Monday, March 3, 2008

People are always asking me two questions (Part One)

People are always asking me two questions:

1. How and why did I become a writer?
2. How did I get my first novel published?

Although these questions appear, at first, to be simple and straightforward they are far more complex than they appear. Writers and readers are forewarned, my answers will satisfy few and probably lead to more and more questions. Nevertheless, after a lifetime in the writing game, I guess I should give the answers a college try.

1. How and why did I become a writer?

The term writer is enormously imprecise. I define myself primarily as a writer of the imagination, a story teller, a fantasizer. Some describe such work as "creative writing." My principal medium is the novel and the short story and, occasionally, the stage play, poetry and lyrics. Although I have been a journalist, reporter and essayist, these pursuits are peripheral to my main occupation.

One doesn't "become" my kind of writer. It is a calling, just as painters, sculptors, composers and others have been compelled to create in their mediums, my kind of writer knows in his gut early on that there is no way to thwart such a calling. Screenwriters call such obsessive scribblers, "real writers". I think they're on to something. Nor am I unique.

There are thousands, perhaps millions of us out there, all "called" to create our works of the imagination, invent characters, tell stories, construct parallel worlds in our minds, describe other lives and other places, perhaps offer our deepest personal and cherished insights, advice and ideas through this miraculous one-on-one human communication system.

At this moment these millions are hard at work plying their "creative" calling. You'll find them in thousands of College Creative Writing Classes, alone in kitchens, basements, attics, coffee shops, on park benches, wherever writing tools can be placed, all grinding away in their various languages, finding words to tell their "made-up" stories, fashion their parallel universes out of the rich soil of their imaginations.

They know who they are.

Above all, they want others to read their works, many others. They long to have their creative material distributed by publishers, validated by so-called critics, enjoy the applause of their peers, be lionized, saluted, admired and rewarded by fame and fortune. Believe me, I know the urges.

This said, I must confess that I haven't got a clue as to how fate conspired to provide me with such a calling. My mother was a great reader of novels. My father rarely read a book. I confess I was a hungry reader of fiction from the fairy tales of Grimm and Anderson to the myriad boy's adventure series of the day. I vividly recall my treks to the Stone Avenue library in Brownsville, Brooklyn. The journey took me through streets crowded with pushcarts and people, a lost world. At the library I went through shelves of adventure series such as The Boy Allies, Bomba the Jungle Boy, The Hardy Boys and on and on to children's classics and beyond.

But an avid reader does not a writer make. If I had the writer's bug, I didn't know it until I came face to face with my freshman English teacher at NYU, Dr. Don Wolfe. Yes, teachers do inspire. It is, indeed, a noble calling and a great teacher and mentor is a lifetime gift.

Dr. Wolfe would assign subjects for "compositions," essays and stories and would diligently read them and scratch pithy comments in the margins. He was a great proponent of "vivid imagery" and "strong language". Occasionally his comments used the magic word "excellent," balm to the soul of a seventeen year old.

He did not advise me to pursue a career in writing. I was certainly not a "star" student and I doubt that even Dr. Wolfe knew at the time how much he had changed my life. At the end of that first year in his class in Freshman English, I suspected that I had chosen a career. I did not know at the time that the career had me in its sights.

Another course I was pursuing at the time was "The European Novel" given by a Professor Ranney. We were assigned certain works of Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenieff, Anatole France, Thackeray and many others. I was a subway student riding the rails from my parents' apartment in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to the Bronx campus of NYU.

The ride took about an hour and a half. It turned out to be the most glorious journeys of my youth. I wasn't on a subway train. My world was in London, Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere. Perhaps this is where I discovered the true power of the novel to transport the mind to other places and other times, to meet other people and involve oneself in their insights, suffering, joys, victories and defeats.

All the filmed images ever contrived, however spectacular, cannot, in my opinion, ever supplant the power of words to move, expand, penetrate and enrich the reality of the imagination.

It was after graduation at NYU that I discovered that Dr. Wolfe was teaching a creative writing class at The New School in Manhattan. I enrolled eagerly. At the time I was pursuing a career as Copy Boy at the New York Daily News, mostly night side, but that is another story.

My fellow students were a polyglot assembly of all ages, genders and colors, all burning with the desire to write fiction, tell their stories.

Each weekly session was devoted to reading our works. Dr. Wolfe would offer his critique and fellow students would offer theirs. It was a time of great ferment and uncertainty. World War 2 had ended just four years before and returning vets and others were trying to find their footing in the new post-war reality.

In my entire life, I doubt if I will ever find an assemblage of "real" writing talent as I found at The New School in those years. Mario Puzo was a classmate. William Styron was attending. But there were others who never became as well known. Indeed, many of them were never published beyond those books created under the auspices of The New School. Reading those short stories today, I am astounded by the display of pure writing talent.

Some of us would meet during the week to read our material to each other. We would meet in kitchens and living rooms and in cramped apartments, each of us burning to read our stories to each other. In our critiques we were always supportive, encouraging and collegial. There was no sense of competition. We knew exactly what was in each of our hearts and minds. We were pursuing our passion, our calling.

Those sessions both at The New School and in the rooms of fellow students were life-changing and momentous. Except for those writers who were later to become "famous," I have no idea what happened to the others who were, if not a greater talent than those mentioned, but certainly, to my mind, of equal caliber.

It fills me with great sadness when I read the marvelous stories contained in one of our anthologies published at the time. It was titled "Which Grain Will Grow," the title based on a quote from Macbeth "If you can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not then speak to me." I can only imagine the disappointments, rejections and defeats that must have plagued these fellow writers and forced many of them off the path of their true calling.

I was certainly the youngest of the group, 21 at the time, but I knew in those years that I had found my calling. All these years later I am still at it, pursuing the same schedule as I have for decades.

Where have all my fellow writer's gone? Are they alive? Are they still writing? I grieve for them and their dead dreams.

As I suggested earlier, I know this does not fully answer the question posed, but it does prove the old adage that it's not always talent that is the final arbiter in the game of life, it is luck..... as you will see.


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