Writing, Its Own Self

I have been a writer since before I could actually write.

When I was a toddler, both of my parents worked outside the home. The woman who was my babysitter was a retired school teacher, who loved to read, so I was reading before I ever went to kindergarten. I was also memorizing and reciting poetry, sometimes, poems I’d created myself.

At the time, they lived inside my head, since I was still learning how to write and spell. My father was a storyteller, even though he only went as far as the third grade in school, but was later taught how to write and to read a little — by my mother, who finished eighth grade. He would often rock me to sleep at night, while he sang to me.

What he sang were stories, stories about angels and animals and farmers. It was all so vivid to me. I could see the horses and cows talking as they worked, and the roosters strutting about the yard, bragging and showing off for the hens.

I was hooked, even though I had no idea — at the time — that writing, with its joys and pains, is a hard habit to break. Even during the times when it seems intent on breaking you.

In the decades since then, I have written millions and millions of words — even more if you count the unfortunate ones that ended up in the waste basket, without ever being exposed to the world outside my typewriter or computer. Those deemed not good enough to be invited to the coming-out parties.

I have written for newspapers, magazines, books, websites, the stage, reports, training manuals, TV, technical journals — and more. And over the years, have experimented with writing styles and several methods of getting to the end product, which is a well-written “piece,”  be it fiction, nonfiction, “literary,” hard-boiled, persuasive, explanatory, thought-provoking, or simply informative.

I have studied other writers and tried to use methods and approaches they said worked for them. I have written in the early mornings, long before daybreak;  late into the night, after the phones stop ringing and the house quiets down; and in the middle of the day, between meetings, before or after appointments, standing, sitting, kneeling or staring at the ceiling.

I have written long hand on legal pads, on old manual typewriters and up-to-date laptops and desk tops. I have talked into tape recorders, then transcribed the results. Each writer has to use the methods/modes that work best for him or her.

I used to do elaborate outlines early on, because I read that some highly successful writer — don’t remember who at this point — insisted that a “real” writer, or “serious writer” had to outline, needed a map to keep from running off the road or over a cliff.

I also used to sit and wait for inspiration, often listening to what I thought was muse-inducing music. But years of working for newspapers cured me of that. I was forced to write with, or without, inspiration. Rather, my inspiration became the next deadline.

Now, I rarely outline. I prefer to let a story gather weight in my head. Particularly with fiction, ideas come and hang around; I hear dialog, characters talking. It’s like I’m overhearing situations, story lines, confrontations, power struggles, characters living in the worlds developing between my ears.

I have learned to listen more intently, to follow their lead, rather than mostly imposing my will on them. It is like the point guard on the basketball team learning to let the game come to him or her, rather than forcing things, creating awkward situations on the floor.

One of the habits I’ve developed that seems to serve me well is often difficult not to break.  It is taking the first draft of whatever I’m writing — a novel, short story, work report or poem, — put it away for a period of time, usually two weeks or more. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and a more critical attitude.

That surely is when the real work begins. Once you’ve gotten the story or idea out of you, you have the blue print. Now, you can set about shaping, molding, honing, making it better. Writing is really thinking, and re-writing is re-thinking.

What comes out in that first draft is the raw material that, with focused, thoughtful re-thinking and revision, can become the masterpiece that might surprise even you.

I am at that point right now, trying to stick to that tried-and-true habit. I had given my self a deadline of Thanksgiving to have a complete first draft of a new novel I’ve been creating. I did that and put it away earlier this week.

It’s only been a few days, but it’s driving me crazy. I want to get right back to it and read through it, tamper with it, test it. I want to know whether the months of effort I have spent on it have been “much ado about nothing,” or “sometimes a great notion.”

I keep telling myself I’ve got to stick to the plan, since it has served me well many times in the past. But this time, perhaps because I feel myself getting older and am not sure how much time I have left (and there are so many projects on the runway, on the taxiways, and some still inside the hangar) I want to rush the process.

Right now, the book is titled:  “I Owe You: a novel of love and revenge.” Although it contains some suspense, it is different from the detective stories and thrillers I have been working on in recent years. I really want to know if it is up to snuff.

I am trying to take my mind off of it, and let it simmer for perhaps a month. It needs proper time to rise, before going into the oven. I had hoped writing this blog post would help me direct my thoughts in other directions. But that doesn’t seem to work for long. When I turn to other projects on my growing list, my thoughts soon return to the first draft of that novel.

I think I should get away from the key board and try to watch some football. Maybe that will work. I just wish the Atlanta Falcons were playing better these days. Interceptions and fumbles by the home team don’t do much to lower my anxiety.









Why Refunds Offered On Harper Lee’s Book


Michigan bookstore critical of the publication

of  ‘Go Set A Watchman’ as a ‘new novel.’

When I first saw the article on the website, Galley Cat, which chronicles happenings in the book and entertainment industries, I didn’t quite know what to think.

I had certainly been aware of the incredible hullaballoo over the publication of a so-called “lost manuscript” of Harper Lee’s that was being called both a prequel — because it was written before “To Kill A Mockingbird” — and a sequel, because the action in the book takes place some 20 years after the events of the earlier work, which is recognized as one of the world’s most- beloved classics.

The Galley Cat article reported that Brilliant Books, an independent bookstore in Traverse City, Michigan,  was offering free refunds to its customers who had purchased “Go Set A Watchman.”

The reason, according to the report, is that the store owners viewed the promotion and sale of the book as Ms. Lee’s major “new novel” as something bordering on fraud. Although they did not use the term “fraud.” They were upset because they see the book as merely an early draft, not a finished novel.

They did make clear they consider the publication and all of the hype generated around it — which undoubtedly benefited sales — as “disappointing and frankly shameful … This is pure exploitation of both literary fans and a beloved classic (which we hope has not been irrevocably tainted.)”

Biting words, for sure. But they didn’t leave it at that. According to Galley Cat, they offered an earlier example of a similar situation, involving author James Joyce and his literary classic, “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

“This situation is comparable to Joyce’s stunning work … and its original draft ‘Stephen Hero,'” the quote in Galley Cat says. “‘Hero was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait.’ ‘Hero was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans — not as a new ‘Joyce novel.’ We would have been delighted to see ‘Go Set A Watchman’ receive a similar fate.”

After I fully digested their argument, I could clearly see their point, and I cannot say their way of looking at the situation is wrong.  “Go Set A Watchman” has been over-hyped, has been skillfully positioned to explode onto the literary scene, through the use of mystery, timing and hints about the aging author’s physical and mental abilities — and whether she could make a sound decision about the work’s publication.

And it worked to an extraordinary degree. There were said to be preorders for the book totaling more than a million copies weeks before the actual publication date. It has likely sold millions more, worldwide, since then — and is still on several bestseller lists.

The fraud — and I do use the word loosely here — was so successful because we, the reading public, were willing participants. “To Kill A Mockingbird” and its main characters (especially Atticus Finch and Scout) have such a place in the literary heart of not just this nation, but of lands across the globe) that both fans and skeptics found it hard to resist a “new novel” by one of the world’s best-known writers, who had vowed decades ago that her first book would be her last.

Now, there is even more controversy, because so many of those fans simply can’t see the book for what it is: an early draft that, with rejection by a publisher, and then being re-imagined and rewritten, became a truly remarkable book. That early draft, probably should have remained “lost” in the dust bin of history.

Blogs and other online sites are filled with comments by those saddened that Atticus Finch goes from being a beloved, bold champion of justice in “To Kill A Mockingbird,” to being a racist-leaning, aging and disappointing father in “Watchman.”

They act as if the second book is, indeed, a sequel and that it shows the natural progression of the story. Some say they are horrified, or feel cheated. “How can she (Ms. Lee) do that?” they wail.

They do not understand the writing process. According to several reports, the manuscript for “Go Set A Watchman” was rejected by a book editor, but he suggested that Ms Lee try rewriting it from the point of view of the young girl, Scout, rather from that of the adult Jean Finch, through whose eyes the story of “Watchman” is revealed.

When a writer decides to do a complete revision of a work, often he or she re-imagines the story, changes locales, dates and times; old characters disappear and new ones emerge. Sometimes, the new work bears little resemblance to the old. It is, in fact, a new creation. Old characters can remain, but often their personalities are different, as are their motivations. Even the theme driving the work can be vastly different.

It makes perfect sense to me that a very young girl living in a small, Southern town, such as Scout, would look up to, and view — perhaps adore– her lawyer-father as her champion, a man who can do no wrong. But that a grown-up Scout (Jean), who has lived in the hurly-burly and urban clatter of Manhattan might see her lawyer-father with more exacting eyes.

Fans of Harper Lee should be happy that the original manuscript was rejected (although I’m sure that wasn’t the outcome she hoped for at the time.) If that work had not been rejected, it is highly unlikely we would have been able to enjoy “To Kill A Mockingbird,” which is, hands down, a superior work.

I want to say here that “Go Set A Watchman” simply does not work as a novel. While there are several skillfully written scenes, the book does not hold together as a work of fiction driven by a central dramatic action or actions that propel it forward. The dramatic device that makes “Mockingbird” such an interesting work is the trial of the black man accused of raping a white woman. In “Watchman,” that incident is only mentioned in a short summary, which robs it of its dramatic impact.  There is simply too much “telling” and not enough “showing” in “Watchman.”

The book seems to be more treatise than novel, with its often heavy-handed moralizing about race relations. It doesn’t approach the art and skill of a well-crafted novel.

 It is also clear why that early editor rejected it, and suggested that Ms. Lee tell the story from the point of view of the young girl, Scout. In”Watchman,” Jean Louise, although reportedly a woman of about 26  years  of age, is incredibly naive about the political and moral leanings of her father, other family members and the mores of the small town in which she has spent the majority of her life. That naivete is even more implausible given that she has been living and working in gritty, worldly New York City for, at least, a few years.

Her sense of surprise, shock and horror when she discovers the strong anti-integration stance of her family seem too much of a surprise, and are overwrought, as well.

I wondered then why the author had agreed to its publication, but I was thinking through my writer’s lens. Many writers, including me, of course, are jealous of the early versions of their work as they craft them into stories they are eventually ready to share with the world. We are, so often, a self-conscious lot. And our early drafts can seem embarrassingly bad to us. So much so that we believe anybody who gets a hold of them will think us stupid, naive, or both.

I am sure Harper Lee has her reasons for approving the publication of what is clearly only an early draft. I don’t know those reasons, but I can assume that at this point in her life and journey as an American icon, she is a lot less vain and uptight about her art — and how it is viewed — than so many of the rest of us.