I worked in the Hallmark public relations department for a man named Conrad Knickerbocker, the public relations manager, who had already begun publishing book reviews and fiction. After I got to know Knick a little, I asked him timidly how you become a writer. . . . He said, “Rhodes, you apply ass to chair.” I call that solid gold advice the Knickerbocker Rule.
Although it is not necessary for a writer to be a prick, neither does it hurt. A writer is an eternal outsider, his nose pressed against whatever window on the other side of which he sees his material. Resentment sharpens his eye, hostility hones his killer instinct.
Answer: None. The light bulb doesn't need to change; it's just the wrong-headed traditional publishing establishment that expects light bulbs to shed light!
There is a scene in Stanley Ellin’s first novel, The Winter After This Summer, in which a young guy being tossed out of college stops by to have a last drink with a favorite professor, and the older man says to the kid, “What are you going to do now? What do you want to be?” And the kid thinks about it for a moment and replies, “Well, I don’t want to be a writer.” And the professor toasts him, saying, “That’s good. There are already too many people around who mistake a love of reading for a talent for writing.” And that is my advice to young writers, too. Forget it. Take up plumbing or electrical wiring. The money is vastly better, and the work-hours are more reasonable, and when your toilet overflows, you don’t want Dostoevsky coming to your house.
So when I teach workshops, or lecture to “writers’ groups,” I do my best to discourage as many as possible. This is in no way an attempt to lessen the competition, because I truly, deeply believe that writers are not in competition with each other. What I write, Joyce Carol Oates can’t write; what Ms. Oates writes, Donald Westlake can’t write; and what Kafka did has already been done, all that Hemingway bullshit about “pulling against Chekhov and that all time fast gun heavyweight puncher Tolstoy” notwithstanding. (Hemingway meant, it is now generally accepted, not that one had to go mano-a-mano with any other writer, but that in the words of John Simon—”there is no point in saying less than your predecessors have said.”)
In the burning core of what I believe to be true about the art and craft of writing, I know that one cannot discourage a real writer. Like von Kleist, “I write only because I cannot stop.” And that is the way of it for a real writer, not for the fuzzyheaded dreamer or parvenu who thinks it’s an easy way to make fame and fortune. You can break a real writer’s hands, and s/he will tap out the words with nose or toes. Anyone who can be discouraged, should be. They will be happier and more useful to the commonweal as great ballerinas, fine sculptors, sensitive jurists, accomplished historians, imaginative historians.
From a technical point of view there are two essential things to solve or create when writing a novel. The first is the invention of the narrator. I think the narrator is the most important character in a novel. In some cases this importance is obvious because the narrator is also a central figure, a central character in the novel. In other cases, the narrator is not a character, not a visible figure, but an invisible person whose creation is even more complicated and difficult than the creation of one of the characters.
Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for love. . . . You must do it for love. If you do it for money, no money will ever be enough, and eventually you will start imitating your first successes, straining hot water through the same old teabag. It doesn't work with tea, and it doesn't work with writing.
I think what's most disturbing about success is that it's very hazardous to your health, as well as to your daily routine. Not only are there intrusions on your time, but there is a kind of corrosion of your own humility and sense of necessary workmanship. You get the idea that anything you do is in some way marvelous.
The writer is both a sadist and a masochist. We create people we love, and then we torture them. The more we love them, and the more cleverly we torture them along the lines of their greatest vulnerability and fear, the better the story. Sometimes we try to protect them from getting booboos that are too big. Don’t. This is your protagonist, not your kid.
A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he's supposed to be doing.
Know the story before you fall in love with your first sentence. If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you? Just an ordinary kind, just a mediocre kind – making it up as you go along, like a common liar.
I am a trader of jacks and a jack of all trades!
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