all the pages . . . I wrote and then rewrote six times another thirty pages . . . I wrote and rewrote one hundred fifty pages . . . I felt sick for about a week. I couldn’t write.”
When Stephen King was interviewed and asked why he wrote in the horror genre he said, “What makes you think I had a choice?” My kinda of guy.
Joan Didion said, according to the September 2015 Writer’s Digest, “I write to know what I think.” My kinda gal.
Shelby Foote, the famous historian, revealed in The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walter Percy, “A man must write for himself, and then he must accept the penalties—including the possibility of damnation. You’ve got to put it all on the line; anything less than all is hedging and your work is weakened at the wellspring, hopelessly flawed, shot through with rot … ”
A common thread weaves through these writers: make your work connect with your obsessions and passions.
I see writing as a way to raise my consciousness. Aren’t we all seeking answers to fundamental questions like “What does it mean to be alive?”
According to Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, “—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part. It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the tea ceremony.”
We live in a world where we run around fourteen hours a day. So, it helps to read about other people’s lives with the hope of capturing meaning.
Someone called writing a ministry of sorts. The salaries are pitiful when you factor in the amount of work and time. You think about it late at night. It can change your life. It’s a journey. You can easily end up at a different place when the book is done. You are like a Jesuit priest, you pray and keep the faith with your work.
I feel exactly as Edna St. Vincent Millay when she said in a 1927 letter to her mother, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.”
That’s why no one knows I’m a writer because I use a pen name. I’m not one of those writers who writes for the drawer. My product will see the light of day. I just haven’t figured out how or when.
A tangential thought—my unremarkable life may not leave a legacy. But, baby oh baby, some of the stories and the secrets I’ve come across—my version, starring people I have known.
Yeah . . . I was here all right. But no one will know it. Hopefully, they’ll hear me through my pen name. I relish the open-endedness of the mental challenge. I will never be able to exhaust it. I fear it will wear me down first.
I respect the work ethic required to become a successful writer, whether commercially published or not. I admire the creativity of the process and the final product.
I experienced what Stephen King talked about, where I am so absorbed in writing the story that it takes on its own life, goes places I had not planned.
This new vocation creates my opportunity to revisit old friends I’ve read over the years, this time to pick up ideas on writing styles. My favorites have been John le Carré, Len Deighton, Richard Price, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane, Anne Lamott, and Michael Connelly.
But, more importantly, it requires that I make pilgrimage to the greats, however briefly, from Shakespeare to Steinbeck.
While my brother became an accomplished amateur oil painter, I paint with words.
I would like to be as accomplished in my own artistic genre as he is. Unlike dried paint on canvas, I can constantly revise my work.
Then there is the possibility that I might have something to say in addition to what I am recording for posterity. Having been around for decades, I would expect myself to paint some life-pictures accurately, if not brilliantly, perhaps with some insight, too, especially if I have been paying attention.
I hope so, because it’s good and proper that we reflect back on what happened. We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we like them or not. Why? They may turn up unannounced, surprise us at the quietest time, 2:00 a.m. in a bad dream, and demand to know why we deserted them, why we betrayed them, and who we have become.
Perhaps I can say something memorable about this thing we share called the human condition. There are so many ways to describe our journey, our common experience: short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, novels.
I hear music in “I am a writer.” It energizes me.
I have permission now, from Stephen King and Amy Tan, to read and write all I want.
And . . . I like it.
Then occasionally at night, a house-sound. My mouth fills with ashes. I am fearful that the fraud police have arrived and will be knocking on the door. Feelings of continual inadequacy linger just below the surface, right above the feelings of failure—which run deeper.
There’s another piece of wisdom that I’ve heard repeated by the masters over the years. It doesn’t apply to everyone, but definitely includes me. These folks say that every good storyteller writes from core wounds. We all carry them. We know them—if we think about them—and if we write about them, the product will have authenticity and voice.
Kat Howard shared personal truths in her “A Life in Fiction” in Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman. “Oh, sure, he had based characters on people he knew, stolen little bits of their lives. A gesture, a phrase, a particular color of eye or way of walking. The petty thievery all writers commit.”
Had I started writing a decade or two earlier, by now I would have made minor people-thefts an unconscious habit. My writing would be richer.
David Morrell wrote First Blood, but everyone remembers it as Rambo. In interviews, he talked about how you need to be a writer, because you have to—no choice. And he referred to fiction writing as self-psychoanalysis. Writers suppress secrets they need to tell, ones that haunt them.
The famous writer, Christopher Hitchens, said in a YouTube video, “Writing is what you must do; without it you die.” That was a literary bridge too far for me.
“Finally, no book is written. Every book is rewritten.” I don’t remember who said that.
And, one more thing: “When you become tired and discouraged, just punch the keys and bleed.” I think I said that.