We are all subject to writer’s fatigue. In the beginning, I used to get stuck on a writing project in which, after time, I lost interest. That’s when writing becomes boring. My solution is to write a number of things at the same time. When one gets boring, I switch to another. I am usually writing two or three books at once. I keep adding thoughts to each one. It’s surprising how rapidly the pages can fill up. The same is true for magazine articles. I always have half a dozen in the mill at one time. When I go back and re-read the material, I can readily see my mistakes or what needs to be changed and re-written.
It was difficult, but I had to learn not be afraid to scrap material no matter how many hours, days or months that I spent on it. Novice writers usually think what they write is great. Consider what Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, had to say about it. “No fathers or mothers think their own children are ugly; and this self-deceit is yet stronger with respect to the offspring of the mind.” Rarely does a fledgling writer think that his or her writing is bad. Criticize the work of a novice, and the first thing he will say to you is, “But you don’t understand; let me explain.” If I have to explain in spoken words what my writing means, then I am not coming across. I attempt to write so the written word is understood and does not need an oral explanation.
Sometimes, distasteful as it may be, it’s mandatory that I start all over from the beginning, for no amount of rewriting will do. It happens to the best of writers. Imagine what happened to Hemingway when he was struggling with his first novel. He was living in Paris and had been befriended by literary guru Gertrude Stein, as had so many other writers of his time-F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson and many others. Hemingway had completed the draft of his first novel and gave it to Stein to comment on. She read it with care and told him it was good and then said for him to start over. He didn’t agree with her and probably would not have done so except for the misfortune that while on a train to Italy he lost his suitcase which contained the manuscript. It was a misfortune that turned into a fortune. He was compelled to start over. We may never have seen The Sun Also Rises had he tried to salvage the old script. In fact, he might not have written another thing had it failed, although somehow I doubt it.
I got into the early habit of writing every day, even if it was only jotting down notes. I did this by keeping a journal. How often that journal came in handy. How well I remember the time I lived in Tahiti, struggling to become a writer, and no one was buying my stories. But I didn’t stop writing. I spent much time writing in my journal. The journal was detailed, and what I wrote was confidential, not intended for publication. It contained information on people I had met and included our conversations-some• times word for word. It was raw and honest. I considered the journal as a kind of training exercise. I wrote in it each day about all the people I had met, what I had seen and experienced and what I had felt. I treated my journal as an artist would treat a sketchpad.
A few years later, still in my lean years, I took a summer job teaching in a school in Washington, D.C. One of my students was the secretary for the travel editor of the Washington Post. She mentioned that they were doing a write up on New Zealand, but at the last minute, the writer assigned to the project hadn’t produced. I said that I had taken notes on New Zealand and could write a story. I did the story, gave it to her, and it was printed the following Sunday in the travel section. How thrilled l was to be published in the Washington Post. The following week, the Post was covering Central America and was short on material. l wrote a piece “Through the Paper Curtain to Panama.” I had taken notes on the trip when I came up from Panama to New York. The story was published and others followed-“Harry’s New York Bar in Paris,” “Across the Australian Outback,” “Cheap Dining in Tokyo” and a raft of others, a story every week. The editor became suspicious and wanted to know where I was get• ting all my material. According to his secretary, who was our go-between, the editor had a strong suspicion that I might be plagiarizing the material. But from where was I getting it? He couldn’t figure it out, and it was driving him crazy. I explained to his secretary that my material came from a journal I kept. The editor became convinced my journal was fictitious, that it didn’t exist. One Friday evening, I had a surprise when he came to the school, walked right up to my desk and asked to see my journal. Of course, I had to tum it over to him. If l refused, as they say in Asia, I’d lose face. He not only wanted to look at it, but he asked if he could take it home with him over the weekend. He agreed to return it the following Monday.
I felt terrible all weekend. A total stranger was reading my most intimate writing. I phoned him the first thing Monday morning. He wasn’t in. I phoned Tuesday, he was in New York. On Thursday, he phoned me. He had news for me. I couldn’t believe it, but he had taken my journal, all 400,000 words, to Random House in New York, and the editors were interested in publishing it. Would I go to New York? Would I! I was on the next train. It was my big break, the kind you always hear about: “local writer makes good.” Random House would publish my book, and they offered a hefty advance. I was at the top of the world. The chief editor explained his staff would work closely with me. Would I agree? How could I tum down such an offer? I agreed. “I’ll need time to go over the manuscript,” I said. “You know-name changes, cut some of the stuff out.”
There was silence. Finally the editor spoke up. He wanted the manuscript exactly as it was, with no changes.
That was not possible. What I had written was confidential. I had written about people I got to know, like Marlon Brando. I wrote about a Tahitian girl on the movie set of Mutiny on the Bounty whom Brando had gotten pregnant. I told how the girl quit the movie and had run off with an Australian surfer. I couldn’t destroy the girl and the Australian guy she had married. There were others that I had come to know and wrote about in my journal-Gardner McKay from the TV series “Adventures in Paradise,” actors James Mason and Richard Harris and writers who I won’t name. I had to tum down the offer. That was a tough decision. I was doomed before I started. I feel I can talk about it now as all the people mentioned above have passed away.
I started keeping a journal when I was a young Marine in China. It was dreadful, filled with clichés, misspellings, and the grammar was deplorable. I put it away and forgot about it until a few years ago. Like most other Marines who had fought in the Pacific, I wanted to forget the war. We had new lives to begin, and the past was the past. Not until the Japanese began turning history around did I decide to write my version of the war. The result was Take China, The Last of the China Marines. Among the comments I received after its publication was how could I possibly remember everything I wrote in the book? I must have a good memory. No, I had a good journal that I kept, as badly written as it was. What really hurt was not “what” I put down but “how” I put it down. In China, I was studying Chinese and kept some of my journal in Chinese, phonetic Chinese, and these were usually the juicy bits that I didn’t want others to read. Today, I can’t read these sections and I wonder what it was that I actually wrote. As they say, “It’s all Greek to me.” Also with Take China, although it is mostly fact, I called it fiction. did it to save face for the families of the Marines who may read the book. While gathering information, I corresponded with many of the Marines who fought in the Pacific and served as China Marines. When they learned was publishing a book, they became concerned. They didn’t want their children and grandchildren to know they were killers and frequent visitors to brothels in China. I changed their names, and thus, they can say to their off- spring – ‘What an imagination that Stephens has.” It’s interesting to note, however, after the publication of Take China some Marines recognized themselves and asked why I changed their names. You can’t win all the time.