Friday, December 23, 2011

Becoming A Writer

Adapted from a March 1998 speech to the Macon, Georgia Writers’ Club

I thought I’d talk today about several aspects of the writing life, some of them practical, some mystical. I hope that I can do justice to the tradition you have long established here. To stand in a spot once occupied by Flannery O'Connor, no matter how briefly, must give any writer pleasure.

I can only speak about what I’ve found to be true for myself, because much of becoming a writer is finding what works for you. This is why the standard writer’s interview often seems absurd. We know how it goes: if the author scribbles or types his first drafts, works in the morning or late at night, reads his work aloud to his wife or husband or cat or mongoose, etcetera. I don’t think that stuff matters any more than whether we wash our knees first or our elbows.

One of the best things a writer can learn early on is that how I pull the rabbit out of the hat might not be the way you should do it, and neither of us may be able to change the docile bunny to a rainbow of silk handkerchiefs no matter how hard we try. Most writers are only given a limited range of illusions which come naturally, and it’s important to learn which sleight of hand you must practice to make your art appear complete, and which conjuring tricks you must graciously leave to others. Paul Theroux put it succinctly. He said, “We don’t write as we want to, we write as we can.”

So our duty to our writing selves, to our talents, to the part of us that wants to give life to something in language that’s our very own, is to find what we should be writing at any given moment, and abandon any idea of writing like some luminary we admire. The problem is that the answers may surprise us. What your imagination announces you should be writing this year may not be within your grasp at this stage (though the imagination is usually right), and it may not be what the rest of you thinks you should be writing ever.

The question of how one becomes a writer is about as full of hidden dangers as someone asking where you were last night. I don’t think I’ve ever been shy about giving writing advice to anyone who would sit still and take it, but I found that when you invited me here and I began considering how I became a writer, I was surprised at how quickly my memory pulled down the blinds in the window.

Let’s frankly admit that what we’re really asking is how one becomes a good writer, or at least a better writer. I know one point that the greats up in heaven, our former colleagues, would agree on: some days, some years, and even some decades, you don’t make progress; you stay in place or get turned around and go backward. This is why we should judge a writer by his strengths, by his best work.

To me a writer is simply someone who writes a lot, in the sense that a pianist is someone who plays the piano a lot—and play is a word I’ll return to. I have always found unbearable those people who sit across from you and sip their coffee like a writer, and dress as they think a real writer should, and carry the shoulder bag they think a writer should, and keep up with the books they guess a writer should. They talk like writers and make love like writers and use their forks and knives like writers; they wear their writer-ness like an elaborate cape. In a line of work where quality depends on uniqueness, they’re trying hard to follow a pattern and inhabit a role.

In my experience of meeting first-rate writers, craftsmanship and genius rarely come in the human form you expect. I love this, and I love what it suggests about people—that their essence is rarely what we first imagine. This sense of constant human surprise is, to me, pure joy.

You become a writer by writing, and you become better by writing more than you ever thought possible. It might not be what you do most of the time—but even though a Swiss Army knife has fifty-three other functions, it still has the right to call itself a knife.

The hard part for many people early in their writing lives is believing through and through that they’re able to do it. To get anywhere you must take it for granted you can, that with dedication you’ll get somewhere—then thrust the pesky question aside and carry on with the job. Every writer is beset by fears, especially early in a project, but you have to keep going and slip through them, no matter how many drafts it takes. The vast question of whether you’ll ever prove a good writer must be answered yes—yes, that is, if you really do love to write, love it despite difficulties and setbacks, perhaps love it more because of them. And once answered yes, the question must be banished, because it’s never a fruitful line of inquiry.

It can also become, especially in writers starting out, an excuse for not getting on with the work at hand, which deserves all the concentration you can give. If the problem is that to write seems to demand a bigger sense of ego than can be easily summoned up, I would answer that first, in any work, confidence comes and goes to a writer like bouts of good and bad weather, and some days you just have to stay out there in the fields when the weather’s awful.

The answer is not to make your ego as large as it can be but rather as small, so you can slip through the difficulties like a needle through a wall of rock. If you do that, I promise, the work will still look and sound unmistakably like you. Keep your focus on the work at hand, not on you. As the poet Peyton Houston, one of my personal saints, wrote: “Everything was in shadow until I got out of the way.”

So how did I become a writer? Good question.

It’s hard for me to remember a time when I didn’t know I was going to be a writer. Soon I set about becoming a musician as well; this is still an enormous part of my life. There were a few months at age seventeen, the dire old age of childhood, when I thought I was done with writing, the well had run dry. The following year I wrote my first novel, which shows just how wrong you can be.

I had learned to read at age four and soon read very well, and began writing little stories by age six. I don’t think an early start matters in the least, it’s simply what happened to me. I have a solid memory of lying on my stomach, scrawling away at a half-page saga, and of the satisfaction it gave me to put quotation marks around dialogue, because then it looked like the real thing.

At the heart of this memory, though, is the love of books. If I could devour books now with the healthful gluttony and remorseless speed as I did then, I might be well-read. I used to wake through some internal pressure at four in the morning and read in bed until it was time to get up for school; and because most schoolwork came easily to me my main memory of grammar school is lugging piles of books home from the library every couple of days.

That library was an Eden to me. There is, of course, a serpent in Eden, and the cruel temptation was that I wasn’t allowed to check out books from the adult floor, where they obviously kept the more interesting volumes. Like, say, The Count of Monte Cristo, unabridged and as heavy as a strongbox. For a while I attempted to check out books on my mother’s card. Whether they cared that I was not Gladys Lasky Weller, or realized that (despite all my shameless lies) my mother couldn’t possibly be asking me to take out books on Genghis Khan, the battle of the Little Big Horn, and space travel to Neptune, either way, my hopes were thwarted.

So I used to spend a few idyllic afternoons every week at the library after walking there from school. They could stop me taking those books home, but they couldn’t stop me reading in a corner. Eventually the rule-makers relented, and on the strength of my mother’s card I was given the keys to this adult paradise.

In a grove across the street, where I waited for the bus, was a marble bench honoring the poet Sidney Lanier, whose bust gleamed upstairs in the library. Every day I’d ponder that it must be a fine thing to be a writer; they sculpted your likeness, they remembered your words, they even planted flowers in your honor. I thankfully didn’t consider the weed in the flowerbed—so many writers, so few memorials. In European cities they used to name streets after even minor authors, so they’re not forgotten though they might remain unread. I wouldn’t bet on this trend returning.

My reading, outside of what my English mother fed me with unerring taste, was scattershot. There was a good deal of poetry, whose music cast a lasting spell; for much of my life I’ve written nearly as much poetry as prose. Earlier I mentioned a love of books—I mean by that a love of the object itself. Part of wanting to write is the desire for a binding with your name on it. Most writers have an affection for the printed word; an eye for dust jackets and the merits of alternative editions; an appreciation of typefaces and the look of lines on a page, the way paper feels, the heft and shape of a book. I can still remember arranging titles I wanted to read on my desk at school—those desks on the wrong side for a left-hander.

My social experience growing up here, in what was then a smallish city in central Georgia, doubtless contributed to my becoming a writer. I rode a city bus to and from grammar school, because my mother didn’t drive, and as a result ended up not participating in the usual activities, with a lot of time to myself for reading. Before, when I was too small to go home alone, I’d walk downtown to my mother’s ballet studio and read away the afternoons while she taught and rehearsed. And though we had many friends, partly because my father (a Bostonian) was always abroad covering some war or other as a reporter, and because my mother remained a Londoner with much of her mind in Europe, I never felt myself entirely an American or truly a Southerner. I say this although I feel great love for Macon, for Georgia, and for the South; this part of the country holds greater magic for me than New England, where I now live. Still, to this day I feel more general affinity for European writers than American ones, and undoubtedly my writing reflects this.

In any event, this social situation was a childhood laboratory preparing me for my profession. V. S. Pritchett has likened the writer to a man living on a frontier. This means having one foot planted in the familiar country that everyone inhabits, and the other foot in the private country he spends page after page exploring—with the internal country really a dream-version of the other, like a hand-shadow thrown on a wall whose ultimate shape may bear little resemblance to what produced it. So from an early age I got used to being simultaneously an outsider and an insider: to feeling part of a community, and safe within it, while also feeling utterly removed from it. I’ve never really felt anything different no matter where I was.

Of course we all feel this way. There’s us, and everybody else—which is why other people are fundamentally unknowable. I think of James Joyce, writing, “A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me?” But the writer is different to the degree that the country on the other side of the frontier is for him generated with more detail and energy than for most people, precisely because it’s constantly being visited and mapped and farmed and populated and explored. This double life allows a writer to move in and out of the world he’s creating on the page, and the room he happens to be working in, with the blithe ease of someone waving a diplomatic passport at agreeable border officials. I should add that whenever the work goes badly the border officials turn very surly. For me one test of whether a work’s going well is whether what I’m writing about remains more vivid than what’s going on around me when I stop for lunch.

These countries on either side of the frontier also represent the subjective and objective sides of the writer. By "subjective" I mean the ability to immerse yourself in what your imagination offers you, with no more second-guessing than you’d give to a dream when you’re asleep. But this must be followed by a ruthless scrutiny, over and over, by the objective, rewriting mind. Yet that scrutiny is valuable only if it is able to wholeheartedly reenter the spirit of the initial dream almost instantaneously, and be reminded of what the imagination was striving for, then dart back to the terrain of the written page and make the necessary adjustments.

This back-and-forthing is often very tricky, especially in the early stages of a work, but as you press on and acquire a deeper sense of what the work will be, that open border becomes casual—the way a smuggler finds a convenient frontier crossing-point, a hidden pass through the mountains, where he can slip from country to country alongside his pack-mules loaded with contraband, and no rifle-toting guards anywhere in sight. Thus the act of writing is first imagining what a work will be, then discovering as you write what it is—and successfully reconciling the two (we hope) with what it ought to be.

My mother, one of the most widely cultured and open-minded people I’ve known, gave me a great deal besides teaching me to read and providing me with unending books and enthusiasm for my writing. We traveled overseas on the cheap every summer, and this interest in other ways of life has been crucial to me. The sooner a writer understands that everybody thinks differently and we all of us believe we’re justified in everything we say and do, the better. Travel exposed me to other languages, which meant a lot to my inner ear. Young, I saw many of the best art museums in Europe; I think my visual sense is one of my strengths as a writer and probably comes from this. Through my mother I was exposed to the rigors of the ballet world at its highest levels, and this also is good for someone determined to do creative work—to get an idea early on of the costs as well as the possible rewards, and to shake hands with greatness.

Around age eight I began to read a good deal of science fiction and fantasy. This lasted five years, until I went off to boarding school. I haven’t read anything of the genre since, but it was a healthy obsession for a writer-to-be. Because much of the apparatus of science fiction doesn’t depend on an adult experience of the world, I could feel capable of writing it myself in a way that “regular” books denied me. I wrote a number of science fiction or fantasy stories in 7th and 8th grade, and a kindly editor in New York sent me a helpful book on shaping stories in the setup-climax-resolution way. Inadvertently I became the youngest published science fiction author in history—I still hear from the genre statisticians—unless some upstart has eclipsed my record. A paperback anthology called Infinity Three turned down a story I sent them, but accepted a poem. I wrote it at age twelve; it came out when I was thirteen.

The virtue of the way my boarding school taught English was that you were required to write a story every week. Obviously some people were better at it than others, but if you’re hoping to become a writer, one short story a week from ninth through twelfth grades is not a bad place to start. Senior year I took a special writing course that was wonderful partly because the teacher kept us reading modern fiction, and at an exhausting rate. We had three nights to handle Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and we were expected to deal with Borges or Barth or Cary in a night or two. To someone accustomed to standard high school fare, these books were like a sequence of detonations, of well-timed depth charges, and made anything seem permissible in our own stories. Bravery and experimentation were encouraged, and the result was that instead of trying to imitate Hemingway we tried to write like ourselves. Out of a dozen-odd classmates at least four write professionally.

In college I found that the Yale approach to reading was not of much use to me. To hear their pretentious literary analyses executed on a hapless text was like watching a live butterfly get its wings pinned back, or hearing people who haven’t the slightest idea how to build a table talking with authority about the ludic cross-pollination between a table’s semiotics and its hermeneutic sense-memory. All those syllables left me—who wanted mainly to learn how the bits of wood fit together—literally over in the Music Building. The academic approach struck me as irrelevant, and I noticed that the only books they deigned to discuss were those that suited their souped-up, techno-syllabic, hot-rod crypto-lingo. So I stopped taking English classes and wrote novels and poetry on my own.

At this point I got very lucky. I was taken under the wing of a superb older poet, Peyton Houston, who for decades gave me the kind of word-by-word, line-by-line tutelage that a young poet can only dream about. All this time I’ve kept writing poems; perhaps they’re my best work. In any case, I believe poetry is the highest, most flexible state that language can achieve, and to practice it even occasionally is of immeasurable value for anybody who aspires to write well.

I also fortunately came under the influence of a Spanish composer, Julián Orbón, with whom I studied musical composition for years. These two men, who died early in the ’90s, influenced my approach more than anybody else has.

From them I got a powerful conviction that art, no matter how it may surprise or shock us, must still always be logical and never arbitrary in its construction and development. They gave me a sense of how compelling a force structure can be in a work, and how organic that structure must be—that the tiniest detail, no matter how ornamental it might seem, must abet the entirety, and give a sense of resonating and flowering across the total architecture. That every word, every beat, must be gone over again and again, questioned and prodded and thrown back into the smelting furnace. That you must be on guard against the banal, the tired, the done-before. That you must know our predecessors’ work very well, and not be afraid to use the tradition, while renewing it radically in making something fresh and yours.

They also impressed upon me an ability to severely cut what I’d done, to leave only what was alive and really essential: an ideal work contains a minimum of words, the truthful minimum. They taught me not to be afraid of simplicity while seeking a pressure of ideas, and to be on guard against striking a pose or shouting for effect. And that the whole should have the appearance, after all that rewriting, of being spontaneous, of inventing itself right before your eyes.

Finally, they taught me how hard it is to get anywhere in the arts, that quality has little to do with it and this doesn’t matter—that you created something beautiful was enough and must remain enough. We are measured by what we can perceive and what we do with those perceptions, not by the zeros on a publisher’s contract.

So I wrote a novel freshman year, which came naturally, and got a literary agent, who tried but failed to sell that book. I wrote a second novel with enormous difficulty; the more I worked the more labored it became, because the rule is that the second novel is allowed to whack you as much as it wants to see if you’re serious. Thankfully, after two years of this punishment my agent—Dorothy Olding, who represented Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Agatha Christie, Anthony Powell, and Muriel Spark—called at seven one morning and woke me by advising I give up and go on to the next book. Great advice, abrupt freedom: sometimes the gods are kind.

I finished my third novel the summer after graduating from college. My agent couldn’t sell that one either, though we came close. I moved to New York and wrote The Garden of the Peacocks from 1980-82, but soon took it back from her because I realized, in a flash of revelation, that the family saga of a wilful Cuban sculptor was beyond my reach, and nothing was gained by circulating a catastrophe to publishers.

I then spent three years on another novel which, again, came very close with a couple of publishing houses but, after initial excitement from individual editors, got sent back by their evil committees. All this time I supported myself with odd jobs: as a guitarist, and as a freelance magazine journalist, sent abroad a great deal.

I returned to The Garden of the Peacocks for another four years. I was barely staying afloat in Amsterdam, Paris, Turkish Cyprus, and finally Massachusetts. By 1990 I got the Peacocks pretty close to how it was eventually published. I now had a different agent, Henry Dunow, my first having been incapacitated by a stroke. My new agent did his damnedest—the novel was turned down by thirty-five publishers. A roulette wheel has no memory; the odds are bad but unchanging, each time.

Meanwhile I wrote another novel, The Polish Lover. Three more years on the tightrope, before a helpful colleague suggested that the answer to structuring a compressed novel about a love affair gone wrong was to leap among several time-streams and leave out a lot. It’d been turned down by two dozen houses when the head of Marlowe, a mid-size New York publisher, read it, loved it, and bought it and the Peacocks, plus a half-finished travel memoir of a road journey across India and Pakistan, from Calcutta to the Khyber Pass, that originated as an article I did for Smithsonian magazine.

Suddenly in early 1996 I went from being on the verge of giving up to having three book contracts. This may sound like sour grapes, but the feeling was not one of triumph but rather of sheer relief. The triumph came not when I held the finished book—partly because color xeroxes skew your notion of what the cover’s going to look like—but when the initial set of proofs came in, and for the first time I saw my words arrayed on paper that resembled not my typescript but the pages of a book.

Having written so much from a young age, I’d had every reason to think my career would get off to an early start. I hadn’t reckoned how very hard it is and how slim the chances are, because there are so many more writers who deserve to be published than ever will be. To be good enough simply doesn’t get you very far: you have to be lucky also. It was twenty years after I finished my first novel before I got a publisher, twenty years of working ceaselessly on little sleep while buying time to do my own writing. My breakthrough came at a moment when I’d vowed to give up novels and write only poetry. A novel-in-progress takes up a colossal space in one’s life, and I was sick of getting nowhere. I doubted I could write significantly better books, and to pretend I might coincide with what they were buying next season seemed naive.

It is all too easy for me to bring back that sensation of being nullified by the publishing world, and though I now have seven books out, the muscle I developed of keeping that sensation at bay still gets exercised all the time. It taught me that no matter what your goals are—whether you’re writing a poem, an article, a memoir, a novel, a screenplay, a journal, a comic book, or something none of us have thought of—you must not blink or give up. Sometimes I feel I got rewarded by not going away; if you hang around long enough, perhaps attention gets paid. When I try to analyze how my writing improved over the years—how different, truly, is the last draft of The Garden of the Peacocks, which a publisher bought, from the rejected draft before?—I’m left utterly befuddled.

Still, I have a theory that editors everywhere, especially at publishers but also at magazines, have a weird sixth sense. Most are second- or third-rate minds, many are frustrated writers (sometimes surprisingly bad or good ones), and they’re filled with plenty of wrong answers but few of the right questions. Yet after being daily pummeled by manuscript after manuscript, they do acquire an animal instinct for when a work has not been fully imagined, not been taken all the way; and I believe the reason my earlier work was not accepted was because it was only 80% or 90% of the way there. Editors, alas, just cannot lavish their time on a risky first novel to haul the manuscript that last 10% of the distance—and it’s artistically perhaps the most important 10%. (Professionally, it certainly is.)

Thus you should be very, very careful about sending out work; many writers submit it too hastily. Keeping it in a drawer for one month or six will not hurt, and you’ll be surprised at what you see when you go back to it. My mistake was that because I’m a tireless reviser, I felt sure that after countless drafts, when I saw nothing more to change, this meant the book was ready. Had I been willing to wait and look at it again after an enforced absence, I’d have vastly improved my chances. You have to tell yourself: There is no hurry. There is no hurry. And whenever you feel the urge to speed up your final editorial process, slow it down instead.

Today the difficulties that writers eternally face are wildly magnified by a market changing under the pressure of many other media yelling for the attention of a bored audience in need of higher and higher dosages of excitement. Each season from every nook of the electronic jungle more possibilities arise than ever, and it’s hard for an original talent to make itself heard. We’re living through a time when the role of fiction has changed fundamentally from forty years ago. Ever since movies came along there has been a gradual shift, and the last decades have amplified and sped up this sea-change. Nowadays when an audience wants a good story it turns to film, a much more natural medium for simple narrative—delivering a plot with relevant details. People’s basic notions of what a story is have become more defined by what films can provide than by what prose can.

This isn’t the place to go into the differences between the two, but just as people once read epic poems for the story, and gave up on them in favor of novels, now they watch movies. DVD rentals are our equivalent of the 19th century lending library. Thus the adequately-written “story” novel of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s scarcely exists anymore, except in particular genres like mysteries. Likewise, the Grishams, Clancys, Browns, and Crichtons (plus ever-multiplying acolytes) do not rely on language for their effects but are instead anti-language. Their books read like film synopses and depend heavily on an audience’s familiarity with movies and borrowed images to convey a scene.

This is usually spoken of as a bad thing, but I’m not sure it is. Books have always been a minority interest, and it’s better if writers stop trying to wage a war they can’t win and instead concentrate on the special things language can do.

Let me close by offering a few bits of writing advice that should be taken with plenty of salt. They are merely what I’ve found to be true, for me.

The first is that you must write pretty nearly every day if you want to sink deep into your own work and improve it. The imagination is the laziest muscle in the body, and unless it’s relied on constantly it will atrophy. I leave out, of course, the vacations that are needed to recharge the batteries after hard labor—but these should be earned vacations, not excuses.

In any case, follow a routine. Even if you can only write two days a week for an hour each, stick to that schedule no matter what, and choose a time that you know is safe, when no one will disturb you and you won’t be called away. You’ll be surprised at all the pages you produce even under such time constraints.

A test I always subject my writing to, draft after draft, is how much can be cut and thrown away without damaging the effect I’m striving for.

The advice you usually hear is to write about what you know. I’d emend this to say: Write while standing on the shoulders of what you know. A lot of people try to get started by keeping a journal. This always strikes me amiss because I’ve never been able to keep one; whatever I write sounds phony. There’s nothing harder than writing currently about oneself. Maybe a place to start is with a memory of childhood or of a family member or, better still, a glimpse of someone you know peripherally—the fellow who sells you coffee every day. The more you can free yourself from worry over what you’re saying about someone close to you, the better; the only way to write well is to not care in the slightest what people will think. What’s crucial is to find something you can write about that makes you sound like you. And it might be a subject you don’t feel attached to.

You must also learn to be kind to yourself, to understand that there are times when you can’t get the words to wrap around their intended meanings and a story just won’t budge on the page. This doesn’t mean you should give it up, but might mean you should put it aside for a while or try a radically different approach. I got familiar with this in writing the Peacocks, juggling four characters’ points of view. I often found myself stubbornly rewriting a scene many times until I realized that no amount of work was going to inject light into a chapter where I’d chosen the wrong point of view. So I’d start over. In the end those blind alleys were all necessary.

The problem of point of view is fundamental. There is the narrow view of the first-person narrator, who makes up for a limited horizon with an intense gaze and a personal voice; the trade-off is versus the all-seeing, all-knowing vista of the third person, which seemingly gives us the entire world of the story. In my first novel I tried to combine them, to write looking over a particular character’s shoulder in each chapter. My third novel, The Siege of Salt Cove, is told by thirty-nine different narrators, who pass the ball of the plot among them. The quandary, always, is to gently find out what form the story wants: you cannot tell it, it must tell you.

Another error that rarely occurs to people is that sometimes a paragraph or a sentence may be very good, but not in the right location to do its job. It may belong on page three, not page eight.

At the beginning I mentioned a question every writer faces, of what you should be writing at this point in your writing life. A natural corollary is that it’s you who have to figure out your own solutions to the problems that crop up on the page. (Some difficulties recur constantly; every writer faces the awkwardness of moving a character from one room to another.) I’m talking here about the larger problems in a work. It’s great if you can learn from Maugham, Flaubert, or even Mickey Spillane, but be wary of the solution that comes ready-made from an outside literary source.

Writing is self-discovery, and in most works there comes a time—even if you’re writing what is natural and apt for you now—when you must write scenes or characters that terrify you, that you’re sure you cannot possibly pull off. I now understand these tests are in the work from the very beginning, built by our imaginations into the site plan. And that the aspect of a work which we fear to write most is probably the part we absolutely must write. When I look back at my books I see that many parts I was terrified of in fact wrote themselves smoothly and turned out well once I stopped playing games and avoiding them. It’s necessary to paint yourself into a corner: that’s when you find out how far you can leap.

Earlier I spoke of a writer as being like a smuggler working two frontiers. The smuggling image may seem a romantic one for someone who sits at a table for hours turning sentences back and forth. But good writing always carries an element of danger, if only by showing us the world as we haven’t seen it before. The hardest, most important part of the process, where many talented and determined writers fail, is that they don’t keep in mind how a successful smuggler is always searching for previously unavailable goods. Not enough writers ask themselves if there’s anything really fresh, or downright new, in what they’ve written, if it isn’t ground that’s been gone over thoroughly by many who came before. If so, you must be courageous enough to discard the parts that are familiar and find some way, even in a short story about a couple who break up, to bring us something we’ve never read, whether it’s in the characters or the situation or your approach. Most people aren’t brutally self-critical enough in this regard, but it’s what makes a work timeless and energetic, and why the best writing of the past still looks vibrant.

Lastly, the question we all face, at the heart of becoming a writer, is why? Why do it? It does set you free—no matter how frustrating the writing is, or what your external circumstances are, no matter how profound your financial defeat, it turns you into a free man. I know that I’ve never gotten over the enchantment of language, the intoxication of those rare moments when earth and sky upend and it all suddenly appears on the page, at least for a sentence or two.

I’ve had other rewards. My journalism let me see the world and forced me to be gregarious in ways that even a vast income never would have, and this plurality of human experience deepened my writing. Had I never done that, never been able to publish novels, I’d have gone on writing poetry and probably stories anyway, and not just from habit. Ultimately, to write forces you to understand what you did not understand before, to confront yourself and find out who you are and what you know of the world outside you and the world in you. It liberates you from the ghastly prison of self and enables you to see the hills and the sea and the light on the buildings and the people around you as you never have, by writing them down. And if you work hard enough, and trust your imagination enough, you can remake those myriad ever-multiplying worlds in a language that’s your own and no one else’s.

This is, I believe, as close as the human can ever come to the divine—not in the sense of wisdom or power, but in the sense of play. And if your words are at all original, the truths released by them will be original too, and there on the written page you will find the world new again.

Which seems, to me, reason enough to be here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Old Guidebooks

Any connoisseur of travel eventually becomes a connoisseur of guidebooks. To be in a new place is to face one's ignorance, and a great guidebook can not only educate you but actually change your life. Yet few books age more quickly—who would ever pay cover price for a guide to Paris from five years ago?

But early in travel I learned that the truly out-of-date guide, obsolete for thirty or even a hundred and thirty years, can be invaluable. They are the most detailed time capsules we possess about the world as it actually was. I can page through a 1962 guide to the Bahamas and there my childhood lingers, isle by happy isle. Or I can open a 1929 Baedeker to Egypt, the decades peel away, and a vanished Cairo is revealed—right where it always was, hiding under the present.

Mass tourism began (1841) with Mr. Thomas Cook in England organizing a long day's excursion; but guidebooks for the bold voyager came before. By the mid-19th century, these guides had enlarged the Grand Tour to include the farthest reaches of Empire—for touristic and imperial motives always follow each other like pickpockets.

The three best series of guides can still be bought for a few dollars per volume at used bookshops. Delved into over and over through the years, in the field they for me proved wiser and just as useful as their up-to-date colleagues. They also remind me how travel is always as much an experience of time as space.

Les Guides Bleus (The Blue Guides) originated in France and, naturally, concentrate in most detail on its pleasures, mile by mile; they soon appeared in English for the benefit of the more savage traveler. Their format, even between the world wars, remained pure 19th century—miraculous mini-encyclopedias of small print, dense maps, and compression—but their mood was a weird mix of the concerned local who doesn't want you to wander astray and the urbane intellectual who hopes to elevate your sensibilities. Their rich blue covers are still lovely.

Favorite moments? A 1923 guide to the Rhone Valley kindly reminds the traveler doing suggested routes "in an opposed direction" to make all necessary changes, "notably those in respect to right and left, or going up and coming down." The 1919 guide to Loire chateaus contains photos of every village, with arrows telling you which turn to take for where, determined to make sure you won't get lost.

The John Murray Handbooks, from London, began in 1820 when that publisher adventurously hired an experienced lady traveler to produce a handbook of "the Continent." It was such a success that Murray followed with a series that embraced all Europe and also included Egypt, Russia, Hong Kong, Australia, and dozens of countries in-between. Bound in a soft, gold-lettered red with dozens of foldout maps of stunning accuracy and usability, the Murray's guides set a standard never surpassed. They were written by experts, updated every few years, and extremely thorough. (The 1912 Ireland guide is over six hundred pages of tiny print; thirty are devoted to angling.) Editorial policy was to answer any question that might arise. The "Handbook for India, Burma, and Ceylon" began as four huge volumes written by a Captain Eastwick over thirty years; in the end it became one book nearly a thousand pages long, and is still the best guide to the subcontinent.

Though they followed Murray (the bindings even look alike), the original Baedekers—which began in 1832 and ended in 1944 when the Leipzig factory got bombed—have become a synonym for the detailed, exhaustive guide. A family business, Baedeker grew to include 78 titles in English, French, and German. They provide a handy vista of travel habits. The French Riviera had its own enormous volume; the United States, Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Alaska all got lumped together. Baedeker followed Murray's practice of assuming (until WWII) that people journeyed to experience and to learn, not to buy and consume. They are written in a formal, dry, witty prose that has aged well (on Naples: "The traveller is often tempted to doubt whether such a thing as honesty is known here.") even if the inch-by-inch approach can tire. Like Murray, they have a lordly, impartial incorruptibility which is now sadly obsolete.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Where'd You Get That Afterlife?

For years I had an instinct I might write a novel about the afterlife. Before beginning The Land of Later On I felt, dutifully, that I ought to do a bit of research. You see the problem.

My favorite research involves identifying stuff I don’t have to read. I could immediately dismiss Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; I’d encountered them in college, and I figured those two masterpieces of the hereafter would now only get in my own pedestrian way.

More serious a threat were several superb cultural histories of Heaven or Eternity or whatever you feel comfortable calling the Great Perhaps. Yet the closer I got to my blank opening page, the more I realized I didn’t want to coagulate my novel with anybody else’s ideas of what happens after we die. My guess was surely just as good as theirs, wasn't it?

I also hoped to write a novel that might prove as funny as it was (with luck) poetic.

What clinched my aversion to homework was an accidental find at a flea market. For a quarter I splurged on a pamphlet from the 1930s, with a title like Is There Life After Death? Finally, I thought, we’re getting somewhere.

In fact, I’d just thrown away twenty-five cents. It took a while for the author to get to his point: there isn’t any afterlife, because there’ve been so many gazillion people since the dawn of time, there wouldn’t be room for them all. He did the math to prove it, too. This argument had so many holes I didn’t know where to start. Anyway, when it came to imagining the afterlife, I soon realized I was better off without somebody else’s site plan or map or ideology.

So I wrote The Land of Later On. Here’s how my narrator, Kip, first explains the setup:

“Infinite in space and time, its denizens are those who choose to stay. You can occupy any place and era you like, for as long as you like. You can set up headquarters in an idyllic Mediterranean port and stroll out across the cobblestones of 14th century Mecca, or 19th century San Francisco, or the airborne walkways of next century’s Singapore. You can have breakfast on one continent in one century and lunch on another in another. For some people this is heaven; others never go anywhere. Why risk an unpredictable journey? A lot can go wrong if you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Kip (a New York jazz pianist whose career ended a while ago) isn’t in search of any of this. He’s on an improvised quest to find the love of his life, Lucy, who died four years before he committed suicide. And he doesn’t care how many centuries and continents it takes—if she’s still waiting for him, somewhere in the afterlife.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Talking to Myself

Like many writers, I always depended on routine. Discipline is too high-minded a word for the unvarying schedule that kept me going, kept me producing—three decades, seven books, hundreds of magazine articles, innumerable poems. I’d rise early and get to my desk early; I’d stay there, happily, until the day’s requisite pages were done.

Each writer finds his own approach, and I don’t think it matters more than whether we wash our knees first or our elbows. My method was always the same: initial two drafts handwritten in ink, later drafts typed. I avoided doing early stages on a computer because electronics make it too easy to revise midstream, to second-guess the imagination.

That all changed a few years back. Otherwise very healthy, in my late forties I got hit with progressive (so-called) multiple sclerosis. This is not the version of the disease you read about, with drug therapies that often work. Mine, relatively scarce, eats away at you as insistently as a bulldozer; there’s no off switch. I’m now utterly wheelchair-bound, tire very quickly, and can no longer scribble legibly by hand. I can type with only one finger.

As a result I’ve had to transform entirely the way I write. Superficially, the solution seems a 21st-century privilege of technology. In fact, it’s rather old-fashioned.

Three years ago, while trying to figure out my future, I was faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem: to assemble a 700-page compilation of the finest World War II reporting by my father, George Weller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent. Beyond the difficulty of selecting the right articles, they needed to be fed into my laptop, and I had only six months. My finger was going to wear out rapidly; scanning smudged photocopies of old newspapers just got me gobbledygook; and I couldn’t afford a typist.

I described my quandary to a friend, along with the hope that in some glowing, rosy tomorrow I’d be able to talk to my screen and watch words appear. He waited for me to finish basking in my dream, then said, “Wake up.” (His phrase was more vivid.) “You can buy the program this afternoon, cheap. At any computer shop. Even a dummy can work it.”

He was right, of course, and pouring someone else’s words into a machine was a foolproof way to learn the tricks and teach the software the vagaries of my voice. But could I compose a new novel? My sole experience with trying to speak creative thoughts aloud, twenty-five years earlier, had been disastrous. On assignment in Oman, I’d dictated several cassettes’ worth of immortal travel impressions then returned to Manhattan to find them full of useless malarkey. A verbal altitude sickness, embarrassingly brought on at sea level.

By sheer luck my novel (The Land of Later On, about a jazz pianist improvising his way through the afterlife) was narrated in the first person, so it was natural to talk my way through. The chapters were short, also, which seemed right for the story—though now that it’s done and published, I can’t help wondering if this may have been due to my slightly hindered breathing.

I’m still troubled by how, because my voice changes throughout the day, the dictation accuracy level veers wildly. Because I haven’t formally established myself to the software as separate blabbermouths depending on the time, it can’t know which me is talking. (This is doubtless specific to my situation.)

The result is that usually I have to repeat at least part of each sentence, sometimes a whole clause, to get it right. At first I tried to storm on ahead, to preserve momentum; but when I’d go back to a paragraph, even moments later, I found I couldn’t remember what I meant nor reconstruct it. It’s normal to be unable to decipher bits of your own handwriting days later, but the frustration is far more profound when you can’t make sense of what you just said. It took me a while to get used to the annoyance of having to speak the same line over and over and over again, for almost anything becomes ludicrous when repeated so many times verbatim. The temptation is to change a few words, simply to preserve sanity.

My great advance was to switch from using a headset (I’ve wrestled with numerous models, and always lost) to a futuristic black microphone on a silver pedestal. As a few helpful colleagues have reminded me, I’m now in august company. John Milton, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry James, and Alfred Hitchcock all dictated masterpieces—though the age of the private secretary has given way to the age of the personal computer.

I have no excuse.

Monday, November 28, 2011

How Soon We Forget

Flush toilets and cell phones aside, human history is not necessarily a steep upward rappel out of the slime. It’s more like a hot, choking crawl through thick sand to the next mirage of an oasis. Still, inevitably, each generation invents its own self-flattering fictions about The Past—those poor chumps who either had it a lot better or worse than ourselves. These days the drift of time seems to wash up ever more detritus, from yesteryear’s lunchboxes to a sense that old man Truman had it all figured out. Nostalgia is a comfortable and unthreatening faith, which is why in troubled eras it’s always a major religion.

Now, the flip side of nostalgia is Amnesia: erasing the past to make the present look newer. I have nothing against turning the world into one big souk, but in our ultra-plugged-in age, as people cheer for the brainstorm of wireless shopping, I get a mite uneasy. Not to knock the Internet, but some of this got done before, and pretty well.

The myth is that we invented the miracle of armchair commerce. It’s easy to forget how good our Victorian predecessors had it. Over a century ago the British Empire’s mail-order catalogues routinely offered banjos, cricket flannels, hip baths, trouser presses, double-barreled shotguns, and the latest Dickens to all corners of the world. Whiteley’s bragged that they would ship you anything from a pin to an elephant. Several London department stores, given one day’s notice, would deliver an elaborate champagne picnic for a hundred guests (crystal and cutlery included) to any address in England; just try to get that now. In those days the sun never set on the flag of home shopping.

On our own shores the great purveyor to a nation was Sears Roebuck, from whom you could mail-order an entire house. Sears’ "Modern Homes" program—a rousing success from 1909 until 1930, after which it was soon discontinued—seems hard to better on any electronic superhighway. For ages they’d sold people building materials; now they sold the whole caboodle. This often meant a cash mortgage to boot: Sears Roebuck, the Farmer’s Friend, actually loaned families the means to move to suburbia and sold them the whole house once they got there. The sad ending was that during the Depression some of those mortgages went bad and Sears had to foreclose; but for two decades Sears (and its main competitor, Ward) sold Americans "the ultimate product."

The idea wasn’t an original one. A British expatriate couple I know worked for years in South Africa, where they rented "a lovely, comfortable, two-bedroom verandad cottage." It had Victorian moldings and stained-glass windows, which certainly sound lovely, and walls of galvanized iron (which don’t). The house, like many others there, had been pre-fabricated in England and brought out in pieces by ship to a Mozambique port around 1890. It was then carried quite routinely by bullock-cart over the hills into South Africa’s East Transvaal, put together on-site, and nearly a century later was wearing quite well.

The routes of empire and commerce naturally tend to overlap. In the Victorian era the Army and Navy catalogues sent throughout the British Empire sold its servants everything from magic lanterns to sailor suits, lawn mowers, and thirteen types of toilet paper, including Apollo, Mikado crepe and Japanese tar. The ultimate worldwide emporium was undoubtedly Harrods. Their telegram address was Everything, London; their 101 phone lines were open 24 hours. They boasted "Merchandise and Stores of every description. . . Shipped Abroad. . . outfits for ordinary wear and for Expeditions of every kind. . . Goods packed for Mule and Camel Loads. . . Residences furnished and equipped in all parts of the World. . . provisioned with the best English and Foreign food-stuffs". They had overseas shipping agents from Edinburgh to Rangoon; any loss of goods was simply not tolerated; and there was no delivery charge within London and its suburbs. Delivery back then meant the next day at the latest. This was 1929.

What did Harrods offer, a phone call away? Havana cigars; French wines and champagne; Chinese figs, Palermo lemons, Maltese oranges; Belgian chocolates and Swiss Gruyere; Irish bacon and Danish hams; Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica, Vencatachelum’s curry from India. They sent out nasal douches, sanitary belts, scalpels, nozzles, probes, rectal feeders, forceps, enemas, ear trumpets, and obesity reducers. They purveyed chauffeurs’ Crash Linen Dust Coats and underwear "from the Softest of Silks to the Warmest of Woolens". They sold huge Pukka Luggage canvas-covered "waterproof and dustproof" Imperial cabin trunks to keep it in. Round the clock they shipped wireless radios, Steinway grand pianos, Sunbeam motorcycles, billiard tables that converted into dining tables; rowing dinghies, canoes, sculls, and Aquaplane Bathing Yachts; cine-cameras and projectors, armchairs, water heaters and bathtubs; frigidaires, parrot stands, dormouse cages; poultry coops, lean-tos, beehives, grandfather clocks; sapphire, diamond and platinum bracelets; even grand Lawn Pavilion Tents.

An Englishman Abroad, no matter how far he peregrinated from Knightsbridge, had only to get a message through to Sloane 1234—a convenient number—to have, say a 17th century salon reproduced from a palace, or a Jacobean oak library complete with chimney, delivered to him. (One catalogue shows a Harrods van arriving by gondola in Venice.) They could bind his books or ship him a new limousine complete with nurse, attendant, and chauffeur. They could arrange for dances, balls, concerts, regattas, bazaars and fireworks on short notice. They could even, throughout the entire world, supply a hearse, embalm, cremate, and bury him.

Empires crumble into dust; emporiums shiver in the cold wind of competition; our small screens may prove the greatest emporium and empire of all. It is comforting to realize that no matter what the mode of commerce, human needs hardly change with the passing centuries. Man needs little besides the swift, convenient home delivery of foie gras, or a new roof, or fine pessaries, or marine insurance, or the promise of having one’s eventual corpse transferred to its final rest by a well-liveried chauffeur sent halfway round the world. The evangelizing, imperializing super-highway may even one day make the long arm of a Harrods or a Sears seem comparatively negligible in reach—but what they offered, from umpteen varieties of pipe to a house, they could deliver on time. In the coming anarchy it may be well to remember the Old Days, at least until we attain as a species that nirvana whence we no longer want to order anything.