Each Wednesday of COVID, our grandchildren’s school releases them on their own recognizance, with the vague injunction to pursue “independent studies.”
Pish, tosh. What do grade-school children know from independent studies?
Ours—Elsie, 11, and Tristan, 8—fortunately have something available that’s better than independent studies. They have grandparents.
Their mom and dad both work Wednesdays, so Elsie and Tristan spend all day with us.
They choose one of the world’s nation states in advance, and we come up with a lesson. We’ve done Egypt, Spain, Uruguay, Fiji—just to name few. We start by bombarding our grandkids’ heads with random facts about the chosen nation. Then we cook some food alleged to be typical of the chosen nation. They participate in both the bombardment and the cooking . . . at varying levels of excitement.
Sometimes they abandon Mormor—the Swedish name for their grandmother, Jo—when she’s in the midst of an exciting recipe. They just run off and do something else. Turns out, it was exciting to her, but not so much to them. On other occasions, they stick throughout the process.
Our kids are fickle and changeable. But, thanks to Mormor’s dogged persistence, we always end up with something original and tasty to eat. Often it’s a sweet dessert, and we detect no reluctance to consume it.
Afternoon is literature time. That part of the curriculum varies a great deal, too. I’ve gone radical by introducing poetic meters—the various kinds of rhythmic “feet,” iambic pentameter and such. Or sometimes we discuss what a piece means. Elsie and Tristan both like Robert Frost. And it turns out they’re capable of memorizing whole poems, if only they are challenged to do so.
On other occasions, the curriculum may be less formal. Last week we regaled one another with silly songs. Needless to say, their silly songs are sillier than my silly songs. Then we read a few Paul Bunyan stories, including one about the time Paul Bunyan tried to drive his logs down a Wisconsin river that ran around in a perfect circle. It took a while for Tristan to realize that such a thing is impossible—but he figured it out on his own.
Much of my teaching is stuff and nonsense, of the basest sort; but I have a nagging fear that if not for Bapa—their non-Swedish name for me—they would miss out on such things entirely.
These days, children’s educational and recreational opportunities are meted out, trimmed, and balanced to a stupefying degree. We all know kids need exposure to the world of their grandparents, but we commonly neglect that need while we pursue other goals that are less vital.
Should you have the opportunity to spend extra time with your grandchildren, rejoice. And use the time wisely. Don’t fritter it away in certified, approved, and educator-recommended lesson plans. This may be your one chance to give them something different.
Writers know that when pen touches paper, magic happens. But if we have any sense we deny it. We do our best to ward it off. Far better to develop a craft—a set of skills that give us a place to go and a map to help us get there—than to blithely follow the Muse.
So we plop our best writing pants in our best writing chair four hours each day. We bat out five hundred or five thousand words per session. We outline our story. We biograph our characters.
And, Lo! the magic happens.
“Naturally,” we say, explaining: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Were we to admit that writing is what Red Smith said it is—sitting down at the typewriter, opening a vein, and letting it bleed—we would abandon the quest altogether, for few could bear sitting down to write with no surety that anything at all would come out.
We cling to our practical, scientific methods because we think they will at least yield a concatenation of words on paper. From there, it’s only a matter of revision.
When something halts the magic, even when something blocks the flow of those humble superstitions we use to summon the magic, we plunge into despair. We can’t get the juicy stuff out of writing, because we can’t even rattle the dry bones from which the magic is to sprout.
Last week I went to the hospital and got my left hip replaced. I have been through this with my right hip, and, earlier, with both knees. The surgery is traumatic but not beyond endurance. The problem it causes for a working writer is the operating room anesthesia and the opioid drugs prescribed for post-surgical pain. These divine formulae wipe out, for days, the mind’s ability to concentrate.
Nothing now impedes the fresh flow of literary magic. But an ineffable fuzziness keeps my brain from forming a few simple sentences to get the ball rolling. I’m stuck.
There is nothing to do but wait it out. Sooner or later the drugs will wear off.
Today, as a public service (Ta-DA!), we begin a series of articles meant to help You, The Aspiring Author, conquer the himalayas of literary greatness.
We propose that you achieve this impressive goal in SIX SIMPLE STEPS.
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be.
If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.
(Literary Allusion Alert: File under “T.S. Eliot.”)
Step One: Skip Straight to “Literary Lion”
Cut the line.
Do not wait for greatness to be thrust upon you. Thrust it upon yourself.
Since becoming a literary lion is your goal, go ahead and be one. Believe me, if you can’t do this one simple thing, you’re not going to find the other five steps any easier.
(Caveat: What We Are Not Saying. We are not saying “Fake it till you make it.” You can’t fake literary accomplishment. You have to get it the old-fashioned way, like the guy in that old commercial says. You have to earn it.)
If you haven’t begun to do so yet, then begin now.
You must do all kinds of inherently literary things. Such as, for example, “Write.” But that’s Step Two.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of other literary things you must do in addition to writing.
When you do them, as you must, you will be living the literary life—like it or not.
Are you prepared for this?
You must read. We don’t mean just “read.” Everybody reads for fun, don’t they?
(No, not actually. Lots of people never read anything more interesting than a cloned Facebook meme. But if you’re still with us, then you are probably one of those who do read, at least for fun.)
At the risk of repeating ourselves, we don’t mean just “read”—we mean READ.
Read everything you can that’s a classic of your genre. And for balance, read things that are poorly-executed examples of your genre. Read things outside your genre entirely.
Read books and articles on the art and craft of writing. Read pieces about the business of writing, and how to sell your work.
Read books, stories, articles, and blog posts by friends (more on this in “Step 3: Get Feedback” and “Step 4: Associate”). Read your own work, with a view to improving it. Read miscellaneous books that come to your attention, just because somebody said they were good.
Read good literature. It may help you figure out how to write good literature.
“I was seventy years old before I got serious about writing. I thought I was quite a reader, but since becoming a literary lion, I’ve averaged fifty to seventy-five books a year—not to mention stories, articles, and poems.”
When you read this much, two things will happen: (1) Your library card will get threadbare from use. (2) Partly-finished, recently finished, and not-yet-started books will occupy every horizontal surface in your vicinity. Welcome to literary lionhood.
(Lionhood is the state of being a lion—a literary one, in our case. Lionization—Haha!—maybe in the Afterlife.)
You must gather your tools about you. There are certain things you will need. Some of them cost money, and you must be prepared to invest in them.
You need a good, standard dictionary such as Webster’s New World College Dictionary or even the Oxford English Dictionary if you can afford it. Either hardcopy or electronic version will cost money. (The many freebie dictionaries found online are about worth what you pay for them.)
You will need the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s the starting point on important matters of style for nearly all publishers. But you also need a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which in some particulars contradicts the Chicago manual; it’s still worth owning for its brief but powerful advice on how to write the English language. And you will want at least a couple of writers’ magazines; we recommend The Writer and Writer’s Digest for starters.
In order to get your work widely read, you will need to sell it. Therefore you will want some useful compendia of marketing information, such as Writer’s Market or Writer’s Handbook; Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents; and a $25 monthly subscription to the enormously useful PublishersMarketplace website.
Basic tools of craft are needed just for getting your words down on paper (or its electronic equivalent). Some particular brand of laptop computer, let’s say; or a ruled notebook and pens or pencils of a certain kind; or an antique Underwood typewriter; or goose quills. Every writer has his or her own preferred substrate. But whatever it is, you need to have it, so you can, you know, write (see “Step Two: Write”).
We seriously recommend a good computer and a copy of Microsoft Word. If you originate your manuscripts in any other medium or format, you will still need to copy it over to a computer file before a publisher can use it to bring you lots of fame and fortune. But suit yourself.
You must make your presence known. This falls, really, into “Step 6: Platform.” But the problem is, you can’t wait till the end of the process to build your platform. You’ve got to start now.
A writer’s “platform” is simply the sum total of credible ways by which that writer makes his or her work known to the world. If you’re a major motion picture star, all you have to do is write a book and let the publicist mention it to the world. You have millions of adoring fans already; some of them will buy your book.
For those of us who are not celebrities, it’s harder. You have to acquire fans one at a time and keep them interested in you and your writing until you can publish a book and press it into their hot little hands. It takes time for an unknown author to build a following of people who can be relied on to buy a book. Start now.
You make your presence known by authoring a blog; by frequenting one or more social media engines such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.; by showing up at writerly events in your vicinity, such as book signings and readings, literary chats, etc.; or by attending writers’ courses and conferences.
As you do these things, more and more people will begin to recognize you as a fixture of that part of the world they think of as “literary.” That’s good. That’s what you want.
You must write. This is self-evident, but we include it here because it is an essential part of becoming a literary lion. “Essential” in this case means, “You cannot omit it.”
But never fear. The writing part is so important we devote an entire step to it. In fact, the very next one in this series, “Step Two: Write.”
So here and now it suffices to say that writing is the quintessential literary activity. The more time you spend writing, the more time you spend in the world of the literary lion.
THEREFORE, Dear Reader: When you faithfully practice these key disciplines of literary lionhood—reading, gaining possession and use of essential literary tools, making your presence known in literary venues, and actually spending regular amounts of time writing your work—you will not have to pinch yourself, or poke yourself in the eye (which we would not recommend in any case) to know that you are living the literary life.
You will have stepped into the Twilight Zone which is the literary world, on your way to the base camp for scaling the literary himalayas.