This Writer’s Life — Pt. 2

In the beginning, God created the Western, or, at least, that’s how it seemed to me as a child in the 1960s. Throughout that decade, America’s love affair with the Western as a movie and TV staple was still going strong. Westerns would be replaced by cop shows in the mid-1970s, but, in the late 1960s, Westerns still dominated with the top TV shows still being stalwarts like Bonanza, the Big Valley, and Gunsmoke. Popular shows from the 50s, such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Maverick, and Death Valley Days, still ran in syndication in the afternoons after school. Plus, my parents, and then my grandparents, regularly took me to Knott’s Berry Farm’s Ghost Town, then to the actual ghost town of Calico, California, which had been revived in the 1950s as a tourist-trap re-created ghost town by Walter Knott himself. Then there was the Western as genre fiction, a tradition that had started with the dime novels of the Old West era and continued with the novels of Owen Wister and Zane Grey, and came to fruition with the pulp writers of the 1930s and 1940s which included Max Brand and Louis L’Amour.

When I was 18 years old, I started reading Louis L’Amour, which lead to a steady reading diet of Max Brand, Zane Grey, Luke Short, Ray Hogan, Ernest Haycox, Matt Braun, Dee Brown, Wayne D. Overholser and more. All of this reading of Western fiction gave me a new ambition. I wanted to be a Western writer. I started a Western novel at 18, but didn’t get past the first few chapters. By then, the movie/TV Western had died, and there was no market for short stories. But there were markets for Mysteries and Science Fiction, so my focus, as a writer at least, shifted to those genres. But the Western was, and is, my first love.

This Writer’s Life — Pt. 1

I’ve been a writer since my first elementary school creative writing assignment, which was in Fifth Grade at Joshua Circle Elementary School in Hesperia, California. The story was an amateurish schoolboy attempt at writing an original fairy tale.

The story involved a King, some gold, and a con man. It had a twist ending, which was not foreshadowed in the slightest, but I loved the Brothers Grimm, the Twilight Zone, and O Henry, so ending the tale with a twist was crucial.

My teacher praised me. My grandma and grandpa praised me, too, but they were not at all surprised by my budding abilities. Since Second Grade, I’d pored through my both my grandparents’ encyclopedia and their Harvard Classics collection, a collection which included Shakespeare, Plutarch, my idol Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and more. I read everything I could find by Mark Twain and Lewis Carroll. I was off to a good start before I even set pencil to paper.

It took a while to realize that I wanted to write. My original career option was to be an Old West gunfighter. It took me a few years to realize that rolling from town to town shooting people for money was not a viable career choice. Then I realized I may not be able to be a gunfighter, but I could write stories about gunfighters, which would be even better because no one actually would have to die, least of all me.

The story means that the hero lives forever. The story makes the hero immortal like Jesus, Santa Claus, or Julius Caesar. In Old West lingo, it’s better to write Dime Novels who about Wild Bill than it is to be Wild Bill.

Storytellers hold the power of life and death over their creations. A real-life hero can die but once, but then that hero’s power passes to those who tell his or her story, and, in that way, that hero dies over and over and over again, like Jesus, Billy the Kid, or Bambi’s Mom.

Which brings me to the next subject in this series: the impact of the Western story on this writer’s life. But I’ll save that all for Pt. 2 in this series.

Tips for Writing Drunk & Editing Sober

THE GREATEST WRITING MAXIM THAT HEMINGWAY NEVER SAID

“Write drunk, edit sober,” it’s an often-quoted bit of advice generally attributed to Ernest Hemingway. This pithy quote is all over the internet. You can buy Write Drunk Edit Sober posters, Write Drunk Edit Sober coffee mugs, and Write Drunk Edit Sober t-shirts, often accompanied by a photo of Papa Hemingway himself.

Write drunk edit sober. Never mind that Hemingway never actually said it. It’s actually a paraphrase of something 1960’s novelist Peter De Vries had his main character say in his 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben.” in that book the character, a famous drunkard poet Gowan McGland, says, “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober…”

You remember De Vries… he’s the guy who said, “I love being a writer… what I can’t stand is the paperwork,” another quote which has often been attributed to everyone from Hemingway to Capote to Groucho Marx. Poor De Vries is the Rodney Dangerfield of American novelists… the Quotation Gods never give him any respect.

Here’s the full McGland utterance:

“Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober, and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

Write drunk edit sober. To quote Yosemite Bear when he saw the double-rainbow, “What can this MEAN?”

Let’s dissect the chief elements of McGland’s fictional utterance, because there is just so much there:

WRITE DRUNK

Okay, most of us have done this, literally, at one time or other. For me, it’s a load of fun but it rarely produces readable copy. The whole Blakean ideal of a derangement of the senses in order to produce Art… it seems to work on some levels for some of us. In my personal experience, getting even a little out of ones head works well for short pieces like poetry, song lyrics, jokes, or story ideas. It doesn’t work at all for me when it comes to writing long stretches of story.

Then again, what intrigues most of us about this whole idea to “Write Drunk Edit Sober” is the realization that Hemingway, De Vries, or whomever we choose to believe said this maxim, was not necessarily trying to say to write drunk in the literal sense, but, rather in a broader metaphorical sense. As Charles Baudelaire wrote, “Get drunk, with wine, with poetry, or with virtue as you please.” Our “drink” may not be drink at all… it could as easily be good food, good company, Love, Romance, Sex, God, or even good old-fashioned sleep-deprivation. In other words, STOP OVERTHINKING THINGS… WRITE without editing yourself. The editor part of you will do his or her job later. Never write and edit at the same time. Even if you have your story all planned out with maps and flow charts and outlines when it’s time to write, then just blow, man. Jam it out. Let yourself get into the white-hot zone of creation. Just jam it out until the words refuse to come out any more. Then put that writing aside ’til at least tomorrow. For now, write like Dionysus/Bacchus on a wine bender, let the rhythm, the music, the colors, the smells, just wash over you like a warm forgiving Sea.

Next, we’ll look at the Apollonian half of the dichotomy. The Soberness. The Editor. Don’t worry, it’ll be fun too. As the saying goes: Writing is Art, Rewriting is Craft.

EDIT SOBER, WAY MORE FUN THAN IT SOUNDS

Alright now, people. This here’s where the rubber meets the road.

You’ve already hammered away at your latest masterpiece, AKA, the WIP, and you wrote it three-sheets to the wind, drunk, plastered, bombed, or at least an approximation thereof (I’ve heard T.M. works great, as does good old-fashioned Speaking in Tongues.) Remember it’s Write Drunk, Edit Sober, so you Wrote Drunk, or at least out-of-your-skull with or without chemical assistance.

So now you’re left with a brilliant-in-spots steaming pile of words.

What to do what to do what to do?

Another Jager Bomb? Later, dude.

Write Drunk, Edit Sober.

It’s coffee time, or Red Bull, or Monster, or Rock Star. But NEVER Diet Rock Star, that offends my sensibilities. I mean, NOBODY ever said, as a child, “When I grow up, I wanna be a DIET Rock Star. Buy me a low cal guitar, Daddy.”

Anyway, it’s time to Edit Sober.

So how do I do that?

Here’s Big Daddy Becker’s Five-Step Program (You were worried I was gonna say Twelve-Step Program, right, ladies? Relax there, Drunky McGee.)

1. READ YOUR COPY ALOUD:

Nothing helps iron out awkward prose like the good old ham-actor’s “Line reading.” You should write they way you speak, anyway, so this is a major step in that direction.

2. CHECK FOR MOVING BLOCKS:

These are paragraphs that make sense, but not necessarily WHERE they are now. Would this paragraph make more sense down the page a click or two, preferably with the other paragraphs that are on the same subject matter. The problem with Writing Drunk, is we have a tendency to “Shoot all over the tree.” So get those disparate threads of thought and put them where they belong. Sing that old Sesame Street song to yourself,”One of these things is not like the others/one of these things does not belong…”

3. CHECK FOR HOMOPHONES:

Homophones are words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things. Watch for these:

Too, Two, To

It’s, its,

Your, You’re

Accept,Except

Affect, Effect

Casual, Causal

Our, Hour

Our, Are

Allusion, Illusion

Than, Then

Pin, Pen

The problem with sound-alike words? Spell-check is not gonna catch them because they are actual words which are spelled correctly, but are being used incorrectly.

Which brings me to my next point…

4. RUN A GRAMMAR CHECK:

This is always a good idea. However, there are times when perfect grammar makes for stiff writing. So read your corrected copy aloud again.

Then….

5. SLEEP ON IT:

Put your copy aside overnight. Edit it again in a day or two when you’re no longer in the white heat of creation. Have you ever re-read one of your stories weeks, months, or even years later only to be pleasantly surprised at how good it is? I have. I’ve even gone so far as to say, “Wow. I actually WROTE THIS? This is pretty good.”

Letting a piece cool-down overnight also helps you put on your editor hat. I love being an editor. I have often fantasized about being a great editor like Maxwell Perkins, Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, or John Campbell. Using the element of Time to separate your own writing from your churning creative brain allows you to edit your copy as if you were not the writer. Be the sober Max Perkins, let that drunken Thomas Wolfe stay home in North Carolina nursing his hangover while you’re in your Manhattan offices sharpening your blue pencil.

Get to it, baby.

My Sample Restaurant Letter

THE LOST CUBAN

ENJOY A NEW EXPERIENCE WITH GREAT COMPANY THIS FRIDAY NIGHT AT IOWA’S ONLY CUBAN RESTAURANT… THE LOST CUBAN

Dear Laura,

I recently discovered Cedar Rapids premier Cuban restaurant, the Lost Cuban. You and I have often discussed the fact that we’re each bored with the dozen Chinese, Mexican, Italian, and other restaurants in the area, and I’d heard of the Lost Cuban, so it was on my short list of places to try.

I’m so very glad I did.

The Lost Cuban is located in Cedar Rapids newly-revitalized downtown. I arrived after 6 pm, which is, happily, when the downtown parking meters and parking garages turn Free, so parking was a breeze.

The place has open seating, and looks more like a lunch place, but we’re here for the food, not the atmosphere.

My drink was a Sangria. Sarah ordered a mojito.

The other patrons were in a celebratory mood, and that rubbed off on us. We were having a blast when the food arrived.

I ordered the Cuban Sandwich. Sarah ordered the Ropa Vieja, a savory dish that consists of shredded stewed beef with vegetables. It is typical for ropa vieja to have a sweet undertone due to the use of fully ripe red bell peppers. Sarah confirmed that it was marvelous, while my Torta Cubana was the best I’ve had this side of Miami.

I’ll pick you up Friday at 6, so we can get to The Lost Cuban in time.

You will not regret a single mouthful.