DEFYING THE ODDS
The first question people ask, when they learn I am a writer, is how I get started. Then other questions follow: Was it difficult? Did I study writing in school? Do I enjoy writing? The questions are endless, and those asking them are generally sincere. Many who ask want to become writers-and everyone these days, it seems, wants to be a writer. When I am asked, I like to tell people that as far back as I can remember I wanted to be a writer, but for most people that’s not a satisfactory answer. If I say the odds of my becoming a writer were stacked against me, that’s even worse. So to answer that question, let me begin by telling a story. After all, that’s what writing is all about, isn’t it-telling stories?
A friend of mine had a brother who was a writer and a very successful one. His name was Hal Goodwin, and he had written thirty-five books, mostly boys’ books and a couple of erudite tomes on space travel. I was most anxious to meet him for, as I said, I wanted to be a writer and here was a person who could help me get started. I needed his help, someone’s help, anyone’s help.
Hal Goodwin lived in Maryland right outside of Washington, D.C. I phoned, said I had just moved into town, was a friend of his brother and wanted to pay my respects. He invited my wife and me to dinner. It was at dinner that I announced I wanted to be a writer. “That’s nice,” he said. He showed no interest, none whatsoever. He kept right on eating, calmly ignoring my statement.
“I am serious,” I said.
“I am sure you are,” he replied, and said no more. How inconsiderate, I thought. And rude. Was he what people called a literary snob?
As my wife and I were leaving, he excused himself, went to his studio and returned. He handed me a book,
The Writer’s Market. “That’s all you’ll need,” he said.
I drove home quite angry. He could have helped me if he wanted to, I thought. He could have given me some tips, some leads. I was not only angry but also disappointed. But little did I know or realize then that the book he gave me was the best thing he did for me. He was telling me that if l wanted to write it was up to me. Years later Hal Goodwin and I became good friends.
So, I labored through The Writer’s Market and a score or more of other books: The Guide to Good Writing, How to Sell Your Short Stories, The ABC s of Writing and every book I could beg, buy or borrow on how to write. I followed the advice of the authors and began writing. I did what they told me to do. I wrote my stories-beginning, middle and end-and sent them in to the magazines, with self-addressed, stamped envelopes, as the books require. The mailman delivered returned letters, form letters with rejection slips, one after the other. I had so many rejection slips I could have papered the bathroom wall. But no checks. I hated the brother of my friend, and I hated the mailman even more.
In one book on writing, I read that ideas are what count. Get a good idea and editors will buy it. Sound advice. I had some good ideas, endless ideas. One idea I had was a sure winner. America at the time was celebrating the 40th anniversary of the ending of World War 1. My father had fought in France with the Rainbow Division, and he had survived some of the heaviest battles, Saint-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. He had often told me how he would like to go back one day and visit all the battle sites. What a great story! I would go with him to Europe, to the very same battlefield where he had fought. I would capture his emotions and feelings on paper. Magazines would certainly be interested. It was a natural. The question now was which magazine-Harper’s Bazaar, The Saturday Evening Post, Life? I selected Life magazine. I wrote what I thought was a powerful introduction to the article that I would write later, and then gathered photos of my father in uniform in France and hopped on a bus to New York City. I was going to meet the editor of Life.
“Which editor?” the receptionist asked.
“The features editor, I guess,” I said.
“Mr. Sullivan, perhaps?” she questioned. “Yes, yes, Mr. Sullivan.”
“Do you have an appointment?” “No.”
“I’m sorry. You will need an appointment.” “But I came a long way.”
“I understand, but you need an appointment. Make an appointment and come back.”
I was sorely disappointed. I had come a long way and, furthermore, if l waited much longer, the victory celebrations in France would be over. I was stuffing my notes back into my briefcase when a writer came into the office. He said he had an appointment with Mr. Sullivan.
“Mr. Sullivan works out of his office at home,” the receptionist said. The writer replied he didn’t have the address. The receptionist looked in her index file and read out the address. I mentally wrote it down and quietly slipped out of the office.
I found Mr. Sullivan’s apartment on the west side, a twenty story, 1930s-stylebuilding. I waited for the visiting writer to have his say and leave the building. I then went to the front door, took a deep breath and pushed the shiny brass button beneath Mr. Sullivan’s apartment number. An angry voice came over the speaker. I announced that his office had given me his address and told me to come over. I lied. The door clicked open.
“Look, I’ve been in this business thirty-five years, and it ain’t easy,” Mr. Sullivan snapped after I had explained my mission, emphasizing that I had come a long way, and I had to talk to him. “You say you haven’t published anything and you have an idea. Well, let me tell you, ideas are worth nothing unless you can back them up. Your chances of success are nil. I suggest you stick with your job and forget about becoming a big name writer.”
“But isn’t it a good idea that I have?” I insisted, almost pleading.
“Ideas are a dime a dozen. Go home, and if you don’t like your job, get another one.”