Discouragement from family
When I went out into the streets of New York and began walking, I was heartsick. No one was going to help me. The world was against my being a writer, everyone, my own family, my wife, my wife’s family, friends. I grew angrier. To hell with them all. What did they expect me to do-die? “I’ll tell you what you can do, Mr. Sullivan, and all the rest of you,” I waved a fist and shouted to the city. “You can go to hell, Mr. Sullivan. All of you can go to hell.” I was going to be a writer as long as there was a ‘me.’ I refused to give up. When I make it-not if but when-I vowed that I would help struggling writers one day. I try to keep that vow and some, I hope, have benefited. But let’s get back to my story.
Sad at heart, I returned to my government job and my apartment in Washington. “When are you going to France for Life magazine?” my wife asked when I returned home. Not wanting to admit failure, I said to her that another writer had come up with the idea before me. “Too bad,” she said. She couldn’t begin to fathom my hurt.
So it was back to my government job and a degree from Georgetown University in Political Science. But I didn’t give up the desire to write. Every morning before dawn, while my wife slept, I wrote my short stories and magazine articles exactly as the books said to do and secretly sent them off to magazines. I had to hide the rejection slips that came back. I read more books on how to write, but the rejects continued to grow.
Then came my first break. It happened that one of my colleagues at work had a cousin who ran a writing service called Technical Writers Associates. The cousin was looking for someone to prepare a script on the operation and maintenance of the McCormick International five-ton road scraper-not exactly Jack London’s Call of the Wild, but at least a writing assignment. I took on the task and finished the script. I could now call myself a technical writer. It was then I got the idea to query The Writer’s Digest about writing an article for them on technical writing. The magazine accepted it.
I received my first check for writing, a respectable $200, from The Writer’s Digest. What a thrill. I spent twenty dollars to have the story framed and mounted behind glass and I was pleased to tell my wife that I could make it as a writer. “You still fooling around with that writing stuff?” she said and returned to the Vogue magazine she was reading. The real damaging blow to my self-esteem came when my wife and I attended a party the following Saturday night, and she told everyone that I had landed my first big sale. The lady of the house gave me a big hug and announced out loud for all to hear, “I won’t ask how much, but I hope it’s a million.”
“The trouble is that you are ungrateful,” my wife said after detecting something was wrong when we got home. “If you want to write so badly, then maybe you had better go off some place and write.” I followed her advice-after our divorce. I packed up and went to Tahiti to live and become a writer. That is more or less what happened.
After setting up my Hermes typewriter on a bamboo table in a grass shack on Tahiti, I wrote to magazine editors with story ideas from the South Seas. Would you believe, editors were interested. They were interested all right, but it was not what I had in mind. Reporters began to arrive in Tahiti with letters of introduction from New York editors. They came to write about me, an author living in paradise. It didn’t matter that I had written only one magazine article in my whole entire life. I was a writer in paradise, and that’s all that mattered. Stories about me appeared in newspapers and magazines, but not with my byline. And there were no paychecks.
Still, I wouldn’t give up.
Even beautiful Tahiti, it seemed, was working against me. In the 1960s, the French government decided to tum French Polynesia into their private nuclear testing ground. In defiance to protests from the rest of the world, or maybe a kind of morbid celebration for their Bastille Day, every July they planned to detonate a few super bombs. What a story! I queried Argosy, a good solid men’s magazine in New York, and the editor was interested. Hallelujah! l wrote the story. l didn’t simply write it. I labored over it. I checked it and rechecked it. There was not a mistake on a single page, not even a smudge mark. Despite my unerring devotion, it was rejected. I had reached the lowest ebb in my writing career. No one was buying my stories. I was heartbroken. What had gone wrong? The editor had wanted the story and when I sent it, he didn’t want it. What to do now?
And I was broke, penniless in paradise. Most often I didn’t even have enough money to buy stamps to post my manuscripts. The un-mailed manuscripts stood on my desktop like a row of grave markers in a cemetery. Years were slipping by. I was in my thirties and I had sold only one story, and even that one could hardly be classified as literature. The only income I could muster up was the occasional fee from tour guiding when a cruise ship came into Papeete, or at other times as an extra in movies filmed in Tahiti. Films about Tahiti and the South Seas were becoming popular with Hollywood-Mutiny on the Bounty, the TV series Adventures in Paradise, Tiare Tahiti and a whole raft of others, but an extra in movies wasn’t my calling in life. I had to do something, and I was tired of accepting free beers from the girls at Quinn’s Tahitian Hut bar when a ship was in.
I knew inside myself that my writing was improving. I spent hours perfecting my craft, writing every day, without fail. I even read the dictionary, page by page. I treated it like it was a novel. I practiced writing by keeping a journal with descriptions of people and places. I copied down the dialogue from the people I met. But none of this sold stories. I had to go to New York to talk to the editors, to find out what they really wanted. I sold my Hermes typewriter and cameras, booked a berth aboard a Messageries Maritimes cargo ship to Panama and hitch hiked through Central America to New York.