There is a reason why many writers do not remain in the small towns of Kansas to achieve their recognition. There are no writing environments to keep them.
A “writing environment” is a place where inexperienced but committed writers assemble for the purpose of learning about writing from each other. It is a place where “being a writer” is an authentic identity.
Ever since the writing of stories and novels became a cultural and social influence, writers have been forced to find each other to offset the despair of estrangement. The turbulence of the tragedy, drama, comedy, and outrage they carry, drives them unconventional. They want to change their time which rejects them as rebels. Being unusual, they are judged as peculiar.
In the early 1920’s and 1930’s, many writers left their rigid communities. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Nathaniel West, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller –all found acceptance in France, England, Italy, Spain —where the “writer” was accorded respect. They met in cafes, garrets, cellars, apartments. They established clubs, associations. They never doubted they would become famous. Their astonishing dream was more inspiriting than their aloof society.
The expense of living in Europe today is prohibitive. So the writers who will one day become important leave Wichita, Topeka, Manhattan, Kansas City, and travel to the coastal cities where such writing communities exist. They meet each other and take the stand of “I am a writer” and do not feel like outcasts.
There are no instantly famous writers. Writing is work.
Writers are always broke, and gloomy. They grub for their subsistence, they hustle for the rent, bang away at odd jobs that keep them going one more month, to finish their novel.
In the late 1940’s when I began writing, I moved, played poker with, and bummed about with other writers who would not give up. Mario Puzo had four children and worked in the post office for maybe $60 a week. William Styron was just out of the Navy and straining to be understood through his southern accent while writing Lie Down In Darkness. Jack Kerouac was suicidal because his first novel Town and the City was hardly read. Thomas Berger still had some hair while plugging at his Crazy in Berlin novel. Norman Mailer had just published The Naked and the Dead and was preparing his personality for fame. One day Puzo, after reading Joseph Heller’s novel, flung the pages across the room and said, “It’s nothing. It’ll never sell.” The novel was Catch 22.
We were writers serving our apprenticeship of obscurity.
We sought each other’s company. Not because we liked each other. We were writers. We were competitive, envious, lonely. We all knew we would make money and become famous. There was no other way to live, no other person to be. A writer.
Where is that writing environment in the cities and small towns of Kansas? Tell someone you’re a struggling writer and they ask you what you do for work.
Closet writers usually turn to dust in the closet, or get involved in computer programming.
There are thousands of young writers hidden in Kansas. Their dream hurts in them. Fearfully they whisper, “Help me. Find me,” and are hardly heard. They want to give Kansas a heritage and are ignored. They must openly and heartily declare “I am a writer!” and seek each other’s company, or they are only frustrated, repressed individuals hurrying into peculiarity.
(first published June 10, 1984 The Manhattan Mercury)
©by Leonard Bishop