MAKING THE GRADE
Nothing is more disturbing than hearing someone who wants to be a writer say they don’t know what to write about. In other words, they want to write but don’t have anything to say. Something doesn’t sound right. I have the urge to write and that means I want to express myself. To express myself is to be heard. But how? By what means?
In the last chapter, I talked about motive, but I made no mention of “mode”. Mode is the manner in which an artist expresses himself, be that of a poet, novelist, composer, lyricist, playwright, mythographer, journalist, technical writer, film scriptwriter, historian and, yes, travel writer. It all comes down to the use of words. An artist uses paints; a writer, words. Writers are wordsmiths. Without writers, we wouldn’t have civilizations. “Civilizations began with writing, and there was no civilization without writing,” Dr. Quigley at Georgetown University taught in his Development of Civilization class. Indeed, a writer’s output contributes to the cultural content of a society, meaning writers not only record happenings, but they also shape society. Anyone who does not agree can read Karl Marx or Martin Luther.
There is a cure for those who want to write but are in doubt as what to write about. The solution is to read the good writers. Read, read, read. Learn from writers, good writers, and ideas will come. Find a mentor. Such a person can make a big difference to the outcome of one’s life. When successful people tell their story, they always mention how important one or more individuals were in helping to fashion their success. Bill Clinton said meeting then President John Kennedy when he was just sixteen-years old led him to decide to pursue a life in politics. Would Tiger Woods be the legend he is today without the influence of his father, Earl Woods, who is credited with preparing Tiger to become a professional golfer? The influence of one person can make a gigantic difference in one’s future.
We have to admire writers like Henry David Thoreau. He never had the problem of what to write about. He could write paragraphs on tying shoelaces and make it interesting. His journal over a two-year period when he lived on Walden Pond is a masterpiece. He is thought of by many to have been a recluse, a loner. The truth is he did live alone on Walden Pond but it wasn’t in isolation. He went to Concord, the nearest town, almost every day, so his writing is not a book about living alone. It’s more about reflections on life. It’s about considering why one “is” what one is, and in doing so recognizes the beauty and mystery of nature in the world around us. It’s about being aware-not later or tomorrow but now, this minute. Thoreau writes at length about daily things in life, like what it costs him to farm, or having a glass of cider, or building a chimney. The writing style is conversational pen, and honest. He doesn’t try to get tricky with words; he just tells it like he sees it. It’s beautiful. For anyone who feels the importance of nature, or as he put it, “sees the Great Spirit in every leaf, tree and bug” then his writing will be cherished. He had a message for all writers: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”
Earlier I mentioned the young man I knew who wanted to be a writer and we often exchanged ideas about writing and writers. When I sold my first story on a mundane subject like technical writing, he criticized me and turned a cold shoulder. How could I prostitute my writing?
Yes, I wanted to write literature. I wanted to write great books. But how is literature written? Great books? They have to start from a humble beginning, as a child has to learn his ABCs before he can read or write. I wanted to write, anything, just to get started. I felt like a painter who likes to paint and experiment with many styles and techniques. I found writing this way. I didn’t intend to be a travel writer. It just happened. When I began traveling and visiting places seldom visited, people wanted to hear about where I had been. That by no admission excluded me from writing fiction (some reviewers say my travel writing is fiction anyway). To this day, I try my hand at everything. I do find news reporting the most difficult. To sit at a desk in a newspaper room and have deadlines tossed in front of me is the most difficult.
When successful writers like to talk about their writing, they do it in essays, biographies and nonfiction books. Norman Mailer wrote a best-selling novel in his early years, The Naked and the Dead, based on his personal experiences during World War II. It was hailed as one of the best American novels to come out of the war years and named one of the “100 best novels in English language” by the Modern Library.
In the following years, Mailer continued to work in the field of the novel. Barbary Shore (1951) was a surreal parable of Cold War leftist politics, set in a Brooklyn rooming house. His 1955 novel The Deer Park drew on his experiences working as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the early 1950s. It’s interesting to note, despite his credits, six publishers initially rejected The Deer Park. Mailer admitted that writing a best seller at a young age has its drawbacks. He was never able to achieve the same success yet his publishers demanded it from him. I too waited for his next epic novel but it never came. Instead he began to deviate from the novel and started defending “causes.”
In the mid-1950s, he became increasingly known for his counter-cultural essays. He was one of the founders of The Village Voice in 1955. In the book Advertisements for Myself (l959), including the essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster” (1957), Mailer examined violence, hysteria, sex, crime and confusion in American society, in both fictional and reportage forms. He has also been a frequent contributor of book reviews and long essays to The New York Review of Books since its founding issue in 1963.
Mailer wrote many works, some good and others not so good. In addition to his experimental fiction and nonfiction novels, Mailer had produced a play version of The Deer Park, and in the late 1960s directed a number of improvisational avant-garde films in a Warhol style, including Maidstone (1970), which includes a brutal brawl between Norman T. Kingsley, played by himself, and Rip Torn that may or may not have been planned. In 1987, he directed a film version of his novel Tough Guys Don’t Dance, starring Ryan O’Neal, which has become a minor classic. Thus, you might say Norman Mailer was a prolific writer, but he was never able to turn out “The Great American Novel” that he wanted so badly to do.
Somerset Maugham was primarily known as a novelist, but he was also a travel writer. His The Gentleman In The Parlour deals with a journey through Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Vietnam, and On A Chinese Screen is a series of very brief vignettes, which became notes for short stories that were never written. He published his own journals under the title A Writers Notebook, which only Maugham scholars and admirers find of interest.
J. D. Salinger is noted for his novel Catcher in the Rye (1951). It was his only novel; all the rest were collections of short stories written mostly for magazines and later published in book form. For example, “Franny and Zooey” is a 1961 pair of stories, published together under one cover. Both stories take place in November 1955. The stories originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine and were published in book form in September 1961.
One writer we can really learn from is Ayn Rand. Aside from her novels she wrote The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature, a non-fiction work, a collection of essays regarding the nature of writing. What she tells readers is that writers cannot produce a given work without infusing their own value judgments and personal philosophy. She claims that readers cannot come away without some sense of a philosophical message, colored by his or her own personal values. Authors may not even be aware of it.
Rand taught that language is a tool you had to learn. When you are writing, you should not be conscious of the words you are writing. She states you must rely upon stored knowledge, that which you have shaped in your mind before you sat down to write. What this means is you have to rely on your subconscious and then, and only then, you will find words for your thoughts. This is why I said earlier that one should not worry one’s self about grammar and spelling when composing. Concentrate on the idea and the words will flow freely. Rand said not to attempt to edit every sentence as you write. Write as it comes to you. Then, later, read it over and do your editing at that time.
Rand hits home when she tells us that good writing has to be objective. She wrote: “The non-objective writer has nothing to say. It’s our thoughts we want to communicate.” I follow Rand’s philosophy. I want to communicate with others, the fundamental purpose of my writing, thus I rely on an objective approach. When someone tells me they want to be non-objective, what they are saying is they don’t want to communicate.
When I have a story in mind that I want to write, I work it out it in abstract. I figure out the plot and then proceed to fill in the banks with facts. When I wrote my nonfiction novel For the Love of Siam, I did just that. I had an abstract thought in mind. The shipwrecked seaman in the time of King Narai who caught my attention was not, after careful research, guilty of treason as accused. A number of books have been written on the subject, all, or almost all, accused him of wrongdoing. But when I read more about him, I began to think differently. Research on the old Siamese capital of Ayutthaya was most difficult as the Burmese had sacked the city and razed it to the ground. Not a record was left. Nothing. But not all was lost. Foreign travelers and visitors left records-French, Dutch and Japanese. Many documents painted an entirely different picture of the Greek sailor. I felt I had to write what I considered to be the truth, from the abstract to known facts. It was fact that Ayutthaya was the greatest city in the world at that time but I had to begin with an abstract. The style I chose to write this story is in a nonfiction novel.
I follow the masters. I imitate them, but I do not copy them.