Monday, November 14, 2005

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Write

"Beginning writers must appreciate the prerequisites if they hope to become writers. You pay your dues -- which takes years." -- Alex Haley

"After Michelangelo died, someone found in his studio a piece of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice, in the handwriting of his old age: 'Draw, Antonio, draw, Antonio, draw and do not waste time.'" -- Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

While on staff at a particular magazine, I was editing the transcript of an interview with legendary baseball pitcher Carl Erskine. At the end of the interview, we get to this exchange:
Any advice to a young person who'd like to spend his life playing baseball?

Erskine: I get letters from kids who ask that question, "Give me some advice what should I do" and "When should I start throwing a curve ball" and all that stuff. And again, Bill, really ... in your profession, in singing, if you want to go somewhere, you've got to do that. You couldn't be a singer of any note and never sing anyplace. Well you've got to find a way, as a baseball player, to play.

Start doing it somewhere.

Erskine: You've got to play and you've got to show your skills. That's how people find you. It's a misnomer to say that you pick baseball as a profession. Baseball'll pick you. Because they look for the talent. You play for fun, and you play for your own enjoyment. But if you have exceptional talent and you're playing, you can't hide it. They will find you.
As I read this, it struck me how much this sounds like the only answer you can give a hopeful writer. In fact, as author and poet Annie Dillard comments on page 68 of her book The Writing Life: "The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it. If he has ever bought a hamburger, or taken a commercial flight, he spares his readers a report of his experience. He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, for that is what he will know."

A couple of pages later, she adds this anecdote:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, "Do you think I could be a writer?"

"Well," the writer said, "I don't know -- Do you like sentences?"

The writer could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, "I liked the smell of the paint."
To add to the dialogue, here's some advice from novelist and comic book legend Neil Gaiman, as found on his site's FAQ:
How does one get published?
How do you do it? You do it.
You write.
You finish what you write.
You look for publishers who publish "that kind of thing", whatever it is. You send them what you've done (a letter asking if they'd like to see a whole manuscript or a few chapters and an outline will always be welcome. And stamped self-addressed envelopes help keep the wheels turning.)
Sooner or later, if you don't give up and you have some measurable amount of ability or talent or luck, you get published.
This has been true of my own experience. Throughout my career -- including both the awards and the rejection slips (and, yes, I have more of the latter than I do of the former, if you must know) -- none of what I have accomplished could have happened if I had not written.

You know, words on paper.

Over the years, I have met many dreamers with ideas for stories. Unfortunately, the majority of them did not understand the distinction between the idea and the sweat it takes to actually write it down and -- more importantly -- rewrite it and rewrite it until it's a finished thing.

Generally, these are the sorts of people who are first to spout off that they won't put in the sweat or effort until after they get their "big break."

However, as Solomon put it a long time ago: "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men." -- Proverbs 22:29

Note that the person in the quote was doing the "skilled" work before his big break came. (Which, of course, led to his big break.) As in any discipline -- whether you want to write a novel or you want to sell shoes or whatever it is that you want to do -- it's the person who pushes himself or herself to excel, to be the best, who gets noticed.

Those who are saving their creative energy until after their big break are in for a long wait.
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