Archive for October, 2013


A View of My Own

October 19, 2013

For the first twenty-five years of my writing life, I wrote in my office, at my desk, five days a week, in the early morning. I almost never wrote at home or on weekends. When I got to work, I’d keep my door closed and, except on dark winter mornings, leave the lights off so no one would know I was there.

I mused about someday having a nook, a corner, a cave–some space–in which I could go and just do my writing, with no time limits or distractions. But anytime I was tempted to feel sorry for myself, I recalled an account I’d read by Alexander Solzhenitsyn of his time in the Gulag.

Denied pen or paper, and facing severe punishment if he were caught writing anything–never mind a fictional account of life in the camps–he used the burnt tips of matches and toilet paper to write in whatever moments of solitude he could snatch for himself. That’s how he completed the manuscript of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Each morning, Solzhenitsyn remembered, as he and his fellow prisoners mustered in the freezing, Siberian dawn to be counted and dispatched to do heavy labor, the loudspeaker blared patriotic songs or official propaganda.

One day, however, it played a radio program form Moscow on “The Writer’s Life.” The first thing a writer should do, the announcer intoned, was to secure a comfortable place that was his alone. His desk should be uncluttered and the research and books he needed carefully catalogued and shelved. Quiet was crucial, although it was permissible to have classical music playing softly in the background.

“Now,” the announcer said, “you will be ready to begin the work of writing.”

We know what happened to Solzhenitsyn. He survived the camps. His manuscript was circulated in private and eventually published. He went on to write a series of epic novels and “The Gulag Archipelago,” an exhaustive and influential account of Stalin’s far-flung network of slave-labor camps. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But what, I wonder, happened to all those writers listening to the same broadcast he had, those who found their quiet, secure place, the uncluttered desk, classical music playing in the background?

I now write at home, in Hastings-on-Hudson, in an office I had built on the top floor. (The contractor was Kevin Groves, who’s also the main contractor for the ongoing restoration of the Tenement Museum, on Orchard Street, not far from where my great-grandparents and grandparents lived.)

It’s a dream space, with lots of bookshelves, a couch, an easy chair, a capacious desk, and mirable dictu, a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades.

I delighted and grateful to have this room of my own and the view of the Hudson Valley. But my writing hasn’t improved. I don’t write any faster or any better. I’m not sure what lesson in all this is. Certainly, I wouldn’t want to find myself in Solzhenitsyn’s predicament, or back at my old desk in Time Warner.

Still, I think it’s true for anyone serious about being a writer, if you can’t write in the place you want, then write in the place you are.



October 13, 2013

I’ve been brooding more than usual lately because I’m sailing in that Dead Sea of having a book about to come out and facing the daunting prospect of starting another. (“Some things in life get easier,” William Kennedy once told me, “but novel writing isn’t one of them.”) The more I think about it, the more I want to take a nap.

How, I wonder, did writing ever acquire an aura of romance and adventure? It’s lonely, isolating exasperating, a commitment of several years with no sure payoff (indeed, maybe a rejection) at the end. Yet for me the only thing more painful than writing is not writing.

“The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959,” which was bestowed me through the blessed benevolence of Joe Goodrich and Honor Molloy, is helping me navigate these troubled waters.

To a teacher in New Jersey who wrote him in 1946 asking for advice to give his pupils, Chandler sent this terse reply: “The people whom God intended to be writers find their own answers, and those who have to ask are impossible to help. They are merely people who think they want to be writers.”

Chandler is the enemy of illusions. He constantly stresses the hard work involved in writing. The writer’s job, as he makes clear, is to show up: “The important thing is that there be a space of time, say four hours a day at least, when a professional writer doesn’t do anything else but write. He doesn’t have to write, and if he doesn’t feel like it, he shouldn’t try … But he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks. Write or nothing …Two simple rules, a. you don’t have to write; b. you can’t do anything else. The rest comes of itself.”

I had just read this when I stumbled on the late Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing.” Leonard was a terrific writer, and I agree with his rules (mostly). Yet if you follow them strictly, the danger is you’ll end up sounding like Leonard, and if you can’t develop a distinctive voice–a signature style–why try to be a writer in the first place?

I was once on a panel with a writing teacher who pontificated on his “10 Pillars (no mere rules for this professor) of Good Writing.” I listened with silent skepticism to the first few–“good writers write in complete sentences” (tell that to Joyce, Faulkner, et al.); “good writers know their audience” (writers can never be sure of who their audience is/will be. Á la Socrates, all they can they can know is themselves). I completely tuned out when he admonished that “good writers always start with an outline of what they want to say.”

I first ran into that rule in high school, and in 30-plus years as a speechwriter/novelist I’ve found it to be less a pillar than a brick wall. Devising and adhering to an outline is like trying to diagram a sentence before you write it. Writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, is storytelling. A story grows out of itself, reveals itself in the telling, unfolds truths and nuances that are invisible until, in his or her wandering and wondering, the writer discovers, unearths, stumbles upon them. Writing is exploration–finding, losing, re-finding your way–and not mere map reading.

When it came my turn to speak, I said that I didn’t know much about pillars but as a devotee of naps, I’d suggest four pillows for writers to sleep on: 1.) Write badly. Don’t let the editor in your head take over until you first get down on paper some version of what you want to say. All good writing is re-writing. 2.) Write on schedule. Have a set time when you show up at your desk/laptop to write. 3.) Be a fanatic. Never give up. When you reach what seems a dead end, brood on it. Yes, a mixed metaphor: brooding on dead ends. Yet in my experience, if you persist the egg will hatch and the dead end prove to be a pathway. The writing will reveal what you need to keep writing. 4.) If these rules don’t work for you, invent your own.

This morning I showed up dutifully at my desk. I tried to begin the new novel. I fiddled around, stared out the window, sighed, penned a sentence or two, crossed them out, pet the dog, fretted that maybe I don’t have another novel in me or–if I do–lack the stamina and drive to get it out, then I went for a jog and took a nap.

In the end, to paraphrase a writer who broke all the strictures, to thine own rules be true. A writer must rule over his/her own material, not be ruled by someone else’s rules.

For my part, I’ve found no rules or commandments or laws worth a damn other than this: do what you can today and get up tomorrow and try all over again.



October 9, 2013

Today, I met a friend for lunch (a wonderfully generous, entirely successful friend). He invited me to the 21 Club, one of the city’s true hoity-toity watering holes and prominently featured in the 1957 classic “Sweet Smell of Success,” with Burt Lancaster as Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco, and a script by Clifford Odets. (If you haven’t seen it go to Netflix immediately.) Anyway, I’m very familiar with the area, having worked for 20 odd years (some years odder than others) at the Time & Life Building on 6th and 51st and the Time Warner Building at 75 Rock. At least I thought I was familiar until I reached 52nd and 6th and looked up at the street sign. Holy heart failure, Batman, this is what it says (and I’m not making this up): “Avenue of the Americas (a bullshit name if there ever was one!), 6th Av., WC Handy Place, WCBS Way/Proud Sponsor Of Bike New York, and Cousin Bruce Way.” On the east side of the street, there’s an additional name: “Swing Way.” My first thought was where the hell am I? My second: In a name-off gang bang like this, how did Donald Trump miss out on pasting up his name? The “Avenue of the Americas” moniker, of course, is one of the oldest tricks in the con game that defines Manhattan real estate: Tear down the El, drive out the working poor, and call 6th “Avenue of the Americas,” and 9th “Columbus,” and 4th “Park,” yada yada. But, really, come on, folks, even in New York there have to be limits, no? I mean six street signs on one lamppost? One cross section with six names: “Avenue of the Americas , 6th Av., WC Handy Place, WCBS Way/Proud Sponsor Of Bike New York, Cousin Bruce Way, and Swing Way”? (And, if you didn’t grow up in the city in the 60s, who the hell knows who Cousin Bruce is/was?) I mean, put yourself in the shoes of a tourist from Tasmania or Topeka who’s just arrived in New York and is standing on 6th Avenue (or, more accurately, The Boulevard of U.S. Intervention in Latin and Central America in the Interests of Supporting Dictatorships Friendly to American Corporations)  trying to figure out where the hell he/she is? Note to the next mayor: Let’s cut the bullshit and get back to basics. Jeez Louise, enough already, this town is confused enough as it is without sticking six names on one place.