by Leonard Bishop, Author of Dare To Be A Great Writer
Before addressing myself to letters I have received about questions on writing, I will first state my attitude. I read each letter carefully and regard each letter seriously. I’m not argumentative or tyrannical, assertive, cynical, or belittling. Out there, wherever the Manhattan Mercury is distributed, there are people who are interested in writing or want to become writers. I am not some how-to-write book-thumper evangelizing that writing is the way to salvation. I have some information writers can use. I am happy to part with it. I am not arrogant, but I am not exceptionally tactful. I am a professional writer and I care for people who want to write.
The first letter is from someone who states he doesn’t remember my name, where I live, nor the name of the column. He has misspelled the name of the newspaper and signs his name as though an ill chicken was squatting on the paper:
From: a nebulous inquiry: “Who is the author of the work of, recurring phrase, if not the title… “The heathen Chinee”…?
Answer: I know the author and work, but I do not intend telling you. I am a writer, not a library researcher. Any fact that I can find for you, you can find for yourself. If you are unable to get around because of physical disability, I’ll direct you to some agency that will provide you with assistance. They will even bring you the books you need. If you have no, “literate” friends to appeal to, there are many correspondence clubs to contact. They are eager to fulfill the needs of lonely, isolated, or socially timid people. Thank you for your inquiry.
There are two parts to the next letter which I will answer in two parts. This reader is in vigorous disagreement with the statement I wrote about the joy and happiness there is in being a writer. He claims to know that writing is “hard work” and says “I hate hard work. Hard work is hard. It’s painful. It causes suffering.”
Answer: Report the one who is standing over you with the shotgun and forcing you to write. That should relieve you of the suffering you are experiencing when writing. Then you no longer have to aspire to be more than what you are now. You can use the remainder of your time sagged before the TV set, glutting on food, letting your spine turn to warm noodles and your mind into melting Vaseline.
Work is hard only when you are working at what you dislike, what shames you, what leaves you ungratified. There are two essential requirements that writers must begin with before they begin “making their mark” as writers. Character and interest. They must have both, at the same time. One without the other is like having a hand without a wrist. Go into dentistry: it’s always more fun pulling out someone else’s tooth.
This letter writer also claims “I write about tragic confusion… About the catastrophes of ordinary life. I write about impoverished minds.” He also states that he has even spent seven years–“because I hate hard work”–completing a 600 page novel and “If the book is never published at all, I will still know in my heart of hearts that I have created a work of art…”
Answer: The primary intention of the writer is to tell a story, reveal depths of human character, to entertain, to create an interesting fictional reality. Reading about tragic confusion or catastrophes of ordinary life and impoverished minds is about as interesting as watching a beetle urinate on a gladiola. It is abstract, vague, and tasteless as numbed teeth.
People want to read about magnificent catastrophes cities leveled by hurricanes and bombs, and about the people caught in the disasters. They want horror and terror stories in which people are helpless against the supernatural, the homicidally insane. They want to read about love, about heroes and heroines. They want romantic sagas, enchanting fantasy novels, dazzling ministries, astonishing galactic events. They are not interested in mite-minded writers who wallow in whining and banality. They don’t want to read about the troubles they already have in exactly the way they have them. They want entertainment, not reminders of their perpetual misery.
As for the “work of art” you have created–you are diddling with yourself. Most publishers are dense, without business acumen, and devoid of “literary taste”. But even they can recognize a “work of art.” There has not been a work of “writing art” published in the last 20 years. I doubt if you are the one who will break that deplorable record.
This letter is from a woman who wants to write children’s books and is stalled in her efforts because there are no people she can talk to about writing. “Would you perhaps know of any group of reasonable, sane and well behaved people in the area who meet in order to read or talk over their writing?”
Answer: I know your problem (having lived in Kansas for over a year) and it is serious. But I do not know of any writing groups in the area. I’m sure there must be some. Why they keep hidden is beyond me. People need each other. Writers need other writers. It keeps them from feeling exiled and alone. In their struggle to learn, they heal hurts and help each other learn. The only way I can help you is to publish your entreaty and hope that some people who belong to a writing group will respond. I will keep your letter and forward any replies that are sent to me.
I appeal to any writing groups in the area to contact me so I can apprise her of your existence. Remember, you were once in the same desperate spot she is in now. Writers should care for each other.
©Copyright Leonard Bishop
(first published June 30, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)