MY BEST TEACHER
My best teacher is experience, and experience is what I gain by trying. I can’t learn to swim by reading books. I have to get into the water; I have to get wet. I learned a long time ago not to wait for things to happen. I learned to swim, and to write, by diving in. I have met many young writers who are held back due to the lack of confidence. It’s something we all must overcome. Confidence comes with experience. Psychologists tell us we’re born with only three fears-being crushed, falling and loud noises. All other fears we learn along the way by association with these three basic fears. A child is not born to fear the dark, but fear the dark he does. Why? The good doctors tell us that most likely when the child was put to bed, there followed a bang as the door was closed. The association leads to a fear, fear of the dark. The fear of failure, the fear of rejection or even the fear of success are developed fears and can be overcome. For the writer, the greatest enemy is fear itself, for fear keeps him from doing the very thing he wants to do most, and that is to write. The fear here is the loud noise when the postman drops a rejection slip into their mailbox.
Doubt is the first cousin of fear and precedes it. Like the fear of the dark, we weren’t born with doubt. Our habit of doubt has grown throughout our life. If we dwell on a doubt and give in to it, it then grows into fear. I remember as a young Marine recruit at Camp Pendleton we stood on a platform, with full gear, helmet and rifle included, and had to jump into a swimming pool far below. The drop was thirty feet but it appeared to be more like a thousand. That leap was real fear. We learned to overcome it by not thinking about it. “Just do it,” the drill instructor shouted.
I guess we were more fearful of the drill instructor than the thirty feet of space that separated us from the water below. I do the same when I begin a new story or another book. I just do it and get started. The beginning is the hardest part. What follows is routine.
It follows to reason, if our fears and doubts are what we developed along the way, then we can “unlearn” them by becoming masters of our thoughts. I once heard motivational speaker, Zig Ziglar, quote Mark Twain when he said, “True courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the mastery of fear.” The people who live the life of their dreams have just as many fears as those who live miserable, unfulfilled lives-they have just learned to master their fears instead of allowing their fears to master them.
Let us not have a doubtful mind. It’s a matter of encouragement vs. discouragement. In Western society, there is a tendency to make the arts seem like some unattainable dream. University professors and teachers are no help. We are told we must try to find the motives behind an artist and his works if we want to understand him. What is it, they ask, that makes an artist stand out from all others? We put successful artists and writers on pedestals. A person writes a book, and it reaches the best seller’s list. Suddenly the author is invited to appear on Letterman and Jay Leno and the Good Morning America show. Maybe even Oprah. He is asked his opinion about the war in the Middle East, what are his thoughts about the death penalty, and should candidates for the president of the United States not be required to be born in America. This baffles many foreigners, especially Asians. For instance, the people in Asian countries are deeply rooted in the arts. A rice farmer on Bali plants rice all day long, and in the evening, he plays with the village gamelan orchestra or spends his time painting beautiful pictures. A Thai farmer in northern Thailand wins the prestigious Southeast Asia Writers Awards for his poetry, and he never attended school. In America, you never hear of a coal miner writing a great book, not because he is incapable, for certainly he, too, has deep feelings and emotion, but society prevents him from doing so. Coal miners are not expected to be intelligent. You have to have a college degree to be a successful writer or be a graduate from a school of journalism. If you have that degree, and still can’t find success at writing, then you are told you had better find another profession.
Sometimes some of the stuff I write I think is lousy. It likely is, but no matter what I write, I never throw it away. Time does something to wine, and it does it to writing too. I mentioned when I was on Tahiti, I spent days writing about anything that came to my mind, even though nothing I wrote back then sold. I did have one obsession that I pursued, which was researching old sea mysteries and shipwrecks. I gathered information and put together copy I thought would be a good story, about three unsolved sea tragedies. I spent endless hours writing the story and ended up with a solid 5,000-word story and sent it off. No editor wanted it. I threw it on the shelf and forgot about it. Not so long ago, the editor of a yachting magazine contacted me and said he was desperate. A writer didn’t come through with his assigned story. Did I have something interesting, maybe a sea mystery?
I found the old story. It wasn’t bad. The details were all there, and the facts. A new lead, a little rewriting and, in a few hours, the editor had a story, and soon after, I had a check. I could have thrown the manuscript away, but I didn’t. I have stacks of unpublished stories which one day, I might tum into something readable. Or maybe someone after me will do it for me.
I have of late concluded that I was my best teacher. I never expected others to whip me into shape. I had to do it myself. But I didn’t discount that my work needed editing. Every writer needs an editor. Thomas Wolfe, the author of You Can’t Go Home Again and Look Homeward, Angel, worked closely with his editor, Maxwell Perkins. They had some heated battles. Often, Perkins would tell Wolfe to go home and re-write a passage. Wolfe would return in a few days, not with a re-worked, cut-down version, but with another fifty pages. Instead of his books becoming shorter, they grew longer. He wrote some beautiful prose.
Given the choice, I like writing books over magazine stories because I can say what I want in a book without reservation. For memoirs and biographers, this is most important. There is a difference between the memoirs of public figures and those of private citizens. With a public figure, I have to be as accurate as possible. But with a private person’s story, it is very different. I prefer to call them autobiographical novels. I can write, for instance, page after page of dialogue, and readers are willing to accept fictionalization. Still, accuracy, even in dialogue, is important. In writing a biographical novel, For the Love of Siam, about a Greek shipwrecked sailor who became foreign minister for King Narai of Siam, I had to make certain the dialogue matched the time. How does one avoid anachronisms, placing people and their dress and their surroundings in the wrong time frame? This is most difficult and takes intense research. It can be a simple thing, like saying “he waited half an hour.” When in history did the hour become a unit of measure?
For interviews my tape recorder is my best friend. I can say that for capturing actions as well. After all, what better way is there to capture a storm at sea than when it’s happening? Or rafting down a jungle river? Or climbing a mountain? This is when a tape recorder is needed. I capture the action as it is happening, it is real. I find if I write an experience after the event, I write it not as it happened but as I thought it happened or should have happened. There is a difference.
Of course, I can’t very well capture the action by jotting down notes in a notebook, not while driving a Jeep bouncing over rutted, potholed roads. That’s when a tape recorder is indispensable. Over the years, I have made hundreds, no thousands, of tape recordings. I made a point to index the tapes immediately after making them. If I don’t index immediately I may never do it and end up with a stack of meaningless tapes. The indexing is important for it gives me easy access to the information when I need it. The tapes I prize most are those that I made of people who have long since passed away. Some were important personalities like Burt Lancaster, James Mason and Mary Martin. Others were lesser known but nevertheless they are still important.
Studs Terkel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, relied heavily on tape recording. His best-selling oral histories that celebrated the common people whom he called the “non-celebrated” were the results of taped interviews. In his 2007 memoir, Touch and Go, Terkel wrote: “What first comes out of an interview are tons of ore; you have to get that gold dust in your hands. Now, how does it become a necklace or a ring or a gold watch? You have to get the form; you have to mold the gold dust.”
Terkel would joke that his obsession with tape recording was equaled by only one other man, a certain former president of the United States: “Richard Nixon and I could be aptly described as neo-Cartesians. I tape, therefore I am.”
Studs Terkel died in October 2008. He was 96.
I recall one tape I made that I can never forget. Bill Frew was a South Sea Island trader who had a store on remote Fanning Island in the Line Islands that lay between the Hawaiian Islands and French Polynesia. Bill was the only white man on the island. He was in his late sixties, had an island wife and a dozen kids and was quite a raconteur. I taped away one evening as he sat upon his verandah, rolling cigarettes and spinning yams about the old days. I sailed away the next day, and it wasn’t until a year later that I learned that Bill got up from his chair on the verandah one evening just after we left and went for a walk. He was never seen again. He vanished completely. I played the tapes over and over, trying to detect something that might give a clue to his disappearance but could find nothing.
I like most to use a tape recorder when doing interviews. Without the need to jot down notes, I am free to concentrate on my questions. Of course I have to ask the person beforehand if I may use a tape recorder. I find if I use a simple recorder and not one of those professional looking devices, the person I am interviewing doesn’t seem to mind it. I set the recorder in the open between us, and then ask if l may tum it on. After a minute or two, people forget the recorder is on. It certainly avoids people coming back and saying, “I never said that.”
Rewriting is the secret. I rewrite to make it simple, as clear and easy as possible for the reader to understand. Rewrite, polish, rewrite again, that’s my obligation. These are what makes one’s writing the best it can be.