HAZARDS, PITFALLS AND DANGERS
Adjustment to Changes
Writing has it rewards, and as I mentioned, they are many. But writing also has its hazards, pitfalls and even dangers.
Writing is a lonely business, and it can be one of the hazards of writing. Sometimes I feel I might be losing my mind, or there are times I can’t escape from the character I am creating. When I sit down at my desk to write, I put myself into a shell. This is especially true if I am writing a book. I must isolate myself from my surroundings and create new imaginary ones. I must make this new world very real. I need to give life to those characters I mold; I must live their lives. It’s rather like method acting, that technique in which actors recreate real life’s emotional conditions. Writing becomes an attempt to create life-like, realistic situations. Some actors becomes so involved in their profession they can’t turn off, even when they are off stage or away from the camera. Writers are often the same. I find myself a writer twenty-four hours a day, even when I am sleeping. I wake in the middle of the night with new plots racing around in my head. Sometimes I have to get up and write them down. If I don’t, the next morning I am angry with myself. I can’t remember what they were. How could I let them go? They were brilliant.
When I am riding in a car, walking down the street, sitting in a barber chair, my mind is not my own. I am writing. I find I have to describe the world around me in words, the expression on that woman’s face sitting across from me on the bus. The conversation I hear, I try to find words to express the accent, the tone of voice. Then there are the sounds. A train rumbling over tracks. A woman with shoes with wooden heels walking on a hard surface floor. My mind is never my own. As I am always writing, I am always in a daze. How do I capture it all? It becomes a challenge. My mind is constantly at work-sketching, painting, drawing-all day long, all night long, even in my sleep. That is what writing is about. In Writers Lifeline, Ken Atchity, on the same subject, made the comment, “The ideas for stories that wrack my brain will not let me rest until I write them down and then and only then I am free-until another idea blossoms. The process begins again.”
Writing is a form of existentialism, that mental exercise which gives me the complete freedom to decide, but to which I am laden, like a weight, with the complete responsibility for the outcome of my decisions. The price paid, as I said, is aloneness. A writer is alone with his thoughts. It can be no other way. We hear the joke about the absent-minded professor. It’s not that way at all. The professor is deep in thought.
I like what Joyce Carol Oates had to say about this. She was incredibly prodigious with an output that never ceases to amaze me. She had the talent for creating characters that fit every walk of life. She said, “If you are a writer you locate yourself behind a wall of silence and no matter what you are doing, driving a car or walking or doing housework you can still be writing, because you have that space.”
Writers live in their own world which becomes difficult and sometimes impossible to share with others. That is one of the dangers of being a writer. We are fortunate only when our partner, wife or husband, understands this. If not, then we live alone in a world that Albert Camus, the French existentialist writer wrote about and which won him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. According to Camus, the price a writer has to pay is aloneness.
When it comes to pitfall, travel writing creates them, and often they are unavoidable. To get published we must adhere to the rules, and that means writing what editors want. The idea of good travel writing, of course, is to promote travel. Fine. But what happens when I am visiting a place I don’t like? My solution is to write about only those places that I like and favor, and then I don’t have to fabricate and write lies. Critics often accuse me of only writing nice things about a destination, and it is true. What they don’t know is that I don’t write about those places I dislike.
One pitfall that is most difficult to avoid, if not impossible in our modem day, is that we have come to a total reliance on computers. What a pity. We can’t be without our computer. We are like Charlie Brown’s friend and Lucy’s brother, Linus, who can’t be without his blanket. Our computer fails and we fail. Typewriters didn’t crash. They didn’t need electricity to operate. They didn’t need updating. They weren’t linked to ready mail they call e-mail that you have to read every morning and spend the next hour or two answering. It was so rewarding when traveling abroad to go to a Poste Restante and find a letter waiting. These days you can stand at the summit of Mt. Everest, or someone can, and with a cell phone send an e-mail home to mom. How un-adventuresome. Wasn’t it far more exciting when we had to wait two days to find if the climbers reached the summit? How much thrill can that be standing on top of the world and having your mother telling you to be careful and make sure you bundle up. “Hi, mom, yes I’ll be careful. Yes, I’ll keep warm.”
What seems so odd is that computers and word processing may have simplified the writing process but they have not improved the output of writing. What the word processor means is that we just waste more time on nonsense things. We spend more time at the computer doing things other than actual writing. Fyodor Dostoevsky didn’t have a computer when he wrote the thousand-page plus Crime and Punishment. He had a pen that he dipped in ink. I had my Hermes, my typewriter that I lugged around the world with me, and I thought I was very sophisticated. It served me well.
We call our lifestyles today progress, a push-button, throwaway society. We may lament the past but there’s no going back. Only a fool would take up a quill and inkwell and sit down to compose a novel. We may like the old days but there are no time machines to take us there. We have advanced to an age where we are compelled to remain, and to survive we must adapt. This is the electronic age. Writer Robin Dannhrn fought progress for a long time. He felt that to write well, to get the feeling for writing, he had to use a pen. Not a ballpoint pen but a genuine ink pen. “I like to feel a pen in my fingers. I feel closer to my work,” he used to say. He wrote in long hand and then had a typist type out his copy. Maybe one or two changes were needed. When typists became harder to come by, he was forced to get a typewriter and to learn to type. Then he graduated to an electric typewriter. He was reluctant to tell me he was using an electric typewriter. And finally, after all these years, Robin bought a computer. He had to. Editors no longer want hard copy. He grumbles and moans and he gets frustrated when paragraphs disappear and all sorts of things happen. He was forced to join the modem age but he still laments the passing of pen and ink.
One writer that refused to give up the typewriter was Bernard Trink at the Bangkok Post. He had an old beat-up typewriter the size of a boxcar and every week he pounded out his Night Owl column, sitting there at his cluttered desk, with photos of half-naked Thai bar girls pasted on the walls. He had such a wide reading audience that the management had to put up with his idiosyncrasies. They feared if they did let him go they’d lose readers. Eventually, however, the management let Trink go, to the disappointment of his readers.
I find it interesting to scrutinize some of the old hand-written manuscripts by the old masters. The margins are filled with scribbling and notes that are hardly legible. I remember, when I worked in the office of Jefferson Caffery, the American Ambassador in Paris, seeing a typewritten letter on the ambassador’s desk from a writer. It was a personal message, and I can’t remember the subject matter, but I do remember all the cross outs and corrections. It looked like a chicken with muddy feet had walked across the letter. The letter was written and signed Ernest Hemingway.
I often think about Margaret Mitchell. She didn’t have a computer. Can we say her pitfall was that she wrote by hand? Hardly. And yet she had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 for her immensely successful novel, Gone with the Wind, published the year before. The novel is one of the most popular books of all time, selling more copies, than any other hard-cover book, apart from the Bible, and is reputed to be still selling at 200,000 copies a year, An American film adaptation, released in 1939, became the highest-grossing film in the history of Hollywood, and received a record-breaking number of awards. Gone With the Wind was Mitchell’s only published novel. She was struck and killed by a speeding automobile in 1949. She was forty-eight years old. At her request, upon her death, the original manuscript (except for a few pages retained to validate her authorship) and all other writings were destroyed. Of course, we have to conclude, had she written on a computer her destroyed works could be recovered. These works included a novella in the Gothic style, a ghost story set in an old plantation home left vacant after the Civil War. According to the recollections of Lois Cole, a friend of Mitchell’s and a Macmillan employee, three people had read this tale (written before Gone With the Wind) and thought it was worth publishing by one of the bigger publishing houses. Cole suggested that Mitchell enter it in the Little, Brown novelette contest.
One pitfall that many writers fall into is to accept offers to join writer’s clubs and writers’ groups that offer quick ways to fame and fortune. I learned my lesson in the beginning when I joined one writers’ club, and for $49.95 a month, I communicated with others who were in the same boat as me. How marvelous to know I wasn’t alone. How inspiring. I corresponded with dozens of beginning writers like myself. We exchanged notes and ideas. We criticized each other’s work. We confessed our faults. We fed on each other’s weaknesses. Then one day it came to me, of the two or three thousand members, not one of them was a published writer. They were all wannabe writers. They were all dreamers wanting for someone else to whip them into shape. Did I need to spend $49.95 a month to tell me this? After the first month or two in the club I got to thinking, why do I want to communicate with writers like me who are struggling? When I checked the list of subscribers there wasn’t one named writer on the index. What sheer folly these clubs promise the inexperienced beginning writer. They provide, they say, a base for networking, invaluable writing resources update on the writing industry, writers’ local and overseas markets, worldwide jobs, freelance opportunities, and much more! Words, words, words. I must say, their word are impressive. The members, however, may not have been professional but the people who run these organization certainly are when it comes to giving advice for a price. One provider I noticed offered services to writers such as seminars and discussion groups. For the small sum of $500 I could join a writer’s seminar for a three-day weekend. Not a writer’s course but for a weekend. A hotel around the corner from the workshop offers a discount at $99 per night, single occupancy.
I did more homework. In one widely read and well-recommended writers’ guidebook there was a list of highly recommended proofreaders. I questioned a professional proofreader about this, a young lady who worked for a large publication firm in Los Angeles. I asked her why she didn’t list her name with the mentioned writers’ guidebook and earn a few extra dollars for herself. She said it was too costly. She explained she’d have to pay an exorbitant sum of money to have her name listed in the publication. Did I hear right? She would have to pay to be put on a recommended list! Does that mean the recommendations in the writers’ guide are there because they paid a bundle of money and not necessarily because they are good at the trade? We can call that a scam.