It’s an act of faith to be a writer in a postliterate world. One disrobes one’s typewriter with trembling and hope. Did someone put the film of history into the projector backwards? Are we becoming more barbaric and illiterate? Are we entering the technological Dark Ages?
If we are, then, as in the original Dark Ages, there will be people dedicated to Literature. We may be diminished in number but we won’t die out, because a book will remain what it has ever been: the most intense, private form of communication between two minds. This special bond invests the act of reading and the act of writing with passion. Inevitably it becomes a love affair or its opposite.
This fiction writer’s manual is not a substitute for the more conventional manuals. Rather, it gathers what I’ve learned the hard way through my failures and my occasional triumphs. I hope some of the following will be useful to you. If it isn’t, don’t tell me.
Every writer starts from the foundation of his or her physical life. We each carry beliefs formed in childhood that are so much a part of us as to be definitive. If I tell you mine, as a person and a writer, maybe you’ll be able to decide whether to push on with this volume.
I believe all literature started as gossip. I believe self-pity stinks. I believe that a hen never cackles until she’s finished her job. I believe in art that conceals art. I believe we often disguise pain through ritual and it may be the only solace we have. Literature is part of that ritual. I believe in a lively disrespect for most forms of authority. I believe every change any word has undergone probably originated in ignorance. I believe life is a grand spectacle of foolishness and that each generation must find its weapons for the old battle of good versus evil, life versus death, the trivial versus the profound. I believe that I have the ability to write a pulp novel larger than the Cedars of Lebanon and I hope I can resist the siren call to do it. I believe in serenity, not passivity. I believe that after exhausting all other alternatives, I’ll behave reasonably.
While the above beliefs may not spill over into the information in this writer’s manual, my temperament will. Best you know that before you embark, because if you can tolerate my temperament you’ll probably enjoy the writer’s manual. Even if you reject this book it will have served its purpose, which is to clarify your thinking and your feelings about writing. You’ll at least know what you don’t like, and that’s a gift of sorts.
Being happy made me want to write, so I figured writing would make me happy. I set off to be a writer and my above-stated childhood premise proved correct. I have been writing since I was fifteen. I am now forty-one. I didn’t make any money from my labor until I was twenty-eight and then I made $1,000. Still, writing made me happy. Now, years later, with a sprinkling of novels that clambered onto The New York Times Best Seller list, with two Emmy nominations under my belt and with contracts for future novels, teleplays, and screenplays in hand, I can say that writing not only makes me happy but brings me rapture. Happiness is in the animal brain and joy is in the cerebrum. Writing gives me both experiences of pleasure.
Notice I am not saying that the work is easy. I doubt any writer will tell you that but why dedicate yourself to something that’s easy? I can’t promise that writing will make you happy, but if you’re the real thing you’ll never be bored. That may be the greatest gift each of the Arts gives its practitioners. I hope that you may write on.
In order to help you do that, let me, up front, tell you something you need to know. Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work.
Your far from humble servant,
RITA MAE BROWN
THE CHICKEN OR THE EGG?
Writers will happen in the best of families. No one is quite sure why. What comes first: the chicken or the egg—the family or the writer? Fortunately, this question cannot be answered, insuring grist for the biographer’s mill whenever a deceased writer is the subject. Oscar Wilde said, “Biography lends to death a new terror.” This is especially true for a writer because it’s so easy to read far more than was intended into novels, plays, poetry.
Maybe you know why you are a writer. I don’t know why I am. I only know it never occurred to me to be anything else, and I proudly display the stigmata of my novels as proof of this. Let me tell you how I started, not so much because I need to tell you but because my publisher wants to know. She needs an explanation for the torrent of words that flows across her desk. Also, she thinks you might want to know how one person started in this profession and managed to survive.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I’ve never thought of being anything but a writer. I was born knowing. I think of birth as the search for a larger apartment. I wanted a huge apartment that was one big library. I started to read at three. Don’t be alarmed if you did not begin so early. The reason I started was that I was blessed with a mother and father who encouraged me, read to me, told me stories, and did everything humanly possible to activate my mind. It’s silly to wait until first grade to teach children to read. They are ready before that.
I received my first library card at the age of five. My mother lied to the librarian and told her I was six because there was an age qualification for being issued a card. The first books I checked out of the Martin Library were Bulfinch’s Mythology, Alcott’s Little Women, and Strickland’s Queens of England, Volume I. The librarian would not give me the books because she thought them too difficult for me. This so enraged my mother, Julia Ellen Brown (nee Buckingham), that she made me stand on a chair so that I could see the librarian and whisper to her from Little Women. I carried it off without a hitch and the lady let me have the books. After that, I spent almost every Saturday morning at this beautiful little library in York, Pennsylvania. Saturdays I was usually in the care of my father, Ralph Clifford Brown, and he would drop me at the library at nine in the morning, the minute the doors opened, and pick me up at lunchtime. After lunch I’d go to the store and work with Dad. I loved working with my father, a man with a forty-two-inch chest, a hand that could palm a basketball, and a baritone so deep and rich he made my backbone rattle when he sang.
At lunchtime, usually down at the market on Market Street, he would examine my books and we’d talk about them. We’d wrap the books in butcher paper so they wouldn’t get dirty, because Dad and his two brothers had a stall in the market, Browns Meats. (The sign painter forgot the apostrophe.) Butchers get bloody and so do butchers’ kids, so we were careful to protect each week’s haul of books until I could get back home and properly wash up.
Some Saturdays I’d be with Mother, but the library ritual changed only in that Mother wouldn’t let me linger. I had to snap up the books and go, because she wanted to walk all over York Square, nose around the shops and visit her friends. Mother enjoyed a lovely figure even to the day she died, at age seventy-eight and a half, because she would walk three to eight miles a day. It kept her young and full of curiosity. God forbid “Juts” should miss anything. So there I would be, hustling to keep up with Mom, and learning at an early age to watch people. I’d also get tired of carrying the books (I always checked out too many) and inevitably these would be dumped on Mother.
By the time I was in kindergarten Mother and Dad’s friends told me I would be a writer. My kindergarten teacher told me that, too. What they saw, I don’t know. But the idea of my being a writer was reinforced early.
School proved a problem. Violet Hill Elementary was small and served poor and working-class children. It still stands, but the fields around it, and the barn next door with the draft horses, have given way to houses. Development is the curse of our time. Anyway, I would finish my lessons quickly and then make trouble. This devilishness could have gotten me off to a bad start, but I was fortunate because my first-grade teacher, Miss Potter, figured out I was ahead of my classmates. Whenever I’d finish a lesson, I could turn it in and then go to the school library. I was allowed to do this until fourth grade, when I was transferred to Valley View Elementary School. I still don’t know why I was transferred. Mother may have been behind this because Valley View was a bigger and better school, full of rich kids. On reflection I realize they were merely middle class but we did not possess much in the way of material things so these doctors’ daughters and lawyers’ sons seemed rich to me. I hated them too. They were competitive, snotty, and devious. They learned to hide their emotions early, to bow to authority without question, and to keep their allowances to themselves. I came from an opposing world view. I was taught to express myself (throw dishes if it came to that), to question authority, and to share what I had with my friends. I was also taught to stick to my own kind; by that, Mom and Dad meant to back up my friends. If your friend gets in a fight, even if he or she is wrong, you back your friend. You can argue with her later. How different for my little middle-class schoolmates, who would ditch their buddy in a minute if it was to their advantage or if the teacher bore down on them.
These memories are painted in primary colors because they are childhood memories. I am not attempting to be fair to my middle-class schoolmates. I am only telling you how they looked to me at the time. Obviously, I now have much more sympathy for children from the middle classes.
So I learned to hide my emotions and that meant to hide my work. I didn’t write stories at Valley View. I wrote them at home. I did manage, with the help of Mother and Dad, to go to the library when I was finished with my lessons but this took a semester to accomplish. So for my first semester I sat in a state of advanced boredom.