Monday, December 26, 2011

On Writing (Again)

I love writing. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid—five years old, to be exact—and it has been the mainstay of my life. Every serious job I’ve had has involved putting my thoughts and opinions on paper. I’ve been a reporter and free-lancer for some fairly important newspapers, an editor and contributor to magazines, a ghostwriter, pamphleteer, the voice of a UN radio operation and an addiction counselor whose written diagnosis influenced the care of clients. I had the very good fortune of working in the newsroom of the Washington Post during the Watergate era and years ago spent many afternoons with a late celebrated Senator and poet trying to write a novel. I’ve had a few books published, though not enough, and a few more are either looking for home or still writing around in my head.

The thing with writing is that it’s a feast or famine deal, and while I know a couple of  fiction authors who have made some money—and in one case, a lot of money—the rest of us have at best a tiny chance of scrawling our way to the top. There are fewer fiction writers making a full-time living at their trade than there are professional football players actively in the game, and I remember reading some years ago that if you averaged out the income of all writers, from the lady who edits the church bulletin to the super heavyweights like a King or a Patterson, you’d come up with a very sad figure, something on the order of $400 annually.

Still, there’s nothing else I would rather be doing.  I was trying to explain to a friend recently that I don’t really believe in talent. I fact, I have a really blue collar view of writing: It’s a trade you practice and get better at over time, much like plumbing or carpentry or electrical wiring, but with less of a pay-off . If you do it long enough, you’ll get good and with a bit of luck (this is where the talent part just might lie) the muses might smile and make you better than good. And like in any trade, there are the enfants prodiges, the ones who seem to have it in them, that ability to tell an entrancing tale and weave a fabulous spell without even trying very hard.  The rest of us have to work it.

I don’t know where ideas come from. I know some of them are better than others, they have legs and walk.  I’m in the process of writing my sixth book, but I’ve started writing dozens of others which have had no future at page fifty or a hundred; they splutter  and die like and old car running out of gas. I keep these literary dead-ends handy because you never know, what lacks life one day will be brimming with it the next. 

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones once said of music and lyrics that everything is floating out there, and it’s a question of grabbing and hanging on tenaciously. That sort of makes sense, something like Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Or perhaps Ambrose Bierce, “There is noting new under the sun but there are a lot of old things we don’t know.” 

So there it is. Writing is magic of the most plebeian kind, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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