SOME MAKE IT; SOME GIVE UP
Learning to write is like the swimmer attempting to swim the English Channel. For days on end, for weeks, for months, he practices. Finally the day arrives and he begins his swim. He jump into the water, begins swimming and reaches the half way mark when he fears that the swim, the struggle, is beyond his capability. He believes he’d never be able to make it to the other side, to the end, so he turns around and swims back to where he started. He was halfway there and he gave up. Is not launching a writing career much the same? We quit when we are half way there. How many times I felt like that swimmer when I first began writing. Would I be able to make it? It’s only after I reached my goal that I said: “Why all the fuss? That wasn’t so bad.”
I wonder how many writers give up even “after they are halfway there. If one’s desire to be a writer is great enough, and not a passing fancy, he will make it across the channel. But how do we determine if a person who asks for advice about writing is truly serious or is only dreaming. Do we help them? Or do we wish we had copies of The Writers Digest to give them, as my friend Hal Goodwin did to me? It’s not easy to determine who is serious and who is not. Sometimes I do misjudge, like I did with a forty-five-year old man from Florida whom I shall call Charlie.
Charlie convinced me he was serious. We had emails coming and going, back and forth, hot and heavy. Charlie was persistent and wouldn’t give up. He claimed he had always wanted to write and he decided to give up his well-paying job in computer design, or some such field, and pursue his dream. Could I please, please answer some of his questions and give him a few tips. I told him much of what I had written in the preceding pages, basically that it’s a long tough road and, even after reading what I had to say, he was still ready to give it his best shot. He wanted to follow in my footsteps, to do the same that I had done, and that was to go to Tahiti to write. I gave him suggestions where to stay cheaply, and even the names of some of my friends living there who might give him a helping hand. He was thrilled. In one e-mail he said he had purchased his air ticket, and in another he had already packed. The only thing left to do was to notify his boss at work that he was leaving. He was required to give a two-week notice.
I hadn’t heard from him for a month or two and was certain that he was in Tahiti living in a palm-thatched hut with the laptop on a table in front of him. I wrote to my friends in Tahiti and asked if he had ever showed up. They hadn’t heard from him. Naturally I wondered what happened and I took a chance and wrote to him at his old e-mail address. An e-mail came back. Charlie told me he had notified his boss that he was leaving, and his boss felt so badly about it that he offered him a promotion and a big raise in salary. Charlie said it was an offer he couldn’t turn down. He would continue at the job for another six months, saving up more money and then go to the South Pacific. I never wrote to him again, and never bothered to answer his e-mails. His determination to be a writer wasn’t strong enough. He would always find some excuse. Either you do it or you don’t. There is no in-between. I am sure after six months, Charlie found another excuse for not pursuing his dream of becoming a writer.
That was Charlie, but not all people are like Charlie. Some people do make it and they write some very fine books.
SOME MAKE IT…
…With the Book Inside Them
We often heard it said that every person has a book inside him. It is true; every person is a book. We may not think so, about that seemingly boring guy living next door, but we could be wrong. One doesn’t have to have to move mountains to be interesting. I mentioned earlier Henry David Thoreau. His biggest adventure was watching grass grow and yet he wrote a book that became a classic in American literature-On Walden Pond. When I see people sitting by a lake, I wonder if they might have another On Walden Pond in them. Maybe they do, but bringing out that book that’s inside them, making their story interesting enough to read, that is what writing is all about. Henry David Thoreau knew how to do that.
When the Bangkok Post interviewed author Paul Theroux and asked him if he believed that anyone could become a writer, he replied, “Everyone can write, but not everyone will find readers. The point of writing is finding someone who cares about what you write about. This should be the vision of a writer, to persuade the reader that what they are reading is the truth and that it will alter their view of the world. Otherwise what you’re doing is just wasting your time.”
Small trivia can make good reading if the writer is clever with words. And who knows, a bit of trivia might have literary value. Suppose it’s a memoir. It may provide readers with a piece of history, with some meaningful insight on life. The writer then has succeeded, even if that book doesn’t sell. A book in a shelf for future generations to read is not a book lost. One person I knew who wrote such a book was Jorges Orgibet, Jorges wrote his autobiography, From Siam to Thailand, mostly for his friends, he said. I don’t think he realized the historical value of his book. He wrote about Thailand when Bangkok had less than a thousand Brits and only fifty Americans living in the city.
Jorges was a foreign correspondent, a former newspaper publisher and the editor of Business in Thailand magazine. His popular “Backdrop” column had been a regular feature in that magazine for twelve years.
Jorges’ career began as a US diplomat to Thailand, which he gave up to become a correspondent and film director. He filmed 341 documentaries for NBC news. In 1953 he opened the Associated Press bureau in Bangkok and was the co-founder of the Foreign Correspondents Club.
Jorges never thought much about From Siam to Thailand but I find it a wonderful piece of writing. The book gives us a graphic picture as to what the kingdom was like in the old days, before it became Thailand. He gives readers an intimate view of kings and prime ministers, cabaret girls, bandits and high society–plus some of the strangest private train trips on record. And Jorges knew everyone in Thailand, those who were someone and those who wanted to be someone.
Roy Howard was a businessman. He too wrote his autobiography, Good As It Gets. I assumed, when he gave me an autographed copy, that it was the standard book that one wants to hand down to their children, one that has no literary significance. I found it the complete opposite, a good read to the last page.
Good As It Gets deals with history, people, places and events. It’s the history of Thai Airways International in a capsule but it’s not confined solely to the airline.
Compared to Jorge, Roy Howard was a latecomer in Bangkok, having arrived in 1959. Still, he came when Bangkok was evolving from a small provincial town in Southeast Asia to a budding and up-coming metropolis. He came before Thailand had an airline and arrived at Don Muang airport having just turned twenty-four years old. He began work at Cathay Advertising and became involved helping launch a new airline-Thai Airways International. When the airline offered him the job of advertising manager, with frill expatriate conditions, he accepted. For the next thirty-three years he helped the airline grow in 1960 from three DC-6B to a fleet of nearly a hundred planes making it one of the largest airlines in Asia. Out of this experience came Good As It Gets in which he recorded the birth and history of the airline.
What makes the book interesting is the people we meet. There’s Dr. Gertie Ettinger, an Austrian Jewish refugee, who, together with her husband, Egon, also a doctor, had arrived in Bangkok before the war and had proceeded to look after the majority of the European expatriates.
There’s Neils Lumholdt, the son of the publisher of one of Denmark’s leading newspapers, who became a leading figure at Thai Airways. Roy doesn’t let the world forget him. Roy also names Phil Murray, one of the most interesting characters he met, and another American character, Keith Lorenz, a freelance writer who reputedly worked for the CIA, and who drove around Bangkok in his car with a bear in the passenger seat. He write about a “charming lady,” Mrs. Chitdee at Thai Airways who was joined by a PR consultant from London named Robin Dannhorn. Robin arrived in Bangkok with his wife and two young children, wearing conservative suits and horn-rimmed glasses, which soon changed.
He also tells how he met, through Bob Udick, editor of the Bangkok World newspaper, an American writer who was half-way around the world driving a Toyota Land Cruiser, and was looking for sponsorship for a series of travel articles. Roy agreed for Thai Airways to sponsor him, “Little realizing that Steve would eventually write more than 3,000 articles for the Bangkok World and the Bangkok Post.” I was that Steve and so began my career in Asia. I finished my motor trip, returned to Southeast Asia and have been around even since.
In the advertising game Roy throws out names like Michael Brierly, Hans Lindberg, Russ Jones, Paul McKeon and Evan Maloney, all legends today. He tells us about Sam Peck, a laid-back Californian who had joined Thai Airways from the SAS organization in the USA. He tells us about his starting to jog with Al Eberhart. Roy eventually became a marathon runner with over a dozen runs to his credit.
We learn something about Swiss artist Theo Meier who settled in Bali before the war, and with the help of Prince Sanidh Rangsit, a cousin to the king of Thailand, moved to Chiang Mai where he spent the last 22 years of his life, and whose paintings are now much sought after today. And there are others, so many others, many who would be forgotten had it not been for Roy Howard keeping their names alive. I have to give thanks to Roy Howard and Jorges Orgibet for their fine books.