Day 25: A good heroine beats a good hero every day

Weeks ago, I took a vow before the head of my order to spend my summer participating in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon), blogging about it, dieting, punching the clock on my last job, and coping with sick family and arthritic bureaucracies. I didn’t foresee that the one thing I’d be least likely to do would be blogging. I thought for sure it would be dieting.

The older you get, the more bureaucracies you get

Are you frightened of a future full of sick old people? Grow up, you big baby! They’re your responsibility. However, if you act early, you can decrease the number of people by following this tip from the professionals: Marry an orphan.

Set the controls for the heart of 1966

In that year, Roland, my favorite English teacher, attended a writing conference at Georgetown University. Decades later, he gave me his notes. “I have no further use for them,” he wrote in his elegant, slanted penmanship. I want to share some of what I’ve found on these faded steno pad sheets.

Remember James T. Farrell? No? He was a rock star of the Depression!

The opening address was given by the novelist James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. Studs holds the 29th spot on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. I’ve never read Farrell, but I have read that Normal Mailer was inspired to write after reading the Studs Lonigan books, which makes me want to not read James T. Farrell.

Judging by Roland’s notes, Farrell gave a remarkable speech that encompassed social commentary and the nuts and bolts of writing. He said that much of our sense of the world comes from the movies, not conversation or direct experience. He divided the world into two kinds of people, the glamorous and those who admire the glamorous. He decried the manipulation of art and its takeover and cheapening by business – exactly what Ursula K. LeGuin was talking about when she attacked Amazon at the National Book Awards in 2014. “Man must strive to attain the full stature of his humanity,” Farrell admonished the crowd, quoting Robespierre.

If so far this sounds like a writing conference today, you’re right, but there were things that went down in 1966 that wouldn’t go down at any conference today. For example, the language all of the writers used, male and female, and that Roland wrote his notes in, was male.

Farrell, paraphrased by Roland:

In terms of public, all that is important in a writer is his mind and heart as it is put on paper. He should not be made a public spectacle.

Unless a writer retires to solitude he will not find himself. He must master solitude. He must accept that as part of his destiny.

From R.A. Knowlton, a well-known editor and writing teacher of that era:

The successful fiction writer must be an untrustworthy fellow who can tell a good lie and get away with it.

As far as I can tell from googling the names Roland jotted down, there were no writers of color present and almost no recognition of what today we’d call marginalized populations. I found two exceptions:

  1. James Baldwin was included in a mention of the hot new writers, along with Saul Bellow, Isak Dinesen, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and John Updike.
  2. The Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was praised for Epitaph of a Small Winner, an 1881 novel that must have just been translated into English.

“Women’s magazines want emotion. Mass circulation mags want action!”

The particulars of writing for magazines in 1966 were fascinating to me. Writing for magazines is what I’ve been trying to do for most of my life.

R.A. Knowlton did not have a high opinion of what he called the mass circulation, slick paper magazine. Fiction in these magazines isn’t supposed to mirror reality, he said; it’s an escape. “Truth,” says Mr. K, “makes very poor fiction.” He said that magazine fiction doesn’t carry much prestige (“Amateurs get all the applause”) because readers still want “the old virtues and illusions in their fiction.” This is why writers should never use divorce and divorcees in slick fiction. “Your main character must want something, but not anything illegal or immoral.”

(Attendees were advised of various taboos: no curse words in Boy’s Life, no teenage drinking in National Future Farmer. Was it OK to switch?)

However, Knowlton noted that contemporary (as in 1966) editors “want more force and emotionally contentious stories.” “Cream puffs,” he predicted, “are on their way out.” How I wish I knew what he meant by cream puffs. Is that what I’ve been writing?

And we’re back to the old people

At one of the panel discussions Roland attended, he was told that your main characters must be “reasonably” young – certainly not over 40. “Older readers can remember what it’s like to be young but young readers can’t imagine what it’s like to be old.” This reminds me that it was Thomas Wolfe, of all people, a man who wrote millions of words without ever understanding the female half of the human race, who figured out why we rarely get heroes in their 70s and beyond: No one lives long enough to understand how to write them.

Other nuggets for the aspiring magazine writer:

  • “A good heroine beats a good hero every day.”
  • “Stick to your own sex, also to one viewpoint.”
  • “Frankness seems to be most desired in non-fiction…the trend is to things that where formerly said only in the confessional or a doctor’s office.”
  • “Women’s magazines want emotion. Mass circulation mags want action!”

The most compelling remark in the pages Roland sent: “The only sort of story you can write is one from yourself.” Amen.

Cashed out

In 1966, the best-paying fiction markets in the U.S. were McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, and Cosmopolitan. The New Yorker could not have been far behind.

McCall’s, a zine with a bank vault straight out of Richie Rich’s basement, offered $3,000-$4,000 per short story. According to my inflation calculator, $4,000 in 1966 would be $31,000 in 2019. Now you know how the Johns – Updike, Cheever, O’Hara – made a solid middle-class living writing short fiction in the 1950s and ’60s.

You can bet your ass and six of your goats that no one writing science fiction, mysteries, or westerns made this kind of money in those kinds of genres. In one year in the ’50s, Philip K. Dick earned $1,500 from the sale of about a dozen stories. He mentioned it because it was a superlative year. At least he could say that the only sort of story he wrote was from himself.

On to Day 26 of the Write-a-thon

So we beat on, keyboards against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Day 17: You only fail if you stop writing

Tonight I turn to one of the finest philosophical minds to have emerged from postwar North America: William Shatner.

“Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff. I’m content.”

It would be easy for me to succumb to regret. How did I lose all this time? Why has it taken me 200 years to get this far into my novel, only to find myself at the bottom of a metaphorical mineshaft? A situation so desperate that the only way for me to bust out was to join the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon) and go on a diet?

These questions are impossible to answer, and anyway, according to Shatner regret is useless. He’s spent enough time in alternate universes to know.

All you can do is seize the day, as I did today, but one sentence at a time rather than trying to do everything in the world by 9 o’clock. I picked a goal of writing one scene and then I wrote the scene. I wrote a few paragraphs after that, too. I’m a big tipper.

This may not sound like much, but John McPhee claimed he rarely wrote more than 500 words a day, and he’s done fairly well for himself with his Pulitzer and his National Book Awards and everyone bowing down to him and showering him with swag bags and stuff.

“People say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so prolific.’ God, it doesn’t feel like it – nothing like it. But you know, you put an ounce in a bucket each day, you get a quart.”

How to write lots and lots or pretend that you do

McPhee once tried tying himself to a chair to force himself to write more. This scheme failed, probably because he became annoyed and untied himself. In 2019, it’s more important to disable the internet. Also, stashing a dog under your desk can backfire. As the dog sinks deeper into sleep, it will emit sleepion particles. Humans cannot withstand sleepion particles. There are other hazards as well. This is why I like coffee shops.

The title of this post is from Ray Bradbury, a man who knew something about putting one word after another.

Tomorrow: More sentences, more scenes, more seaweed and carrot sticks on my stupid diet.

Day 16: I am suspending my presidential campaign

My fellow Americans. After much soul-searching, I have decided that running for president is not where my skills are most needed in these perilous times. I must also acknowledge that my polling and fundraising numbers are not competitive with such candidates as Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. I probably don’t have time to catch up.

The hyper-competitive state of politics in 2019 was also a factor in this decision. Thirty years ago, I didn’t need a platform. As a white male, all I needed was a good suit. Today, I am expected to have “positions.” I am expected to defend them. The public is fickle, and no one gives a rat’s ass that I am against single-player chess.

My campaign, though over, was not without its indelible moments. Partnering with Amy Klobuchar on Dancing with the Stars. Riding along with Jay Inslee as he busted ivory merchants, especially Ismail Merchant and James Ivory. The night I got Cory Booker so stoned, he thought he was John Hickenlooper. Mud-wrestling with Bill de Blasio.

I’ll miss you guys and all those late nights on the team bus, looking for soul food and a place to eat. Kirsten, you can keep my J. Crew sweater.

I hereby pledge all of my delegates to Elizabeth Warren. And I pledge all of the time I am not going to spend running for president to the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon).

Day 12: House party

After a day and a half of cleaning, moving furniture, yard work, and dodging a puzzled dog, my family arrived and the whirlwind began. I was perhaps a touch optimistic in assuming I could be a good host to my dear sister while disappearing every day to participate in the Clarion West Write-a-thon (#writeathon). Plus dieting.

But after much shuffling and some hard choices, I not only ate three slices of pizza, I settled the names of my characters. I finally understand them and their relationship to each other. They’ve been waiting for me: an insignificant fellow, someone I needed for one paragraph to do one thing, suddenly has a recurring role. He fits.

Now comes the easy part: the writing. As the psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel said in the punchline to Portnoy’s Complaint, “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

Day 9: Today I felt the baby kick

Today was the first day of the last year of my working life. It was a good day. I woke at 6 a.m. Lucky and I were at the park with the other dogs and their sleep-deprived owners at 6:30. Little do those workin’ stiffs know that a year from now I won’t be standing around with them while our dogs chomp and sniff each other and that coming up is the last winter when I’ll be chasing Lucky around in the pre-dawn rainy blackness with a flashlight and handing out extra plastic bags. No way will I ever see 6 a.m. again unless I go to bed at 6 a.m.

(Loyal Reader Accused of Lurking celebrated his birthday last week by sleeping in. He didn’t get up until…5:30 a.m. Normally, he gets up at 10 o’clock at night, half an hour before he goes to bed, drinks a cup of sulphuric acid, works 29 hours a day down-mill, pays the mill owner for permission to come to work, and when he gets home, his parents kill him and dance about on his grave singing “Hallelujah.” But you try to tell the young people today that…they won’t believe you.)

Work was OK. I took two naps under my desk. Nobody knew I was unconscious. I shelved problems, reordered priorities, and rationed productivity. Today was also the first day of the company’s fiscal year, and to celebrate, we had donuts rather than bonuses. I ate a donut. There are fewer calories in a bonus, but you take what you can get in this life.

As for the Clarion West Write-a-thon, something is simmering inside my book. Finally. I’m imagining scenes and hearing dialog. I’m not sucking on a bong, either.

I’ve recently reread some of the work of a writing teacher I respect, Jessica Page Morrell. She once wrote an essay about manuscripts that have entered a coma and what to do about them. A brief quote:

Problem: The plot is meandering, stalling. You keep changing your mind.

Solution: All writing requires a deep understanding of structure. Without this understanding you’ll waste time, hit dead ends, and write endless drafts. Find a structure that works for you and stick with it….Always know where you’re going before you start writing and head toward that ending.

The time I’m putting in now on structure is the time I should’ve put in years ago. (Although it could be that years ago I wasn’t ready. Trying to write a novel has meant learning more about me.) I can’t get by on enthusiasm, though God knows I tried.

Now I’m feeling organized, energized, somewhat enlightened…and one day closer to retirement.



Day 8: A little help from my friends (19th-century white males)

If your parents are 90, every day you’ll connect with someone you don’t want to connect to. A doctor, a nurse, a caregiver, a lawyer, a bureaucrat. It’s like dealing with the Village People except you don’t have sex at the YMCA.

As your parents continue their unsteady march into their 10th decade and the news gets grimmer and the choices tougher, each connection with the doctor, the nurse, etc. hits a little harder. Today was one of those days.

If you’re a writer, the way to deal with turmoil is with habit. Write at the same time every day, for the same amount of time. Begin with a ritual, a bell, a song, something that signals the brain that now is the time. End the session with a ritual that tells the brain to take five. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Gustave Flaubert knew this: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” No one will ever mistake me for Flaubert. I tend to write in unruly and unpredictable bursts, at widely varying times of the day and night. I achieved a few things today in the Clarion West Write-a-thon, but not what I had planned. I was too long derailed.

“Never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. “Up again, old heart!” One hundred and seventy-five years ago, Emerson knew how to represent:

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.

A couple of months ago, I was visiting Antique Parent Land and I had dinner with my favorite high school English teacher and his wife. At one point, Roland asked me how my folks are doing. My folks are not much older than he is. I gave them a summary, then I said I realized how fortunate I was. My sister and I are the only people we know in our  generation who still have both their parents.

“It’s a blessing,” I said, and paused, because I realized I was about to say “and a curse,” the natural pairing with blessing, and how could I say that out loud? Roland smoothly finished my sentence with “and a responsibility.”

I haven’t been Roland’s student since 1972, but he’s still teaching me.



Day 7: I rested

Instead of the Clarion West Write-a-thon, I have a few things to say this evening about Glimmer Train, one of two litmags based in Portland, Oregon, that will not be with us when we enter 2020. The other is Tin House.

Glimmer Train began in 1990 when two sisters, Susan and Linda, decided they wanted to publish volumes of short stories. (I know their full names, but they always refer to themselves as Susan and Linda, so I will, too.) That they did, for 30 years, in 106 perfect-bound, digest-sized issues of 200+ pages, along with interviews, interesting comments from the writers on their stories, and a childhood photo of each writer.

The zine was never an art director’s delight – that was Tin House – and they never ran themes or led their readers down unexpected trails –  again, Tin House – but the writing was usually solid, often inspired, and there was at least one year when the annual Best American Short Stories included more stories from Glimmer Train than from The New Yorker or, yes, Tin House.

When I found out late in 2018 that both zines were ending their runs, I knew I had to make a last-ditch attempt to sell them a story. I was too late for Tin House, which received more than 20,000 unsolicited fiction manuscripts a year until they finally barred the door. But Glimmer Train has always tried to make a home for the poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were running three last contests. I set myself a goal of writing two new stories and entering two contests.

I checked off that goal in April after writing one new story and rewriting an old one. Close enough. But Susan and Linda weren’t biting, and I will not be in that number when the literary gods go marching in. In my final rejection from them, number 14 lifetime (this includes an honorable mention in one of their contests), they called my story “a good read” and wrote:

Readers and writers have – through their writing and by their presence – deepened and enlivened our lives. The thousands and thousands of stories people have sent us over these last three decades have each revealed something significant about what it means to be human. As much as it really is time for us retire, we’ll always hold these many years, the stories and their authors – you – close to our hearts.

It’s been a great honor doing this work and one heck of an exciting experience for us.

With gratitude and warm wishes,

Susan & Linda
Glimmer Train Press

Glimmer Train is gone but Tin House rocks on as a book publisher and as the sponsor of the Tin House Summer Workshop, held every summer at Reed College, barely a mile and a half from our house. I went to the workshop in 2008 (22 years after I went to Clarion West) and it was a wonderful week (for which I was prepared by having gone to Clarion West).

Good-bye just now, Susan and Linda, and thank you.