Wednesday, June 27, 2012

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Used

Hemingway is reputed to have written that--a life in six words. Wish I were that succinct.
For the past month-and-a-half I have not been able to string words together in a passable way. I read somewhere that writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair but I think there may be a bit more to it than that. Writing, in and of itself, doesn't mean much. Like almost Everything, it has been devalued so that now (1) everybody can write (and read) and (2) what most writers write isn't worthy of being read. Including my stuff, for all I know.
And while we're talking about writers, I'll tell you that I know a lot of them--novelists; tech folks who put out those incredibly complex computer manuals and others who write and edit the legislation of the land. There are a screenwriter or two, a playwright
specializing in children's theater, a couple of poets. I know one splendid young woman whose books are so amazing and beautiful that she should be a household name but isn't. There are Pulitzer Prize winners from the old days at The Washington Post, and a science fiction author who has won the top prizes in the genre. I even know one lady who writes dirty limericks, though the buyers' market for that is pretty slim. The writer most widely distributed--if not read--of them all, though, is the author of the safety warning found on every can of Duron paint manufactured and sold throughout the North American hemisphere.
Some write by the pound, others specialize in haiku-like brevity. Every writer I know follows some rite of creation. The woman whose fiction I so admire sits among orchids, wearing earplugs. A few must be hungry, one cannot write a single letter unless he as just been fed. A novelist friend can only write in his bathrobe. It is old and needs replacing, but he is persuaded that his talents will vanish if the bathrobe disappears. When he washes it--twice a year--he will stand by the washing machine until the cycles are done. He dries it outside because he wants the terrycloth to benefit from the sun's Vitamin D.
My friend C does a set of calistenics, running in place, followed by deep breathing and stretching exercises before hitting the keyboard.
Interestingly enough, none of the writers I know smoke, though a lot drink and do other drugs. All in all, writing is the height of self-centeredness.
One of my recent books, Wasted Miracles, comes in at 389 pages, and contains 79,742 words. Another of my novels is set in Paris just after World War I. It is 456 pages long after editing. I look at such numbers and think of the conceit necessary to produce a book. I am amazed by the fact that I believe, really believe, readers might spend several hours over several days wandering through a world I invented and peopled.
I've always wanted to be a writer. For me, there is no higher calling.
When I was a child in Paris, kids my age played cowboys and Indians, small Gallic Roy Rogers and Gene Autrys. I copied the poems of Minou Drouet and claimed them as my own.
You probably haven't heard of Drouet. In 1955, she astounded France--and a good part of Europe--by writing charmingly adult poems. A brouhaha followed. Was she for real? Were the verses penned by adults?
Charles Templeton, a CBS reporter, recalls: "Minou Drouet's mother was a prostitute and her father a field hand. As an infant she was taken into the home of a middle-aged woman, whose ambition to write well exceeded her talent. She adopted the child and raised her with love, surrounding her with music in a home dedicated to literature. It appeared that Minou was retarded. At six she hadn't spoken a word. The judgment of four doctors was that she would never be normal.
"One day, her mother played a recording of a Brahms symphony for her. Minou swooned. When she was revived, she spoke perfect French in complex sentences. Shortly thereafter she began to write poetry. Some of the poems were published and immediately provoked debate. It was said that no child of six could possibly have such thoughts, much less express them so profoundly. It was
argued that, unlike music, poetry demands an experience of life, experience that no child so young could have had. It was charged that her adoptive mother--a poet herself who aspired to recognition but had been judged second-rate--was the author of the verses.
"The controversy became a cause celebre. The French Academy of Arts and Sciences decided on an experiment to validate or to dismiss the claims made for the child. Minou was placed in a room behind one-way glass. She was provided with paper and pencil, and after she was alone and incommunicado, given three subjects to write about. She did as she was instructed and the results were
scrutinized. There could be no question; the poems were the product of a prodigious talent. Jean Cocteau, the eminent writer and film-maker, commented: "She's not an eight-year-old child, she's an eight-year-old dwarf.”
I copied some of Minou's poems in longhand onto my cahier d' ecole and showed them to my mother who, herself an author, thought she too had a genius on her hands. She called her friends, who called their friends. Could there be another Minou Drouet in the Sagnier household?
Things were getting out of hand. I was forced to confessed the truth. It was possibly the hardest thing I ever had to do, and I decided there and then that, no matter what, from then on whatever I wrote would be my own.


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