Doing The Work, Laying The Pipe

Reflections On The Craft

Two weeks ago, astew in a conceptual pique that arose on a long drive back from Louisville, I telephoned my literary agent, the ubiquitous Sharlene Martin, and told her I had the idea for my next book. Not an idea, mind; the idea.

The synthesis of three earlier ideas I’d been passing the time noodling over behind the wheel, I was momentarily stunned by my own creativity. How can it be this has never been done? Never been written? I ran it by two associates… acquaintances, really; a pair of retired music business boys I would confirm in my own blood have no interest in writing (anything…ever) got exactly the reaction I’d hoped for, and got my cell phone out. I wanted to pitch it to Sharlene then and there. While it was hot. Like a demo I’d just cut, the tracks just smokin’. I’d do an elevator pitch. You know, elevator pitch…. you’ve got a treatment for a George Clooney film you know is killer. Your logline is tight. The whole pitch is maybe ninety seconds…. you punch the UP button, elevator door opens and there’s one guy in the car.

George Clooney.

You get in. Punch 10.

Clooney punches 3.

You’ve got maybe a minute.

It’s a legendary strategy in the art of pitching a story line for a movie; why wouldn’t it work for a story line for a book?

Sharlene: “Send me the proposal and the first fifty pages.”

Because if you’re a writer, you write the damned pitch.

“Do the work,” she said.

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I don’t write because I want to; I write because I have to. I have little or no choice in the matter. It is well documented that many, if not most, writers agree that the human process, the physical act of writing;  of sitting down at a table or a desk and pulling up, opening, or placing a clean sheet of paper in front of you, and then attempting to fill its emptiness with words that make sense, is something akin to self-torture. History is replete with the warnings from great authors doing their best to dissuade any and all who were foolish enough, who were sufficiently deluded to believe that they might seek a career in the field. Hemingway was unequivocal: “There’s nothing to writing,” he said. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” When Dorothy Parker was asked by Vanity Fair to comment on her work, she deadpanned, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

I can relate.

I am, and have always been happiest when I’m doing manual labor. You haul the wood. You stack it. You dig the hole, you fill it in.  You memorize the lines and the blocking and you walk and talk. Work that’s real. Work that I see the results from immediately. Work that draws the sweat out of me. I don’t break a single bead when I’m at this keyboard. I don’t feel the pain of the work in my muscles. In my hands. I don’t need a water break. If I’ve made any money, it felt like I was, I don’t know… cheating.  Not doing work I was raised to understand. The kind of work that made me feel proud. The kind of work that made me feel like a man. Poring over a semi-blank white page, and mining the vocabulary veins for words to fill the emptiness just wasn’t work. It was creative angst, but not work-work.

Then I found a quote from John Dunne that changed all that.

John Gregory Dunne was a man whose own life paralleled much of my own. Tough upbringing in a privileged house. Estranged from his brother. Married to a woman equally as talented who saved his life. Lost a child in the prime of life and struggled with depression for years, pouring words on the page in a lifelong effort to write himself out of it. His storied marriage to author Joan Didion came close to ending more than once; a relationship pocked with decades of turbulence, legendary arguments, and brilliant collaboration.

Google “quotations from John Gregory Dunne” and you’re likely to find only a handful. It was his take on writing that prompted me to view this work in a different light, and to make it work for me.

“Writing”, he said, “is “a manual labor of the mind: a job, like laying pipe.”

Dunne’s blue-collar view of the decidedly white-collar work he did for a living radically changed my own perception. It underscored his Vanity Fair comment that “What a writer brings to any story is an attitude…an attitude usually defined by the wound stripes of life.” I suppose one could add that having some basic understanding of the language, syntax and vocabulary helps, but it’s the attitude… the voice you bring to the words you write that really matters.

That, and the discipline to actually sit down –every day—and physically write. Pen to paper. Finger to keystroke. To write something. Anything.

To do the work.

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I rather like the word prolific. Even though it doesn’t really characterize me. I’d like to be prolific as much or more than I like the word itself. I’d like to read the word next to my name in a New York Times book review. I’d settle for a Pocatello book review. I’d like to be thought of as prolific. More to the point, I’d like to know that before I die I’m going to change the fact that I’m not prolific. Reverse this habitual tendency to procrastinate; to literarily self-destruct with virtually every project I start. I abandoned re-launching this blog less than a year after I published the first post, for God’s sake; cementing my growing reputation as both undependable and unproductive; a writer for whom prolificacy wasn’t likely going to be his strongest suit.

I’m amazed by writers who can churn out books to the tune of one or two a year. It takes me that long to come up with a title I think works. I suppose that makes me a bit on the obsessive-compulsive side, but I don’t care. I care about a title that works. If the title doesn’t grip me by the throat and threaten to choke the life out of me, I pass and pick up the one that does. I like visceral titles; titles that speak with authority, that command you psychically to…Read This Book. Now. Your life…. and a few good hours on the couch depend on it.

Nelson DeMille writes a book every month. Seems that way, anyway. Brilliant dialogue. John Sandford’s Prey series is crazy good. Lee Child….I’m sorry, but Jack Reacher is the man. Anthony Flacco is working on, like, nine projects; if he isn’t writing the next number one historical novel, it’s because he’s touring to support the one he just finished.

And then there’s Dean Koontz. The thing about Koontz is a lot of his heroes are writers, or would be writers, or were writers. Had been writers. Has-been writers. Writers in a slump. Writers who’ve hit the wall. Long, drifting passages describing laptops that haven’t been on in a while. Pens that haven’t been put to paper, fingertips that haven’t depressed keystrokes. Monitors that glow mockingly, empty and void of any lines of text. Books started and left undone, interrupted by some life-changing event that shattered the protagonist forever.

I understand these people. I know these characters he creates. Look, the whole idea of re-tooling this blog had nothing to do with blogging, per se. It was really aimed at prompting me to start writing with something akin to discipline again. To start writing something… anything, for God’s sake. And more to the point, finishing it. I have become literally nauseated by the sheer volume of books, short stories, novels, screenplays proposals, query letters, drafts and half-assed ideas I’ve started over the past five to ten years and never finished. None of them. They lay in manila files like cold cases in a long abandoned precinct office somewhere. Dead characters and lost goals. Plots that have thinned over time to transparency.

It’s embarrassing. People ask what I do for a living… I shrug a bit, and tell them, “I’m an actor… and umm….a writer”.

And I tell them with a straight face, for God’s sake.

I gotta go. I’m working on a new idea.