Wednesday, June 06, 2007
Three Days at the Algonquin: Does anything rock as much as the Backspace Conference?
So there we have the panel on which I sat, "You Write Your Momma with that Pen?" moderated by Mark Bastable. Next to me is Marlys Pearson and on the far right, Jackie Kessler.
I'm almost a week late with this post, I know, but I came down with the sore throat from hell which has now turned into laryngitis (and, ha ha, which I'm sure makes my family happier than they are letting on).
Okay, enough about that. Let's talk writing! Let's talk Backspace Conference, which is the ultimate writer experience. Sick or not, I'm still on such a high from that conference I can't even tell you.
I arrived at the Algonquin Hotel on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours too early for cocktails.
In case you are not a writer or have been living under a rock, here's a little background about the place, though having been there and done that, I agree with the other members of Backspace that while in theory the Algonquin is very hip, it has spent the last several years resting on its laurels and I have to be honest, I'd never spend the night there again in a million years if not for Backspace. Give me the W Hotel next time, please, where I have a spacious room with air conditioning that works, a tub that I didn't need a step ladder to climb into, and holy crap, a coffee machine in my room so I didn't have to go to the cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger diner next door with wet hair in a desperate attempt to find drinkable caffeine at 8:00 a.m.
Of course I would not be saying any of this had I not read the Backspace forum board and realized that every single person who attended, including the organizers, echoed my sentiments.
But er..it was still ultra-cool knowing I was sipping martinis where Dorothy Parker once held court.
Okay, enough of the negative. On with the positive, and I have to say, hands down the absolute best experience I have ever had with other writers at a conference. I was in tears a good part of the time...tears of joy, that is. But I digress.
After decompressing in my room for a few hours and utterly immersing myself in Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down, I swallowed my fear and ventured down to the Algonquin's bar for cocktails with a bunch of strangers. I only knew these people from Sue Henderson's website where I am chatty and witty and extroverted and everything I'm not in real life. It's funny, in the David Morrell speech I am posting below, he talked about writers having to be introverts and man did he ever give me validation with his definition as opposed to the traditional definition (though I knew I was an introvert by any definition). Much more on that in a minute.
Anyway, I walked into the bar feeling kind of clueless but quickly saw there were a few tables of such diverse looking people they had to be writers. And then I saw the man on the train and realized yep, here were people with the conference.
The man on the train? Yeah, that was crazy altogether. I wish I could remember his name -- maybe someone reading this will tell me -- a man who wore a straw hat, writes thrillers, and lives in Pottstown, PA. Anyway, he stood behind me at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia -- I had no idea who he was but we made idle wait-in-line-to-board talk -- he remarked "Oh, you need a passport to take the train these days?" (He was joking) and I replied "Well, I don't drive so it's my only photo I.D." and then I mumbled something about traveling all over the world (which of course mortified me later but had he asked, I would have told him the truth - I travel all over the world courtesy of being groupie mom, not a writer, unless going to the Romantic Times Convention in Houston and St. Louis and readings/signings in Virginia, New York, and Baltimore count har har). But anyway, how weird is this: My cab pulls up at the Algonquin, I'm whisked inside by the doorman, and standing directly behind me to register is the man on the train. So apparently we took the train together, hailed a cab at exactly the same time, and arrived at the Algonquin simultaneously, and then he was the first person I saw when I entered the bar.
So I sat at his table and next to me was a very cool guy (even if he was an attorney in the real world) named Jeff Johns who'd written a couple of way interesting books for a gay male audience but the way he described them, hell, I'd read both novels in a heartbeat, next to him was a childrens' author, and across from me was this incredibly interesting person who talked to me about Buddhism...ack...I forget who else, but then the person responsible for Backspace and the conference, Karen Dionne, came over and introduced herself and had a seat.
Did you ever just love someone at first sight? That's how I felt about Karen...and I don't feel that way often about people, being such an introvert and all. Well, it was a feeling that would repeat itself many times over the next few days...it was like I kept meeting people who were my soulmates...or how should I put this...people who felt my pain? Ha ha - what I mean to say is, we were all writers and we'd all suffered and would continue to suffer. (Again, I refer you to the David Morrell speech I'm pasting below which you damn better read even if you aren't a writer -- it's that good, and besides, he's the man responsible for Rambo so for those of you reading who are not intellects, surely you can relate to Sly Stallone?).
Okay, so I had two martinis on a totally empty stomach and here's where it gets fuzzy. Did I meet Tish Cohen and Patry Francis that night at the bar or did I meet them the following morning? Anyway, there was that love thing again. Both women have written incredibly brilliant books, Tish has already optioned hers for film, and Patry has some very interesting news as well but I already made one gaff by congratulating her in front of her agent (I didn't know it was her agent and I didn't know if it was supposed to be general news yet so I've been cringing for a week)...anyway...let me put the blurbs in for both of their books right here so you can see how cool they are:
"Jack Madigan is, by many accounts, blessed. Thanks to his legendary rockstar father, he lives an enviable existence in a once-glorious, but now crumbling, Boston town house with his teenage son, Harlan. There's just one problem: Jack is agoraphobic. While living on his dad's dwindling royalties hasn't been easy, Jack and Harlan have bumbled along just fine. Until the money runs out...and so does Jack's luck.
Suddenly, the bank is foreclosing, Jack's ex is threatening to take Harlan to California, and Lucinda, the little waif next door, won't stay out of his kitchen. Or his life. The harder Jack tries to keep Lucinda out, the harder she pushes her way in -- to his house and, eventually, his heart. Things look up when the real estate agent, Dorrie Allsop, arrives so green she still has the price tag dangling from her Heritage Estates blazer. But even Dorrie's overworked tongue can't hide the house's potential and, ultimately, a solid offer thrusts Jack towards the paralyzing reality that he no longer has a home.
To save his sanity, Jack must do the impossible and outwit the real estate agent, win back his house and keep his son at home. Town House is a sweet and serious look at one man's struggle to survive within the walls of his own fears. And it's through the very people he tries so hard to push out of his life that he finds a way to break down those walls and, eventually, step outside."
"What would you do if your best friend was murdered—and your teenaged son was accused of the crime? How far would you go to protect him? How many lies would you tell? Would you dare to admit the darkest truths—even to yourself?
Jeanne Cross is an ordinary suburban wife and mother with a seemingly "perfect" life when Ali Mather arrives on the scene, breaking all the rules and breaking hearts. Almost against her will, Jeanne is drawn to this powerfully seductive woman, a fascination that soon begins to infect Jeanne's husband as well as their teenaged son, Jamie.
Though their friendship seems unlikely and even dangerous to their mutual acquaintances, Ali and Jeanne are connected by deep emotional needs, vulnerabilities and long-held secrets that Ali has been privately recording in her diary.
The diary also holds the key to something darker. Though she can't prove it, Ali is convinced someone has been entering her house when she is not at home-and not with the usual intentions. What this burglar wants is nothing less than a piece of Ali's soul.
When Ali is found murdered, there are many suspects; but the evidence against Jamie Cross is overwhelming. Jeanne's personal probing leads her to the question none of us would ever want to face. What comes first: our loyalty to family—or the truth?"
I really can't recommend both of those books enough. I should make them permanent links on the right hand side, but I'm on a crusade to save the indie book store. So please, please, please buy these books...but don't give your money to the big, bad, evil corporate chains. When I am less lazy later on, I'm going to dismantle my Amazon links here and make all books buyable through Burkes Books, and I will be doing a separate post about Burke's later on this week or next. But if you click on the link I just gave you, you can easily order stuff today on your own.
Then I got to meet Mark Bastable, who was moderating the panel I was a part of, and his beloved, the hilarious and stunning Ann, who immediately made us feel less important about ourselves by launching into a long and detailed discussion about douche bags and I mean that literally, not figuratively. Which naturally led to all kinds of interesting comments, none of which I can remember unfortunately, because by that time I was on martini three and apparently this was a crowd who didn't eat.
Only I could go to New York and end up food deprived. But it was probably a good thing I didn't go off hunting for something to eat at midnight, huh, though I did wake up at 2:00 a.m. and contemplated ordering room service (can you say $25.00 eggs?). Better sense prevailed and I somehow fell back asleep (okay, okay, the beds at the Algonquin are exceptional, I will give them that), but I bolted out of bed at dawn to the aforesaid adjoining diner for a cheese omelet.
Oh, I'm skipping around again. What a surprise. Anyway, back to the bar at the Algonquin. Sitting with Mr. and Mrs. Bastable were Marlys Pearson and the emcee (though of course also a writer) for the event, Keith Cronin. It was cool meeting Marlys since she was serving on the panel with me -- Jackie Kessler -- my other panel mate -- I had met a few weeks earlier at the RT Convention in Houston -- and since Keith is a drummer -- click on his link, he's got a great website and wait until you see who he's played with -- well, in any event, we had much to talk about.
At least I think we did. As I type this, all I can really remember is Ann and her douche bag stories.
So Thursday morning, feeling somewhat hungover but happily full of eggs and coffee, I headed for the first panel, "Business of the Book", which was headed up by some really impressive people - Simon Lipskar of Writers House, Mark Tavani, an editor at Random House...arghh...I had such an inferiority complex listening to them, thinking I'd never write something literary enough in a million years but then luckily realizing hey, there's enough air out there for all of us to breathe...and I've sold more than a few copies of both of my books...so I fought down the waves of depression, listened carefully, and learned a hell of a lot about the business I did not know.
As I write this, I'm looking over the program so that I don't forget anything and I'm noticing that between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., I am drawing a blank. I didn't go to either conference. Maybe that's when I met Patry and Tish? Hmm...it must have been. We were hilarious together, missing the panels we wanted to see, going to the wrong rooms, making noise when we entered late...hahahahaha...you can't take us anywhere in public. Yeah! That's what happened because that's also when we met up with Sue Henderson, who was in for the day so that she could serve on her panel, "Creating Living, Breathing Characters in Fiction" with Mark Bastable, Jon Clinch, Renee Rosen" and moderated by Jeff Kleimann.
Oh god, I'm skipping again. Okay, so it's obvious I spent an hour schmoozing with my new girlfriends, but yeah, that's right, at 11:00 a.m. I attended "The Art of the Query, or Why It's so Hard to Find Representation" with Sharlene Martin, Katherine Fausset, Kristin Nelson, and Randi Murray. Again, extremely informative and I would have given my left whatever to be represented by any of those lovely women.
Then it was off to lunch even though I wasn't hungry, so Susan, me, a girl whose name I forget altogether but I swear, that's the only time the entire conference I saw her, and Robin Grantham headed back to that dreaded diner (Again. I'm in New York and I've now eaten three times at a diner I wouldn't go anywhere near in Philadelphia but there you have it...for once I cared more about all things cerebral instead of my stomach). Sue was nervous about her impending panel, I was a nervous wreck period, and Robin Grantham was feeling pretty much the same way. Again, there is this intangible connection we all have as writers and coming to that realization made me so happy I can't even begin to tell you. Though of course I see it with my own family because my husband and both kids are musicians...like it or not, we are different and it's not always easy living in America in today's insane society, especially with that homicidal lunatic and his henchmen (or is he the henchman?) at the helm.
Susan's panel was amazing. I should have taken notes, but just sitting there got me completely jazzed to write. I was actually dying to go back to my room and break out my laptop but then I realized the next event was a keynote speech by Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace where I have my own top-visited (hah) page. Michael was wonderful - highly intelligent, witty and engaging. He spoke about "things no one understands in publishing, and the internet, featuring the most important thing no one ever tells authors and the most important thing publishers don't know".
Incredible, incredible, incredible.
I walked up to meet him after his speech but he was mobbed and one guy was really monopolizing him so I ended up just giving him a quick handshake and walking away.
Between 3:00-4:00 p.m. there was a mixer which yay! featured coffee but they also had yogurt and Sue's allergic...plus...she had a deadline for edits to her novel so she went downstairs to the lobby to...gasp...work. Taking a cue from her, I decided to go my room and see if I couldn't do the same.
In the meantime, Eric arrived, because he was going to a gig at the New York Knitting Factory that night, so I hung out with him for a bit and introduced him to my new friends.
Oh...here's some other really cool people I met on Thursday...and I had met them via Sue's website as well so to meet them in person was incredible: Amy/Stella King, who came up to me and told me she loved my blog because she found it so cool -- and there it was again with Amy/Stella -- I just knew she was a kindred spirit and wished I could have hung out with her more. Also, Carolyn Burns Bass, whom I insisted on calling Carolyn Bass Burns even though I mean, come on, Burns Bass is not only easy, it's funny and it makes more sense. Carolyn glows, and interestingly enough, she made the same comment about me to Eric...saying my words "glowed on the page" when I talked about him. It's true, and when she told that to me in person, I probably could have lit several New York skyscrapers with said glow.
Now's where it gets dicey. There was a banquet scheduled for 7:00 p.m. that evening and Mark was giving a speech, and really, he was the reason I was there, having recommended me for the panel, etc. But there were also two lit blog parties down in the Village, and that's where Sue Henderson was going. Because Book Expo America was being held in New York at the same time, these were parties at which agents, celebrities, etc. would be hanging out as well as fellow bloggers I'd met courtesy of this one. I wanted to clone myself, I really did. Patry and Tish had already decided not to go to the banquet, so they were in. I could not stand the thought of Sue, Tish, and Patry going without me! But then they also invited Jessica Keener, who, like me, felt obligated to go to the banquet and really, we both wanted to attend...it wasn't like the banquet was going to be a drag or anything. So seeing as we both felt the same way, we compromised. We decided to go with Sue et al to the first litblog party at 6:00 p.m., then we'd cab it back to the banquet (so we'd be a little late, we assumed people would just be having a go at the open bar anyway), and we'd skip the second litblog party.
Big mistake. We didn't even get out of the Algonquin Lobby until almost 7:00 (hey, it was so full of interesting people/agents, etc.), and then try and find a cab with five people while it's still rush hour. We finally did, but only after I agreed to sit in front. The four gals had a blast in the backseat talking, and I got the suicidal cabbie from hell who intermittently flirted with me while trying to get me to dare him to run people over. He didn't know where he was going - the cab ride took almost a half hour, and he left us off at least four blocks away from where the party was being held.
Jessica and I bonded immediately in our neurosis. We're around the same age; we found we had much in common, the least of which is we both HAVE to be on time and this was killing us. Even if we turned around and got back into a cab that very minute, we were still going to be an hour late for the banquet.
Well, as it turns out, that's exactly what we did. I'm sure the litblog party was wonderful -- Sue, Patry and Tish had a blast and bumped into their agents, friends of their agents, etc. -- but for me, it was my worst nightmare. It was so packed in that bar (Lolita's, on Broome Street); there was no airconditioning or if there was, I didn't feel it, and the average age of the attendee was about three years old.
Oh alright, they were thirty-somethings. And twenty-somethings. And all gorgeous and New York and by then I'm a sweating, hyperventilating mess.
Thank God Jess felt the same way...well, maybe she didn't feel exactly the same...but she was also hyperventilating about the banquet...so we literally stayed five minutes and then took another half hour cab ride back...again, the cab driver screwed up and got us stuck in the traffic jam from hell right at Times Square so we jumped out of the cab and ran two blocks, just in time to miss Mark's speech.
Damn, damn, damn.
In any event, we didn't miss anything, meaning, the acoustics were so awful in there you couldn't hear a thing, not even the people sitting next to you. It was held in a wine cellar, which was way cool and everything...but it was without a doubt the loudest room I've ever been in -- where there's no rock band playing, that is. Which was a shame because I couldn't hear one word said by another Lit Parker I'd just met, Lauren Baratz Logsted, who won an Award as a Backspace person of the year for all the hard work and help she offers other writers. Amy/Stella won a similar award, I think...since I'm a newbie on the site I'm not quite sure what I'm talking about.
Anyway, if you are a serious writer, you really need to join Backspace. Unlike Zoetrope, where I used to hang out frequently, it isn't free, but the yearly membership is a modest $30.00. What this means is that because it isn't free and there's a membership process, there are no trolls...only serious writers, agents, and editors, and I am already so in love with the forums there I may eventually need a twelve step program to keep my visitation in check.
Friday morning I must admit, I blew off the panels and hung out with my son. What a blast we had! Eric wanted a new, wooden snare drum and since the Algonquin is just a few blocks away from all of the music stores on 48th Street, we went shopping. I love going to music stores with Eric because as soon as he sits down behind a drumkit, he gets fans...in this case, I don't even know if he saw, but there were two kids looking at kits and when Eric started to play, they both had to pick their jaws up off the floor. Then the guy who worked there, who knew Eric and knew that he was with Adrian Belew, asked him about his upcoming tour plans and you could see these kids elbowing each other...and then if that's not enough, there was a Modern Drummer magazine on the counter and Eric casually said "Oh, I'm in this month's issue" and I thought they would have a coronary.
Ooh, ooh, by the way, when Eric and Julie go to Japan with Adrian next month, they aren't just doing a week at the Tokyo Blue Note, which is in itself a major deal -- they are actually playing two separate sets per night for six nights -- but on July 15, they are playing at Japan's version of Royal Albert Hall...it's called Toyama Cultural Hall or something like that...but damn, damn, damn I wish I were going!
Anyway, Eric got himself this amazing Anton Fig (look him up) Yamaha snare, we were both in great moods, we had eggs at the cheeseburger diner (yes, that makes four times. I know. Kill me now. Please)...and then we split up and I ran into Robin Grantham again and she asked me if I was hungry so I figured "Why not, now I'll get something good to eat finally" and we did...we ended up in this weird little place that didn't look all that special from the outside but when we went indoors, oh my god, it was food heaven. Only I didn't realize it at the time and since I wasn't starving, I ordered a tomato/mozzarella panini thing and Robin II ordered something similar...then we walked toward the back and that's where we saw the "real food" but it was too late.
Again, we were both a little nerved out by the Backspace experience (in a good way, of course, but there's that introvert thing again) so once again, I was shocked to realize that food didn't matter - we were both anxious to get back for the 1:00 panel, which featured Tish, Patry, and Adrienne Brodeur (who founded Zoetrope All-Story, coincidentally enough) and my new friend Jess Keener as moderator -- it was a panel called "Breaking Through - Debut Authors Share Their Publishing Tales". Here are two photos - neither show how gorgeous these ladies are...I'm serious...you could have been looking at a panel of beauty queens:
Jess is the one standing on the left in the first photo and as I told her, she was an incredible moderator - thoughtfully, soft spoken, intelligent -- everything you could possibly want; the second photo, left to right, is Patry, Tish, and Grace Kelly...I mean, Adrienne Brodeur...who is not only drop dead gorgeous in a Grace Kelly way she has the quiet dignity you'd associate with old time royalty. (Mark, if you are reading this, please control yourself. I know we look at the royals differently in America, trust me.)
So that was a lot of fun, and I was about to go back to my room when everyone said to me "What? You aren't staying for the David Morrell speech? Are you crazy?"
Er...this is so horrible. I didn't know who David Morrell was.
"He's the one who created Rambo," someone told me excitedly.
Er...didn't see any of the movies, didn't think I'd like the books. Can I go to my room now please?
I was talked into staying.
Talk about a god shot. It was hands down the highlight of the conference...I don't know that I'm ever going to recover from David or his speech.
I was never moved by anything so much in my life. I was at first rendered mute, and then I had to use my sleeve to wipe my eyes. If I didn't keep it in check, I was going to sob uncontrollably. While a glance around the room told me that most of the attendees were in the absolute exact shape I was, only three of them had to do what I had to do next: Serve on a panel and actually be able to speak coherently. I honestly did not think I would be able to do it, and then when I went over to thank David uh-oh, I fell apart because he hugged me. So that's two male writer gods who've touched me this year - David Morrell and Neil Gaiman - now here's hoping some of their writing mojo rubbed off on me.
I managed to collect myself and headed downstairs to the Algonquin's infamous Oak Room. I was shaking from head to toe. I wasn't scared to be on the panel, but at that moment, my head wasn't anywhere near where it should have been. I kept rehashing David's speech, and I had to bring myself back for "You Write Your Momma with that Pen?".
Luckily as a moderator Mark was charming and funny and asked all of the right questions. Plus, our audience really seemed into it and laughed a lot and hopefully enjoyed themselves. Actually, I couldn't help but notice the following comment on the Backspace forum board yesterday, which made me smile from ear to ear:
"The "Do You Write Your Momma with that Pen?" session was terrific, prompting a great exchange between writers that kept the audience highly involved, even though it was the last session on the last day. I actually had to let it run a little overtime, because everybody was enjoying it so much."
Man, that made me feel good.
So I got through it, gave out some books, and then felt sadly deflated because Backspace was officially over.
Well, not quite. Many were staying until Saturday; my train wasn't until 9:00 p.m., maybe we could have dinner.
I guess I just wasn't meant to have a good New York meal this time out.
I ended up at the Algonquin Bar again drinking martinis with Marlys, Rebecca, Mark, Carolyn, E.J....arghh...who is the pretty young blonde writer who was sitting next to me...I cannot remember her name but will edit this if someone knows...and then Ann scored tickets to an event at MOMA so everyone left me and I got the brilliant idea to go to the Amtrak station early and exchange my ticket for an earlier train.
What was I thinking. I stood in line for 45 minutes only to be told that all trains were sold out. So I now had two hours to kill at Penn Station. I was drunk and starving but could not bring myself to eat at Houlihans. Eating at a Houlihans in New York City is the ultimate admission of defeat, even worse than the cheeseburger, cheeseburger diner because at least I had an excuse for that. I sadly walked around and considered my options. Krispie Kreme donuts? Soft pretzels? A hot dog? Pizza that had been sitting under a heat lamp all day?
I erred on the side of caution, went foodless, and instead sat in the illustrious Amtrak waiting area, where I was lucky enough to lose myself in the rest of the Nick Hornby book until my train thankfully arrived on time.
And now I'm back in Philadelphia, waiting to hear news about my novel, bugging Julie and Eric in sign language to please get their work visas for their trip to Japan, and basically struggling with the aforesaid sore throat which is keeping from doing much of anything....other than this monstrous, world record setting in its length blogpost, that is.
So I'm going to close out now with the David Morrell speech, but not before thanking Karen, Mark, and all of the incredible Backspace members who gave me the most memorable time in New York City I've ever had...well, other than when I see my kids perform there, that is. Oh come on. You know I had to say that, didn't you?
WHY DO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER?
by David Morrell
"When I teach at writers’ conferences, I always begin by asking my students, “Why on earth would you want to be writers?” They chuckle, assuming that I’ve made a joke. But my question is deadly sober. Writing is so difficult, requiring such discipline, that I’m amazed when someone wants to give it a try. If a student is serious about it, if that person intends to make a living at it, the commitment of time and energy is considerable. It’s one of the most solitary professions. It’s one of the few in which you can work on something for a year (a novel, say), with no certainty that your efforts will be accepted or that you’ll get paid. On every page, confidence fights with self-doubt. Every sentence is an act of faith. Why would anybody want to do it?
The usual answer I get is, “For the satisfaction of being creative.” The students nod, relieved that this troubling line of thought is over. But in fact, the subject has barely been started. I rephrase my question, making it less threatening. “Why do you want to be writers?” This time, I tell my students I don’t want to hear about the joy of creativity. Squirms. Glances toward the ceiling. Toward the floor. Someone is honest enough to say, “I’d like to earn the kind of money Stephen King does.” Someone else chuckles. “Who wouldn’t?” We’re on our way.
Money. We’re so used to hearing about the fantastic advances that writers like King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Patricia Cornwell receive that many would-be writers think generous advances are the norm. The truth is that, in the United States, maybe as few as two hundred writers of prose fiction make a living at it. Every Thursday, in USA Today’s entertainment section, there’s a list of the top fifty bestselling books. Non-fiction is grouped with fiction, hardbacks with paperbacks. Fifty books. A longer list of 150 books is available on that newspaper’s Internet site. The lowest book might have sold only a thousand copies nationwide. Seen from this perspective, the figure of two hundred fiction writers who make a living at it seems huge. A couple of years ago, I came across an article somewhere that said the average income for a fiction writer in the U.S. was $6,500. I believe it. The unescapable moral, I tell my students, is that anyone who wants to become a writer had better not give up his or her day job.
“Why do you want to be writers?” I repeat. The squirms are more uncomfortable. Someone admits, not in so many words, that it would be neat to be the subject of magazine articles and appear on the Today show. The writer as movie star. We go back to the usual suspects: King, Grisham, Clancy, and Cornwell (while we’re at it, let’s add Danielle Steele and Mary Higgins Clark-–there aren’t many brand names). Again, the USA Today list gives us perspective. Scan the names of the top fifty authors. I doubt that more than twenty will be familiar to you. Even fewer writers are famous than earn a living at it. More important, while I can’t imagine anyone foolish enough to turn down money, I have trouble understanding why someone would want to be famous. As Rambo’s creator, I’ve had experience in that regard, and if your idea of a good time is to be forced to get an unlisted number, swear your friends to secrecy about your address, and make sure your doors are locked because of stalkers, you’re welcome to it. One of my devoted fans talks to my dead mother and to the brother I never had. Another was never in the military, but having convinced himself that he’s Rambo, he tried to sue me for stealing his life. In a connection I have yet to understand, he also tried to sue the governor of New York and the Order of the Racoon, which I had thought was an organization that existed only in Jackie Gleason’s television show, The Honeymooners. Fame’s dangerous, not to mention shallow and fleeting. I’m reminded of what a once-important film producer said to me before his fortunes turned for the worst: “Just remember, David. Nobody lasts forever.”
So if money and notoriety aren’t acceptable answers to “Why do you want to be a writer?”, and if I won’t accept the easy answer, “Because of the satisfaction of being creative,” what’s left? My students squirm deeper into their chairs. At this point, I mention someone who seems extremely unlikely in this context: comedian/film-maker Jerry Lewis. The students chuckle once more, assuming that this time I’ve definitely made a joke. But I haven’t. Years ago, Jerry Lewis taught a seminar in comedy at the University of Southern California. A hot ticket. How did Jerry decide which of the many students who applied for the course actually got to attend? Did he audition them? Did he ask for tapes of their performances? Did he read printed versions of their routines? Not at all. He merely asked for an answer to the following question: “Why do you want to be a comedian?” And there was only one answer he would accept.
“Because I have to be. Because there’s something in me so nagging and torturing and demanding to get out that I absolutely have to make people laugh.”
Why do you want to be a writer?
Because you have to be.
My students glance up and nod, their relieved expressions saying, “Sure. Right.” They have the contented look they displayed when they decided they wanted to be writers because of the satisfaction of being creative. But we’re still in the land of easy answers. Do they truly understand what “have to be” means? A long time ago when I was a literature professor, a student came to my office and announced that she was going to be a writer. “When was the last time you wrote?” I asked. “Six months ago,” she answered. I politely suggested that she might consider another line of work.
Writers write. It’s that basic. If you just got off an assembly line in Detroit and you’re certain you have the great American novel inside you, you don’t grab a beer and sit in front of the TV. You write. If you’re a mother of three toddlers and at the end of the day you feel like you’ve been spinning in a hamster cage and yet you’re convinced you have a story to tell, you find a way late at night or early in the morning to sit down and write. That’s a version of how Mary Higgins Clark succeeded, by the way. Because she had to. Because something inside her absolutely insisted. A half hour a day. A page a day. Whatever it takes.
Tough stuff. The profession is not for the weak willed or the faint of heart. But there’s a pay off, and it has nothing to do with money (although it would be nice if hard work were rewarded), and it certainly has nothing to do with having your name in the newspaper. The satisfaction of being creative? Sure. But only partly and only as it relates to my next and final question. “You have to be a writer. Why?” This is the key to the treasure. Why do you absolutely need to be a writer? What’s the source of the uneasiness that nags at you, the compulsion to spin tales and put word after word on a blank page?
That question is one of the most important challenges any would-be writer will ever have to face in his or her creative life. How honest are you prepared to be with yourself? Earlier, I mentioned that, when I was a young man learning my craft, I met my first professional writer, an expert in science fiction whose pen name was William Tenn and whose real name is Philip Klass. Klass didn’t like the early stories I showed him because their subject matter was familiar. They weren’t any different from hundreds of other stories he’d read, he told me. The writers who go the distance, he insisted, have a distinct subject matter, a particular approach that sets them apart from everyone else. The mere mention of their names, Faulkner, for example, or Edith Wharton, conjures themes, settings, methods, tones, and attitudes that are unique to them.
How did they get to be so distinctive? By responding to who they were and the forces that made them that way. Everyone is unique, Klass told me. No two lives are identical. The writers who discover what sets them apart are the writers with the best chance of succeeding. “Look inside yourself,” Klass said. “Find out who you are. In your case, I suspect that means find out what you’re most afraid of, and that will be your subject for your life or until your fear changes.” But he didn’t mean fear of heights or closed spaces or fire. Those fears were merely versions of much deeper fears, he said. The fear he was talking about was like a ferret gnawing at my soul. The ferret didn’t want to be caught, though. It was going to take all my honesty and introspection to find it and determine what it was.
I eventually called this method “fiction writing as self-psychoanalysis.” The theory goes like this--most people become writers because they’re haunted by a secret they need to tell. They might not know they have one, or if they suspect they do, they might not be sure what it is, but something in them is bursting to get out, to be revealed. This secret might be a trauma that happened to them as an adult. A lot of young men came back from the Vietnam war wanting to write novels, for example. More often, though, it’s something that occurred in childhood and was never understood. To paraphrase Graham Greene, an unhappy childhood can be a gold mine for a fiction writer. Abuse comes to mind, but not necessarily sexual. Any psychological trauma, never adjusted to, can be the impetus for someone to want to be a story teller. A contentious divorce in which one child went with mom and the other went with dad. Or a large family in which one child never got the attention that the others did. Dickens fits this theory well. After his father went to prison for failing to pay his debts, the young Dickens was taken out of school and forced to be a laborer in a squalid factory. Prisons, oppressed children, and the suffering of the poor are constants in his work.
Hemingway fits this theory, also. His prim home town of Oak Park, Illinois, was where the saloons ended and the churches began. In a conflicted household, his mother wanted him to wear sissy clothes and play the cello while his father encouraged him to hunt, fish, and play football. His best times were summers spent at a lake up in Michigan where the outdoors provided an escape from family disagreements. As soon as Hemingway was old enough, he left his repressive environment, tried to enlist as a soldier in the First World War, was turned down because of weak eyes, and finally got accepted as a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian front. His almost immediate duty was to pick up body parts after a massive munitions explosion. A few assignments later, he visited an Italian sentry post where an Austrian mortar killed the Italian soldiers with him and riddled him with shrapnel. While he struggled to reach cover, an enemy machine gun shot him.
The consequence of all this was that Hemingway suffered from what is now termed post-traumatic stress disorder, with symptoms that included insomnia, nightmares, and fear of the dark. But once he had sufficient distance from the war and its effect on him, his imagination returned again and again to those traumas, using them in his first mature stories and novels. From his boyhood on, Hemingway had wanted to be a writer, but his early attempts had been conventional and flat. One of his teachers, Gertrude Stein, had told him to throw it all away and start over. As soon as Hemingway confronted his nightmares, he did start over, using a tense lean style to communicate the “grace under pressure” that his characters, like himself, struggled to achieve from their tense childhood onward. Understanding the importance of trauma to a writer, Hemingway once advised a would-be writer to hang himself but to arrange for a friend to cut him down before he died. That way, the would-be writer would have something to put on paper.
As for my own traumas, my father (whom I never knew) died in the Second World War. As I grew up, I keenly missed the affectionate attention of a male authority figure. My feeling of abandonment was reinforced when my mother, in dire financial straits, was forced to put me in an orphanage. Eventually she reclaimed me. Or was the woman who took me from that orphanage the same person who put me in it? Am I adopted? My stepfather and I didn’t get along. We lived above a bar and a hamburger joint. Drunks fought under our windows. We couldn’t afford a telephone, so when my mother needed to make a phone call, she went to a payphone in the alley below. Once, a stray gunshot shattered the phone booth’s window. At night, the arguments between my mother and stepfather were so severe that I fearfully put pillows under my bed covers and made them look as if I slept there. Then I crawled under the bed to sleep where I hoped I’d be protected if anyone came into my room to harm me. I made trouble at school. In grade six, I belonged to a street gang.
An objective observer would realize how disturbed my youth was. But to me, since it was the only reality I knew, my youth was normal. That’s the thing about youthful traumas. Most of the time we don’t know they’re extraordinary. Only when I was in my twenties did I begin to come to terms with the psychological ordeals of my youth. By then, I was writing fiction, and even when I was dramatizing a metaphoric son in conflict with a metaphoric father (First Blood), it was only belatedly that I understood my fascination with the topic. Fathers and sons. The theme shows up in many of my books. I’m still adjusting to the death of the father I never knew, and writing fiction is how I accomplish that-–or try to. Come to think of it, the reverence I had for Stirling Silliphant and Philip Klass is close to that of a son for a father.
Consider your traumas, or perhaps you don’t feel that you’ve had any. A writer friend once told me that he hadn’t had any traumas, that his childhood was about as perfect as any child could want, until his father died. He added that comment about his father’s death as an aside, something that he gave the impression that he’d gotten over. But his fiction reveals that he’s still adjusting to his father’s death, for in numerous books, he dramatizes an idealized version of his childhood, showing how much he longs for the perfection that ended when his father died. In a similar fashion, you might be unaware of how certain events in your life affected you so strongly that they compel you to want to be a writer. A better sense of the incidents that motivate you could take you farther on your way to reaching the Holy Grail of writers: a subject matter that’s uniquely your own.
How do you discover what those traumas and that subject matter are? Here’s an exercise that I’ve found to be helpful. People often ask me where my story ideas come from. Repeating a joke by Stephen King, I answer that there’s a company in Cleveland or some such place. It’s called the Writers Idea Shop, and the first of every month, it sends me a box of ideas. This usually gets a laugh, after which I say that actually ideas swarm around me all the time–-from newspapers, magazines, and television, from casual comments that my wife makes, from things my cat does, whatever. This is partially true. But it’s a simple answer to a complex question, and only if I feel that the person I’m talking to has the time and is receptive do I say the following.
My ideas don’t come from outside. They come from within--from my daydreams. I’m not referring to the type of daydream that you consciously create: deliberately imagining how wonderful it would be to achieve a coveted goal, for example. Instead, I mean the type of daydream that comes to you spontaneously, an unbidden message from your subconscious. Basically, the deepest part of you is sending a story to the surface. Pay attention. The primal author in you is at work.
Daydreams come in two types: attractive and repelling. You’re at a business meeting or you’re driving the kids to school, and all of a sudden, in your imagination, you’re on the beach at Cancun. No surprise there. You’re bored with what you’re doing.
Your subconscious transported you to a pleasurable experience. Note how I phrased that statement. Out of boredom, you didn’t transport yourself. Your subconscious did. You had no control over it. You could strain your imagination all day and still not create as total and sensual an experience as your subconscious did. You don’t just see that beach. You hear the waves splashing. You feel the sand beneath you, the heat of the sun on your skin, and the tickle of the breeze in your nostrils. You taste the salt on the rim of your margarita. You smell the sweetness of an approaching afternoon rain shower. It’s not like watching a movie in your mind. A movie is apart from you, on a flat screen, presenting only images and sound. This is a three-dimensional imaginary experience that totally envelopes you, engaging all your physical senses.
Now let’s talk about the other kind of daydream-–the repellent one. You’re at a business meeting or you’re driving the kids to school, and suddenly, in your imagination, as vividly as in the Cancun experience, you’re trapped in a terrifying wide-awake nightmare. Interestingly, while most of us would agree that lying on the beach at a luxury resort is a situation we’d like to be in, we don’t have the same consensus when it comes to what terrifies us. I have a friend with a phobia about snakes, for example. In contrast, I find snakes kind of interesting. Another friend doesn’t like closed spaces whereas they don’t bother me a bit. Other things scare me a lot, though. All you have to do is read my fiction to find out what they are.
Consider the implications. It’s understandable why the subconscious would transport us from boring real-life situations into pleasurable fantasies. But why on earth does the subconscious sometimes transport us from those same boring real-life situations into fantasies that are terrifying? From one point of view, the mechanism doesn’t make sense. From another point of view, though, it makes all kinds of sense, and it parallels my question to my students: “Why do you want to be writers?” Why do you have spontaneous wide-awake nightmares? And what is the principle of selection by which your subconscious terrifies you in one way while my subconscious terrifies me in another?
We’re at the heart of the issue. The difference between fiction writers and civilians is that we make it our life’s work to put our daydreams and day-nightmares on paper. Most of the time we don’t understand the secrets and demons that our spontaneous imaginings contain. All we feel is that there’s something in us demanding to be released in the form of a story. Philip Klass told me, “What you fear is like a ferret gnawing at your soul. The more you try to catch it, the more it tries to hide. You’ll only get hints and guesses of what and where it is.” To this, I add: Day-nightmares are messages from your subconscious, hinting to you what that ferret is about. They’re disguised versions of your secret. They’re metaphors for why you want to be a writer.
The breakthrough I had as a writer came one hot August afternoon when I was twenty-five. I’d been writing tired conventional fiction for so long that I was in creative despair. I desperately wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea why I felt that way or what I wanted to write about. At the end of my creative resources, I gave up-–and immediately had the most intense wide-awake nightmare I’d ever experienced. I was making my way through a sweltering forest. Sweat rolled down my face. I heard noises behind me. At first, I assumed that a squirrel was rooting for something in the underbrush. But as the sporadic crinkle of leaves sounded closer, the sound seemed more and more like cautious footsteps. Someone was in the forest with me. Someone was creeping up on me. I can’t express how vividly I felt that I was actually in that forest–-and how fearfully certain I was that someone intended to kill me. As abruptly as it came, the multi-sense illusion ended. It was as if I’d had an out-of-body experience. Suddenly, I found myself staring not at a forest but at my desk and the typewriter on it, a blank sheet of paper taunting me. I’d never experienced any other daydream as powerfully. I didn’t understand the process, but one thing I was sure of: I wanted to know what happened next. Thus I began my first true David Morrell short story.
Ever since that long-ago afternoon, I’ve trained myself to pay attention to my daydreams/nightmares, to be aware of them as they’re happening, to wonder why certain imaginary situations are so insistent, and to use the most compelling
of them as the inspiration for novels and short stories. After the fact, I’ve learned to realize how the plots that attract me are metaphors for my psyche. That story about a man being hunted in a forest dramatizes the helplessness I felt at that time. What was hunting me? Time, ambition, frustration–-name it. In the story, the hero (me) survived by overcoming his fear and maintaining control, a theme that is constant in my work. Another constant theme shows up in my novel The Brotherhood of the Rose. There, two orphans are trained by a surrogate father to be killers for a rogue intelligence agency. They don’t kill for money or politics. They do it for love. And when the surrogate father turns against them in order to protect himself, they set out in a fury to get even. Freudian as can be. But I wrote the entire novel before I realized why my subconscious would have compelled me to write about orphans and fathers. The plot was a disguised version of the story of my life.
I want to emphasize the word “disguised.” I’m not suggesting that you write stories that explicitly address your psychological concerns. That would be tedious and mechanical. Plots are at their best when they serve as metaphors for, and not explicit descriptions of, their author’s psychological state. That’s what daydreams are: disguises. More often than not, the author can’t see through them. All he or she knows is that the story insisted on being told, that his or her imagination wouldn’t rest until the images and characters that haunted it were brought into the light. The best stories choose us. We don’t choose them.
I think that the type of stories we tell also chooses us. I’ve referred to Stephen King a couple of times. Might as well do it again. Critics often ask him (their tone is sniffingly aloof) why he writes horror. King’s response is, “What makes you think I have a choice?” Exactly. In his book On Writing, King describes the brutal poverty of his childhood and the twelve miles he hitchhiked each Saturday to a movie theater that specialized in horror movies, the latter providing a distraction from his poverty. The horror novels, stories, and comic books he compulsively read fulfilled the same function. Made-up horror helped him temporarily forget the burdens of life. Is it any surprise that his urge to write led him to tell the kind of stories that had given him relief when he was a boy?
A similar urge led me to write thrillers. When I was a kid, the family arguments drove me from our apartment above the hamburger joint. I went to a crowded bus stop, where I asked someone to give me a nickle. “Mister, I lost my bus fare.” A nickel is what it cost to get a ride on the bus, but fifteen cents is what it cost to get into a movie, which was my goal. So when everybody got on the bus, I hung back and went to another bus stop, where I again begged for a nickel. If the bus stops didn’t get me enough money, I waited outside bars, hoping that drunks would lose coins as they came outside, trying to pocket their money. Often my patience was rewarded. When I finally had my fifteen cents, I then had to beg an adult going into the movie theater to buy a ticket for me (I was only ten, and because it was after dark, I couldn’t get into the theater by myself.) I always picked a young couple who didn’t have wedding rings. “Mister, will you please pretend I’m your kid and buy my ticket for me? I promise you’ll never see me again when we’re inside.” The reason I picked unmarried couples was, the woman would look at the man to see how he reacted to a child’s request (i.e., what kind of father would this guy be?). Sensing that he was being tested, each man always bought my ticket.
So, finally, I was in the theater, which in those days looked like a palace and where I was safe from the family arguments, escaping into the movie on the screen. The films that made the most impression on me were Hitchcock-type thrillers. So is it any wonder that the stories I love to tell are the kind that gave me an escape when I was a kid? And is it any wonder that the fan letters I most treasure are from readers trying to cope with a personal disaster? A divorce, a fire, a flood, a crippling car accident, a loved one’s death, the loss of a job, name the worst thing that happened to you. People trying to survive these things write to thank me for distracting them from their pain just as I was distracted in that movie theater when I was a troubled child.
Apply this mechanism to yourself. Perhaps you want to write romances or science fiction or mainstream novels. Unlike many critics, I make no distinction in terms of whether any type of fiction is more worthy than any other type. They all offer opportunities for imagination and verbal skills. In this regard, Peter Straub is a model. He wrote Ghost Story and Mystery with such respect, brought to those genres such literary honesty, that he showed us the essence of what a ghost story and a mystery are about. Any type of story is only a means–-what a writer does with it is what matters. You’ll find it revealing if, after asking yourself “Why do I want to be a writer?”, you ask yourself, “Why do I want to write this particular kind of fiction?”
“Because I have to.”
“Why do you have to?”
If you follow the logic in the progression of these questions, if you pay attention to the ferret that’s gnawing inside you, you’ll have a subject matter that’s uniquely your own. You’ll also approach your favorite type of story in a way that has special meaning to you. You’ll be an original and not an imitator. Because you’re true to yourself. Because you use your unique one-of-a-kind psyche as your guide. It may be that you’ll never be one of those 200 writers who earn a living at it. But that was never the point in the first place. You didn’t become a writer to make money. You became a writer because your ferret and your daydreams/nightmares forced you to. If you do achieve financial success, all the better. But in the meantime, you did what you knew you had to, and your reward was–-only now is it a valid answer-–the satisfaction of self-expression, of being creative."
Now what did I tell you? Was that a speech or was that a speech? And you know what's funny? I had the answers to his questions before he gave the answers. When he asked "Why do you want to be a writer" the answer was on the tip of my tongue and I almost shouted it out. When he said "are you so tortured...do you constantly daydream to escape reality..." I was busy vigorously nodding my head before he even finished his sentence because I absolutely knew what he was going to say...there isn't a day in my life I don't feel that way.
So yeah. Maybe I am a writer after all.