Thursday, February 10, 2011

Take up plumbing or electical wiring.

There is a scene in Stanley Ellin’s first novel, The Winter After This Summer, in which a young guy being tossed out of college stops by to have a last drink with a favorite professor, and the older man says to the kid, “What are you going to do now? What do you want to be?” And the kid thinks about it for a moment and replies, “Well, I don’t want to be a writer.” And the professor toasts him, saying, “That’s good. There are already too many people around who mistake a love of reading for a talent for writing.” And that is my advice to young writers, too. Forget it. Take up plumbing or electical wiring. The money is vastly better, and the work-hours are more reasonable, and when your toilet overflows, you don’t want Dostoevski coming to your house.

     So when I teach workshops, or lecture to “writers’ groups,” I do my best to discourage as many as possible. This is in no way an attempt to lessen the competition, because I truly, deeply believe that writers are not in competition with each other. What I write, Joyce Carol Oates can’t write; what Ms. Oates writes, Donald Westlake can’t write; and what Kafka did has already been done, all that Hemingway bullshit about “pulling against Chekhov and that all time fast gun heavyweight puncher Tolstoy” notwithstanding. (Hemingway meant, it is now generally accepted, not that one had to go mano-a-mano with any other writer, but that in the words of John Simon—”there is no point in saying less than your predecessors have said.”)

     In the burning core of what I believe to be true about the art and craft of writing, I know that one cannot discourage a real writer. Like von Kleist, “I write only because I cannot stop.” And that is the way of it for a real writer, not for the fuzzyheaded dreamer or parvenu who think’s it’s an easy way to make fame and fortune. You can break a real writer’s hands, and s/he will tap out the words with nose or toes. Anyone who can be discouraged, should be.  They will be happier and more useful to the commonweal as great ballerinas, fine sculptors, sensitive jurists, accomplished historians, imaginative historians.


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