A Pair of Persistent Threats

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

There are two persistent threats that intimidate all inexperienced writers who want to write novels. And unless they avoid those threats, they will never write their novels. When I was instructing at the University of California, in Berkeley, I repeated, to the point of nagging, “A novel is not thought out, all at once. The writer does not know all he must write, when he begins.” The student-writers who attended that insight eventually published novels.

I learned that insight many years ago through an experience that was not related to the writing of novels.

I was living in San Francisco with my first family. We had a three room apartment on the fringe of the Chinese section. I had a novel ‘soon-to-be published’ at Random House, but the advance money had already been spent. We were cramped and uncomfortable. Then I sold a television script to “Naked City” and another to “Rawhide” and decided to use the money to buy a house. It would be the first house I ever owned.

Real estate prices were irrationally high. I finally located one in the outer mission area. It looked like it was dropped from a mashed Cracker-Jack’s box. The floor sagged, the walls were cracked, the concrete foundation was just clots of talcum powder. The window frames were warped, you could see the sky through the ceiling. I called it “Blight Manor.”

Because my high school background was in “the trades” and not general academics, I was not frightened by this ramshackle residence. I isolated the jumble of defects and viewed them individually. I could shingle a roof. Change siding. Re-do the plumbing. Replace the faulty wiring. I knew that with patience, skill, and persistence, I could restore the house into becoming solid and livable. I did not panic myself by realizing, all at once, all that I had to do.

The same vision is necessary when deciding to write a novel.

After the fullness of the novel is realized by the writer, it should be viewed from a vision that is deliberately short-sighted to prevent the writer from becoming over whelmed by all that he must do. When considered, all at once, what a novel contains, and what the writer must know, it is impossible to write a novel.

Though a novel is written in an accumulative manner, it is not always written with progressing regularity. Often the writer creates scenes out of sequence. Sometimes because he is stuck and cannot continue the sequence he is on. Or because he knows exactly how a later scene should be written and he doesn’t want to lose it. Sometimes he writes out of sequence because that is how he feels. A novelist does not allow himself to realize, all at once, all that he must not yet know about the novel he is writing. If he admits to this dreadful recognition, he will not begin the novel. He understands that more of the novel is hidden within him, than has been revealed to him when first conceiving it. Past experience encourages him to know he will be able to dredge up from himself all that he will have to know.

Novelists are always dabbling with miniature outlines. They write for a while and then the material begins suggesting content they were not aware of before. Extensions of character, complications of plot, background scenes, etc. When that happens, the writer stops the novel and works up a short outline. It is a “learning” outline used for clearer direction.

Nor does the writer allow himself to realize all the defects in his writing, all at once. Such an awareness, while he is writing, would paralyze him. While he is writing he is aware of when he is writing poorly. He plods on. He rushes slowly. He will repair the defects when rewriting.

He is not searching for the refinements of prose, the refinements of craft, the refinements of meaning. He is reaching for the astonishment of drama. If what he writes is truly dramatic, he will inherently have incorporated the refinements of prose, craft, and meaning in the drama.

The scene you planned to do in nine pages becomes overwritten if you use three. You believe you would need 4 sub-plots to create suspense and complication. But no one in the profession of writing has ever satisfactorily defined what a sub-plot is–or how it is consciously accomplished. You intended to kill the hero at the end. But three quarters into the novel you learn that if the hero dies, the conclusion is pointless. Etc.

Experienced novelists always anticipate change and long intervals of ignorance when they begin a novel. They do not distress themselves by thinking of the entire novel, in detail. Nor do they frighten themselves with the admission of all they do not know and all they must learn before completing the novel. No experienced novelist ever knows what he is doing, all the time, all at once.

©2013 the Estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published January 26, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)

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We Grow Through Time

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

I enjoy remembering, but I do not believe in photograph albums. They are bulky, and troublesome to maintain. There are always stacks of pictures in the drawer, waiting to be placed on the pages.

Years ago I decided “No more albums,” and began searching the thrift stores for used frames. Whenever I settle and build myself a studio, I hang the photographs on the walls. I am surrounded by my history, by the people I love, by memories. Wherever I look, there I am, where I used to be.

There I am in 1944, a few weeks before D-Day. I’m wearing a broad brimmed fedora, my jacket was wide, padded shoulders, and I’m sneering. If it had not been for that photograph me and three other kids would’ve robbed and mugged the greatest symphony conductor of the time Arturo Toscanini.

We had it carefully cased and planned. He conducted a weekly radio program from Rockefeller Center in New York City. He had a large rented home in Riverdale outside of the city proper. He was driven to the 49th Street entrance in a luxurious Chevrolet. He was a punctual man. Short with flaring white hair. Skinny, rat-eyed, natty. We were told he carried a wad of bills in his pocket to pay for the nightclubbing he did after performances. We were dressed neatly in borrowed zoot-suits to blend with the crowds of respectable people and soldiers.

Then a street photographer working the area snapped our pictures and poked the receipt into our pockets. If we mailed him a dollar– it could be in postage stamps– he would send us the photographs. We wanted to kill him.  If we had mugged the “Great Toscanini” the cops would have learned of our presence on the street and could’ve gotten our pictures. We walked away. A few months later I sent for my picture.

There I am in 1939 lifting weights in an institution for ‘the social correction of delinquents.’ It was about 6 miles from Eastport, in Maine. Big chest, bulging shoulders, trim waist, stallion legs.

Eleven years later, in 1950, I was in New York City, just starting to become a writer, and I was forced into hiding. There was a catch-a-communist frenzy on. A senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, was on a rampage for personal publicity. He used the Communists as his lever.

In 1937 I joined the Young Communist League. It was the only place where you could get free donuts and coffee, and be taught how to lift weights. Ironically, the Young Communist League was one of the few organizations that was not considered subversive. I had signed their membership, Hymie Cockamamie.

There I am in 1959 holding my youngest son, Matthew, about a year old. Behind us is a bulky television set with a screen the size of a book page. It was a day when my first wife thought I was a stupid envious man.

Around 1958, we had gone to a party and met a tall, soft-faced blonde guy named Charles Van Doren. His family were noted scholars and literary critics and I immediately disliked him. He believed my novels were too raw. I said he was a superficial punk living off his family’s reputation.

And there he was, a television star, answering questions that could earn him $64,000 on the television quiz-show. I said,” I don’t believe he knows that much. You heard me talking to him. I had to give the creep the definition of eclecticism. He’s a know-nothing.” She claimed I was just an uneducated lout who didn’t know the sex of the Statue of Liberty.

On November 16, of that year, Charles Van Doren walked into the House Caucus Room and testified that he had been fed the answers to the quiz. I pitied the poor child, but I Did envy the money he made.

There I am, in 1939, standing in front of the high school with two satin streamers across my chest.” Second Best Dancer” and ” Second Best Looking.” The only reason I came in second in those two categories was because the guy who came in first had gotten to the voting committee before me. With strong-armed intimidation. You could win any high school poll. I was wearing my older brother’s suit.

I have seen the studios of other writers. They have paintings and books, fan letters and book jackets, accolading reviews and some photographs of their families framed on their walls. Few ever used their walls as a gallery portraying their past.

I enjoy looking at and remembering all those yesterdays. I feel continuous, moved along with time. I did not become what I am right now, right now. I have been grown like a gardenia or weed, through time. I am connected to a social and personal history. In those times when I was photographed, I am fixed and unchanging. I will always be the same even while I am becoming more, and older.

©2013 The Estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published October 27, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)

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The Writer’s Life: A Social Vacuum

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Don’t quit your present employer to become a professional writer until you have learned how to be alone. It is not the lack of talent or skill that stops someone from succeeding as a professional writer. Talent can be faked and skill is an acquired ability. A dominant preventative is the inability of the writer to be alone for long stretches of time.

Everyone who wants to become a professional writer believes they can achieve this career if only they had enough time for their writing. If they could only get out from under the pressure of their employment, they could make it. It isn’t only the 40 hours of work they have to do, it is also the after-effects of their job. The winding down, the fatigue, the additional responsibilities that stop them. The need for a family and social life. This is a complaint, but it is not the reality.

The moment you consciously decide upon the career of being a writer you immediately fix yourself into a condition of futility. There are already enough writers in the world. One more is not an important addition. Anything you want to write has already been written and too much of it is better than anything you will ever write. The writer is not encouraged, not supported, not accredited with a sense of responsibility while he is unpublished. He’s just another loser diving into the vast ocean of failure.

And when, after years of learning his craft, he does get published, what happens? It takes the general public about three days to read a novel some writer has taken two or three years to write. There may be accolades and money for the writer whose novel becomes popular. But in a few months that popular novel is forgotten. And for the writer whose novel does not become popular, there are no accolades or money. Few people have heard of what he has written. But popular or anonymous, the writer has to write another novel because that is his profession.

Most of the writer’s day is lived in a social vacuum. He cannot have other people around when he is writing. People–a beloved spouse, an adored child, a worshiped God–are distractions. Their presence in his writing time become restraints on his freedom to plunge into depth or rush into height. They rattle the stability of his concentration. They cloud his search for the dramatic instant of character and conflict.

The writer must always be alone, if he is to write. And in that condition of ” aloneness” he struggles against an unconquerable enemy–his hidden Self. It is a Self he can avoid only by partaking in the entertainments and diversions of society. As non-writer people do. But when he is alone and writing for long stretches of time, that Enemy-Self is always there, waiting to defeat him. To stop him from writing.

Within those hours of aloneness. There is a rampant fantasy and fear. All the doubts he feels about himself are thrust into his consciousness, with impact. He returns to his past–as he writes to fulfill his future. His present is the idea. But his past is the content. And there is always more greed than generosity, more shame than self-appreciation. He has lied, abused, deceived, betrayed, cheated many more people than have been that corrupt to him. He is without his glittering disguises. He is alone.

He moans in pain about the success of other writers he knows are inferior to himself. He sweats with an inner-humiliation for believing that so many other writers are more competent and luckier than he is. Even as he writes to enrich his life–he knows he is wasting his life. Where are all of the bestsellers he knew he was to write? Where are the illustrious prizes he believed he would win? Where are the world shaking profundities he aspired to create? Where is the universal recognition?

Only the professional writer who has been writing for years is able to withstand the maddening pressure that comes from the enemy within his Self. The professional writer cannot ever defeat that enemy. He can merely develop protective insulations. So the Enemy-Self cannot stop his writing. These insulations are comprised of cashmere illusions and angora hypes. ” This novel is the big one, the megabuck getter, the barn burner!” This hype is an enemy-proof wrapping cocooned about his ego. The source of these hypes of are often unreasonable hopes and irrational faith. He creates them to occupy his aloneness.

But it takes years of apprenticeship-writing to live alone with yourself before you can devise these insulations. You become a professional writer, gradually. By learning how to be alone, one part of the day at a time. By sneaking some writing in on your lunch hour. By writing after your employment day is over. By controlling your after-work time and writing one, two hours an evening. Or before going to work. Day after day becoming more and more familiar with the Enemy-Self–so you can learn all the tactics, ploys and stratagems it uses against you.

And while you are learning to live in aloneness, you are also writing. Giving yourself evidence of talent, skill, and achievement. Until you can handle despair, depression, dilemma, and the threatening defeats you feel when you are alone–for long periods of time. Then when you can create an invulnerable inner-life and not ruin or disrupt the lives of others by your being a professional writer– then quit your job and take your chances. There is still room in the world for your great size.

© 2013 The Estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published January 19, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)


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Write a Novel? Invent Life

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Let’s get to the plot-line. A plot-line is the razzle-dazzle and suspense of the story. Here are some exaggerated examples to use as a guide.

If you are writing a first-person novel (telling the story of what happened from a personal viewpoint,) an excellent structure can be found in the old-time silent movie serials. Pearl White, a two-gun heroine of the West, is chased by dastardly bank robbers. Furiously, she rides her horse to a cliff’s edge, and plunges over. The camera shows her tumbling down to the rocky canyon below. The scene ends.

Next week’s installment, (the next chapter) opens with Pearl hurtling down. But, she catches onto a branch jutting from the cliff-side and is saved. She climbs up and gets away. The series continues into another adventure.

If you have a dual plot-line (conducted through a third-person) using the viewpoints of several people, bring in the silent film serial of the Lone Ranger. He and Pearl are lovers but events are always interrupting their affairs; separating them. Alternate between what happens to Pearl and the Lone Ranger. If you want a triple plot-line, turn Tonto into a villain. Go from one plot-line to another plot-line in any sequence that is interesting and suspenseful.

A plot-line is merely a series of events which are connected through the lives of the characters. Each scene should be a complete unit that pushes the plot further, and deepens the characters. Scenes should have a conclusion, but not a final ending. Open-ended scenes will allow your entry into other scenes. Events should be happening all the time.

There are only two other writing techniques–foreshadowing and linking–that you need as basics for writing your novel. Foreshadowing is like a barely audible whisper concealed in the scene, telling the reader about another scene that will appear later on. When Red riding Hood’s mother warns her about the wolf, and the girl answers, ” I’ll be careful. The wolf won’t catch me,” you are telling the reader that later on, the wolf will probably find her.

Linkage is a device used for connecting the several characters through the several plot-lines. When Red Riding Hood is warned of the wolf, you can now shift to a scene of what the wolf is thinking and doing. When the wolf determines that she is going to her grandmother’s, you can shift to a scene about what the grandmother is thinking and doing. You have linked their lives and plot-lines through a common interest.

Restrain yourself from politicizing, sermonizing, or philosophizing. It is all been said before. Your philosophy will be revealed by what happens to your characters. The character of your characters, and how they relate to each other, will be your sermon. How your characters deal with society, and what society does to them, expresses your political views.

Don’t dwaddled or meander when you begin your novel. Put your major character, (your self) and other characters into critical situations that force them to take action. Immediately. Don’t landscape the countryside, described the city, document the historical background. You can do that after something happens to your people. Plunge right into the novel.

Avoid lengthy dialogues where people stand around telling each other what they already know. Example:” Well, Martin, now that we’ve been married 18 years, and have three children, and two boys and a girl, and you’re an engineer earning $7,965 a month, and we still have $150,000 left on our mortgage, how do you feel about our president’s economic policies?” Let your characters say what they must say and get on with the action.

Use sex scenes only when they contribute to the plot and change relationships. Do not be excessively graphic about describing anatomical endowments and where the odd-shaped parts fit. Control your exuberance for portraying erotic spectaculars and fleshly panoramas. Readers want emotional revelations when characters couple–not for fornicative instruction.

Growing up in a small community, and remaining there, is not a deterrent for writing a novel. Writers are people who have perceptions and insights into the human experience, wherever they live. A writer travels without leaving home. Living in a small community does not retard your mind or paralyze your sensitivities. Only evaluating your life as banal and undramatic can gradually render you into a lethargic slug.

Writing a novel about yourself is not a total answer for over-coming boredom, television, the idol-worshipers of sports, and other anesthetizing activities used for avoiding reality. But it is a positive, bold move into the discovery of yourself. Find out who you are. You might be hiding from someone you can love. You might find others worth loving. And remember, the Great American Novel is still waiting to be written–again.

I have offered up only the beginnings of what should be known about writing a novel. You’ll learn the rest through your writing. Begin today, and in one year, I will expect letters from people telling me I am inept, superficial, and dumb–and then instructing me on how to write a novel. Good. I would appreciate that instruction. I am old, but not that old. Ha.

Leonard Bishop

©2013 The Estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published December 1, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)

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Write A Novel? Let’s Pretend (repost)

by Leonard Bishop

(For our friends who need to be reminded…it IS possible to write a novel!  And Leonard tells us the first step!)

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

A late general complaint from all people who want to write novels is:” I’d love to write a novel–but I don’t know what to write about–or where to begin.” That is a mediocre excuse for not writing a novel. It is only when you do not view your life as an adventure you have miraculously survived, that you do not have anything to write about.

The greatest contribution to all novel writing is the writer’s dramatic vision. You must see your life as dramatic. Viewing yourself as ” everyone” or” anyone” reduces all the hurt, fear, worry, disappointment, loneliness, abuse, and reaching out for happiness into an experience so common it was not worth enduring. You must believe your own life is a stack of novels already lived and realized, and waiting to be written.

The universal substances in all literature of any nation is based on the dramatized account of the” young man\young woman” in search of self, of place, of soul, of love. From Homer’s Odyssey of Ulysses to the sprawling structure of James Joyce’s Ulysses there are thousands of other ” youth adventure” novels that have been written. Crime and Punishment, Moby Dick, David Copperfield, Nana, Anna Karenina, Tom Jones, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” We have all lived an Odyssey that can be written about. You have kept your life secret and hidden and anonymous long enough. It is now time to give your life some creative visibility.

You could use the fairytale of Red Riding Hood as a model. You can use the story-structure and plot line as you know it–or modify and adapt it to fulfill what you need. You will be the major character. It can be an adventure story, a romance, a study of character relationships. It can be changed to an escape-and-rescue novel, or one of espionage, a fantasy, or a horror novel. It depends upon how interestingly you view an interval of your life and how inventive you are.

If you are 22 years old, or 37, or 58, find an event in your life in which you are most dramatic. An interesting, curious, shattering, sensational, bewildering, bitter, or joyous experience. Why you left your hometown or why you remained. You have never loved anyone or you have been hurt by all the people you have loved. Most of your days is a depression–or you are lusty with expectations. A time of anger, a time of laughter.

You have given your life to God, you are searching for God, you despise God. You’ve tried suicide–you intend to kill yourself tomorrow. You are alone. You drink too much, think too much about sex, have been in car accident and are crippled, hate animals, or fear growing old. If you are some or all of these people, you have many dramatic times to write about.

Fix yourself into the “time-of-yourself” you want to write about, and remained there for a while. Remember a little of what happened before that time, remember some of what happened after. Now begin writing about it. Put it in simple, direct compositional form. You will be given one continual, unvarying guarantee: whatever you write about will be awful.

Amateurish, and shockingly dumb. If anyone ever sees it, you will leave town ashamed. That is the first “creative experience” you must overcome. In your fantasy and hope, the writing was symphonic, spellbinding–in the actual writing it becomes a dribbling ditty. What did you expect? Instant perfection? You become a writer of novels because you believe you have a literary experience to offer. You remain a writer because you can persist, and continue. All it is costing you is time you would waste anyway.

Keep at it. You are about to embark on an errand that will be exciting and jammed with adventure. Change Red Riding Hood’s errand into another. Example: you are the mother of a child whose Frisbee is blown by the wind. The child chases it. A long black car stops. The driver grabs her. It is her father who does not have visitation rights. He will take her to Wyoming to live. You go after the child.

As a writer you are involved in the enterprise of pretend. You can be the little girl who was kidnapped. You can be the mother. Or the father. You can divide your perception and imagination to become all three. Do not limit your personality and character by viewing it from one surface.

See yourself as a many-fascinated diamond. Various, changeable, complex, unpredictable, interesting. Inside the diamond is a precious and marvelous light. Let this light glow through your many facets.

Not everyone who tries to write a novel will become a writer. But you can try, and through trying, realized if it is a day-dream or reality. Novelists are not born. They are creations of their own effort. Don’t lock your creative life away because you will not risk appearing dumb for a little while. Open the closet and let yourself out. You may be exceptional, and marvelous. The novel you have always wanted to write is ripe for being written–today.

© 2013 the Estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published November 10, 1985 the Manhattan Mercury)



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Who Will Cast The First Stone?

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

This is an apology to many easily forgettable best-selling writers.

Some not exceptionally enlightened college students taught me a lesson I was needing to learn for years. About how to be critical of other writers. While my “literary standards” are founded on experience and performance, my attitudes have not been sensible or wise.

I was having dinner in a fast food place. Some college seniors were crowded into the adjacent booth. They were talking about the writers they had been forced to read in their English literature classes.

“Why do we have to read James Joyce? He don’t even write English,” and, “Who cares what these old spazzes wrote? They are dead.”

While I could not fault their critical insights, I did object to their lack of respect for literary greats. They were young punks picking their pimples and jamming burgers through the braces on their teeth. They needed four hours to read directions on how to pour milk. Then I was startled to realize what I have said about some contemporary writers.

…If anyone remembers what Sidney Sheldon has written, five minutes after reading it, he has a serious mental problem.

…The deepest content put out by Danielle Steel could be pasted on the tip of a pin and would not dull the point.

…Anyone who believes the technical nonsense Tom Clancy writes has his mind screwed into a dead socket. The drivel that Judith Krantz publishes is drained from a lobotomy hole in someone’s head.

I have been unfair, unkind, superficial and pompous.

While no discerning reader would evaluate these best-selling writers as important and lasting–they cannot be judged as phonies. I believe they are honest people and should be respected. What they write is the best that they can write.

Their goals as writers is to earn as much money as is available and to become as universally famous as is possible.  Such intentions are not exceptional, nor are they sleazy. Any writer who aspires to lesser goals will probably reach them. It does not require awesome skill or an outstanding character to achieve anonymity and poverty.

Barbara Courtland gives it all she has, and Louis l’Amour did not hold back. Robert Ludlum, Gore Vidal, Harold Robbins, Andrew Greeley and Kurt Vonnegut Junior are still putting forth all they can release in their own unique and honest manners.

Literary theorists, critics and esoteric educators can propound the need to stimulate social awareness, to message-ize, to offer cultural salvation to the intellectually lost–but those are secondary issues, or gains.

The first and unchanging function of fiction writing is to entertain. Make me laugh or make me cry, but entertain me. Entertainment: something diverging or engaging; especially: a public performance. (Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary).

It is warped to believe that art is created to agonize, to enlighten you into assuming you are a guilt-stuffed sack getting fatter each year you lug it into your life. Or that you are trivial if you are not in serious search of the cosmic soul–that your life is not a contribution unless you are grim and angry to be free.

Art is an elastic generality– many-faceted and suitable for a diverse spectrum of interests. In its overall function, art is meant to bring you pleasure while you are undergoing the ordeal of real life.

These consistently best-selling writers should be admired. They experience the same fears and doubts and shocks about their careers that feeble selling writers experience. But they continue writing. They hold their whining to themselves. They are not publicly pounding their chests and wailing, “I’m an artist. Please love me!”

Writers whose novels are feeble sellers, or the very artistic who titillate the utter, utter effete critics and leave the public bored, have no genuine cause for mocking Stephen King, Jack Higgins. They are working writers fulfilling a reading need for the public that is equal to the offering of the “art for art’s sake” writers.

Listening to those college students slander Chaucer and Tolstoy, Dickens and Dostoevsky, forced me to remember all the slander I have focused on many best-selling writers. And I became weary with being intelligent and deep, with how incredibly important and superbly incisive I enjoy telling myself I am.

And I publicly apologize to all the writers I have maligned.

I know many “I write for immortality” writers who damn the best-selling authors while they foamed in envy of that high commercial skill. And many of those serious, endlessly dimensional writers would sell their medulla oblongata and impeccable integrities for a series of best sellers. I would not like to be put to the test–or would I?

© 2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published September 9, 1988 the Manhattan Mercury)

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Coffin Nails

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Our personalities are a collection of attitudes and affectations. We keep our true selves so deeply and continually hidden that we forget what we are genuinely like– and believe that we are what we pretend to be. The source of personality pretense I used was smoking cigarettes.

Through a skillful and cunning use of smoking a cigarette, I could become many poses, many sorts of people. When, over a year ago, I stopped smoking cigarettes, I experienced personality changes I still cannot totally manage. I am happy I no longer smoke. I am healthier. But I have forsaken some charming personality traits that were provided by smoking cigarettes.

At least ten intervals a day you are shown affection and concern because you smoke. I would be conversing with a group of people when suddenly I would hike my breath, goggly my eyes, then gasp, then begin coughing. I would hunch over, hug my chest, stamp my feet, mouth the air like a fish being raped, and begin turning all colors. There is always someone brave enough to risk interrupting what seemed like my heart attack, to pat my back and croon, “There, there,” then step back in case I dropped dead on top of him.

It was always sucking in my breath as though trying to swallow a cooked fish bone. If anyone was with me when I walked across the street, they became sad at how exhaustedly I panted and hoped I did not die of asthma or emphysema. Children would see the stains on my teeth and fingers and think I was slowly decaying.

I imitated actors and actresses who were dramatic smokers.

Bette Davis smoked marvelously. She used cigarettes as a baton, as a club, a stiletto. Just before she shot her lover, she always lit a cigarette. It was a living extension of her lower lip. She even exhaled with melodrama. A burst of smoke was rage. Slow streams oozing from her nostrils were meditation. When she leaned back, and breathed smoke to the moon, she was consenting to an illicit love affair. I was always in awe of the actor who could kiss a woman who smelled like a burning shoe.

Humphrey Bogart was a splendid cigarette smoker. As a real-life person, he was about as tough as melting vanilla. But when he spoke his lines through cigarette smoke, he gained menace, he became threatening. Half of his acting career consisted of lighting, holding, smoking, crushing out and lighting another, and staring through his cigarette smoke. Many times he was not smoking when he kissed an actress, but there was always an issue of smoke blanketing them. I suspected that a crew of firefighters stood on the movie set, holding water hoses, in case flames suddenly burst through his ears.

In an early 1940s movie, Four Daughters, there is an unforgettable scene. John Garfield, playing and itinerant music composer, is sitting at a piano playing one of his unfinished concertos. He is smoking a cigarette while he speaks on how Fate has flipped a coin and his future came up tails and he was a loser. Smoke trailed up from his cigarette as he spoke in a whimsical, plaintiff, sentimentally cynical voice. Then he would remove the cigarette and stare at the tip, longingly, sadly, and then exhale as though life was leaving him. Then stop playing even though the concerto was unfinished, and put out the cigarette. He was the master of not finishing his cigarettes.

When I was younger and being tough, I would smoke the cigarette so close to the end of my lip it looked like it was growing a fuming ember. I would stare at some tough guy and inhale some smoke and hold it in my body and not breathe until I was on the verge of death. I could snap cigarettes across a wide street. I would snip the burning tip off with my fingertips and put the remainder of the butt behind my ear. Many times it would still be lit and my hair would begin to smoke.

Once, I saw a movie villain put a cigarette out by crushing it in his palm. At a party, there was a succulent brunette I wanted to impress. While she watched, I slowly crushed the cigarette out in my palm. It was only after I stopped screaming did the doctor at the emergency clinic tell me I was an idiot.

When you’re a hobo doing the rails and the roads, you roll your own smoke. You always carry a small tin can with you. When you’re in some city, between drifts, you walk the streets picking up discarded butts. You shred them into the tin can to use them later on when you are done for the day and are sitting in some hobo jungle camp, ready to retire.

You take out your makin’s and role a crude cigarette, pinching and twisting the ends. You wet the tip that stays on your lips, then light up and inhale deeply and think, “Yeah, yeah, life’s good.”

I stopped smoking after 40 years because I did not want to die of lung cancer or some type of heart disease. I never want to smoke again. But I did enjoy the way I looked–the poses I could make when I did smoke cigarettes.

©2013  the estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published January 10, 1988 the Manhattan Mercury)


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Doctor Students

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

          by Leonard Bishop

The only unpleasant experience I have had as a writing instructor was when there were medical doctors in the class. The subjects they wrote about were usually terrifying. X-ray radiation and hereditary alteration, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, bladder cancer, pulmonary embolism, emphysema, hernia. From the manner in which they wrote of these bodily horrors, there was no way to stop them from happening to me. My next breath might be my last. A slight cramp the beginning of the deadly angina.

These medical-people-students force me to recall when I was younger and decided to become intelligent, and deep. I began reading psychiatric case histories and books on psychoanalysis. In a week’s time I became an emotional and mental paraplegic. I contained all the horrible dimensions of neurosis and insanity. There was a repulsive psychological scum oozing from my persona, causing people to reject me.

In fear that my homicidal, suicidal, and degenerate tendencies might become manifest, I had to stop reading such books. The same mind-fright happens when any doctor desires to write a novel and seeks me out as his instructor. I find all the symptoms they write about in myself. They make me feel like a highly charged plague.

When I teach writing, I am loud, aggressive, declarative, and sometimes table pounding. I never direct my comments at the student, personally. I am not trying to humiliate or debase a student. To me, people are precious–but what they write must be forthrightly appraised. I am relentlessly objective and ruthlessly uncompromising. Eventually, most students get used to me, but not the medical doctors. They are ultra-sensitive: as though their nerve endings were peeled.

They take personal offense and devise their own methods of getting back at me. Some stare at particular areas of my body in such a way that I know they have seen an incurable, fatal disease.

One doctor kept looking at my eyes as though examining them for what disease was inside my head. Then he would glance away, sigh in helplessness, and sorrow. It was impossible for me to teach that class through my choked back tears. I knew the doctor had studied my brain symptoms. That he had seen an exotic lump with barbed tendrils gradually strangling my speinus capitis or obliquus superior.

I hate it when I am forced to ask a doctor a question like: “When describing a naked foot, why do you use terms like adductor tranversus? Why not just say a toe?” And before he answers, he puts on his thick-lensed glasses. Does looking at me with his glasses on improve his hearing? Or is it the sound of my voice that aroused his interest? Did he hear a wheeze, a rattle, the slosh of a torn gland bumping against a loose bone–is he ready to doom me to a hospital?

I remember a doctor coming up to me after class, to shake my hand. Earlier, I had told him, “Writing is not put down the way you scribble a poorly considered and usually incomprehensible prescription.” He shook my hand. I thought he had forgiven me for being truthful. But there was no forgiveness in him. His eyes were sly and mean.

He had grasped my hand to check my temperature. I sensed he diagnosed my skin was abnormally dry, my fingers tremored as though with advanced palsy. I noticed him studying the warts, wrinkles, veins, and liver spots I had never noticed before. I quickly pulled my hand from his, wanting to be alone, so I could faint.

Maybe this fright they stir in me has biased me to doctors. They’re always complaining about the high cost of malpractice insurance while jiggling the keys of the four Mercedes they own. They swallow their words when they speak–as if whispering to their nurse, “Give him some pills–he’s dying.”

When doctors write a sex scene you don’t get fun and games happening in the shadows. You read descriptions of corpora cavernosa and cutaneous pouches and delete ovarian vessels. Their sexual participants achieve delights in names that would frighten the normal human being out of bed. Their people never kiss, they trade bacteria. They are as passionate as drugged beetles.

The annoying aspect of instructing doctors on how to write is that some of them are genuinely talented writers. Since I can’t keep them out of my classes, I suppose I should redirect my complaints and focus on lawyers. They are even more difficult to instruct. They have no sense of the common American language. They listen carefully to your criticisms not to find out the flaws of their writing but for any cause for liable. They are always taking notes and looking at their wristwatches to record when you said what you said.

©2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published April 5, 1987 the Manhattan Mercury)


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Never Surrender Your Talent

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

There is no comfort in carrying around long-held regrets for expectations and goals that were never filled. Regrets are like all-season mosquitoes that sting you into the recall of what you once might have done. Most of us use more emotional time learning how to scratch away those regrets than we would have used accomplishing the expectations and goals we regret having neglected.

One depressing regret in my past is that I used my career as a writer as the only means for expressing myself. I did not ever sustain a serious effort to develop another talent. It was only when I had about seven books published and was permanently fixed into my career, that I let myself realize that I had avoided other artistic forms that might have enlarged my capacity for gaining happiness. I had settled for one talent at the possible sacrifice of other talents.

I never became a painter because my first tries were dreadful. Smears, blurs, drools of clashing colors. Without perspective or attractive form. One morning I studied the four paintings I had created, and shook my head. “Garbage! They are about as unique as a runny nose!” I put them in a closet and forgot about them. Eventually they were lost. I was about 30 years old and not very wise.

I had judged my talent for becoming a painter by the beginnings of my effort. I appraised the crudity, and the shallowness, and the visual slobber, and concluded that I was without talent for painting. It was an accurate estimation for that time. I was also ignorant. Like a frightened cockroach, I scurried back to safety in my unquestioned talent for writing.

When I began instructing in universities and read the amateurish stories of the students, I realized I had been foolish about my painting. There were possibilities of talent in those poorly written stories. With some concentrated work and patience, the talent to write would appear and they would find careers or personal fulfillment. I did not see my painting in the same vision. I wanted my talent for painting to burst upon the canvas in a gusher of brilliance and talent.

I was pathetic. I might even have been tragic.

Rarely does the talent for an art form burst into existence like an Olympic sprinter. All– without exception– beginning work is crude in comparison to what it will become after some time of working in that art form. The beginning in any art form is a procedure of scraping away the suffocating veneers of timidity, ignorance, and conceit–so your talent can begin to breathe. When you consider all the years it took for you to keep your talents hidden, you must sensibly realize how long it will take you to release it.

There are superb gains in the development of a secondary talent. You do not charge into the arena of competition to do battle with the artists who use all their lives mastering only one talent in one art form. This eliminates the assault of neurosis which causes fear, tension, and even physical illness. And there are no demands upon you to excel. The only ability you need achieve is that skill that gives you a unique and deeply personal outlet of expression and happiness.

I always wanted to play the guitar and sing folk songs. I believed I might become another Burl Ives or Josh White. I bought a guitar and self-instruction manual and began teaching myself chords. I plunked and sang I Gave My Love a Cherry and The Girl With the Delicate Air. The range of my voice was as wide as a hair. The musical resonance of my ear was as responsive as petrified tin.

But while I plunked and sang, I was exultant with pleasure.

I made some tapes to hear what I sounded like, so I could improve. Other people heard the tapes and they jeered, “You sound like a cow dropping a calf.” And “Why don’t you take up ballet?” They were right. I strummed the strings as though with arthritic toes. My voice sounded like tearing rags. I sold the guitar and shrugged away the desire to sing.

Today when I hear guitar playing folk singers I become rigid with envy and damn my own character weakness. I not only appraised my talent to play an instrument and to sing too early–I had viewed myself from the superficial judgment of others. All they were listening to was my performance, not my pleasure. All I felt was their disrespect as I ignored my deep satisfaction.

There is always more than one talent in our characters. If your livelihood is founded on the career of one strong talent, concentrate on creating that talent in the “pay-off” plateaus of professionalism. But don’t allow that one form to become your full and only outlet of expression. It will become burdensome and joyless. It will become a Drudge. All talented people are complex and cannot be fully expressed through one art form. And no matter how poorly the second talent begins, or how many people ridicule you, continue in using that talent. Just for the ecstasy that being talented and more self-expressed brings you.

©2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published May 29, 1988 the Manhattan Mercury)


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Woman: A Sometime Thing

by Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

Leonard Bishop

The customs of how men regard the women in these Kansas towns are curiously old-world, and quaint. It took me many months to learn how to uphold my more contemporary attitudes without being influenced by the behavior and actions of this unique culture.

My first puzzling insight into the male-female customs of Kansas was to notice that all the men had limited memories. Whenever I was introduced to a married woman, I was never told her name. The husband poked a thumb toward some female standing behind him and referred to her as “the wife.” I assumed he had forgotten her name.

At one time, when I was still being invited to house parties, I avoided even minimal conversation with women. Not because my wife, Celia Ruth Bishop, was with me and might misunderstand my intentions. I avoided these women because I thought they all had some dreadful and contagious disease. Else why were they not allowed to co-mingle with the men who were loitering about, drinking beer, talking about sports or hunting, and using pocketknives to clean grease and cow dung from their fingernails?

I keep promising myself to try using some of the Kansas customs that afford the men such remarkable privileges. I wonder if I should force my wife, Celia Ruth Bishop, to cultivate a taste for cold food.

I have been in Kansas homes during the dinner hour and the men are seated at the table, vigorously eating, while the women are still serving. The men are halfway through the meal when the women are ready to eat food that has begun to cool. The men finished eating before the women, release a gusty belch, pat their enlarging bellies, then leave the table to turn on the television. The women finished eating alone.

There are some rituals performed by Kansas men that they have happily adapted from national practices. The self-satisfied way they boast of how readily and easily they tell off “The wife” when she forgets her place and offers an opinion. Some men are quite strict with the sub species women they’ve married. They brag about how they have had to “slam her across the chops” until “she knows who’s boss.”

I suppose some marital counselor or sociologist or anthropologist will declare that no individual is responsible for what another individual becomes. We fashion our own lifestyle and personal methods for meaningful gratification. Theoretically, the theme is valid. But realistically, this academic vision into human behavior is dumb.

If someone keeps walking all over me, and keeps walking all over me, and I am given no helping hand on how to rise to stop them from tramping down my life, then he has converted me into his private foot-wiping mat.

I’ve come to understand that it is now customary for the adult males–fathers in particular–to dislike young Kansas females. They believe their daughters are disloyal to their state. “No more than spoiled brats is what they are!” Through various forms of media these young females have determined that they do not have to be treated like their Kansas mothers are treated–slabs of meat to be used as some convenient appetite relaxant whenever the mighty male comes to the counter.

The men are right. These traitorous females leave Kansas for states that accord women the prestige they deserve. The men are right, yes. Not because they are reasonable and intelligent, but because they are men. Being born a male in Kansas means you have the symbol that affords you the right to always be unquestionably right.

I’ve carefully researched some guidelines and wisdoms the Kansans men adhere to. They are comforting and interesting. Women are emotional and men are logical. Because men can lift heavy objects, during a crisis women become hysterical. Men are not built for staying home to raise children and women are ox-like in temperament and like to cook and do laundry. No matter what the liberationists and the incendiary feminists think, it’s still a man’s Kansas, and a woman’s place is in the home, where the dumb broad belongs. How delightfully medieval.

Another custom followed by Kansas men is to marry comely women and then work them into drabs. Tend to the kids and see to the house. Some females are allowed to take on full-time jobs to supplement the males in adequate earning prior power–then come home to tend the kids and see to the house. In 7 to 10 years the women become grim looking, puffy drudges, about as sexual as discarded bubblegum.

That is the signal for the male to begin ogling the younger, still naïve females to indulge in lecherous liasons while “the wife” is dragging up the kids and dredging through the house.

The women in Kansas earn their keep but they are being paid below-the-minimum wage. The Kansas male attitude to the female person, to her integrity, her dignity, her humanity, is unbelievably cruel and stupid.

©2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop

(first published December 13, 1987 the Manhattan Mercury)

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