TEN THINGS I NOW KNOW ABOUT WRITING THAT ARE GUARANTEED TO HELP YOU; TEN THINGS I WISH I HAD KNOWN WHEN I BEGAN THIRTY YEARS AGO, HERE IN ONE SWEEPING WHIZBANG, SOMETIMES IN MY WORDS AND SOMETIMES THE WORDS OF MY BETTERS, BUT, IN ANY CASE, HERE’S WHAT I’VE LEARNED, EVERY ARROW IN MY QUIVER
J. BOYER, OWED TO DESERT NIGHTS, RISING STARS
1. FOR MOST OF US WHO DO THIS THERE IS A RELATIVELY LIMITED SHELF-LIFE
This was pointed out to me by a theatrical agent who stuck with me long past the point when he should have, and in whose debt I remain. I imagine it has its correlative among publishers if you happen to be a fiction writer. He’d been looking for the right moment to drop me. I should have guessed this, for he’s mildly claustrophobic and we were having lunch in the West Village at Elephants and Castles on Seventh Avenue South and 11th Street, a small, comfortable bistro where I always seemed to feel more at home and comfortable than he did. It was where I picked when he flew into to the city and it was my turn to pay. This time it was his. He’d stuck with me for many years but he’d invited me to lunch to tell me it was time to fold his tent. His organization in London Stage One Entertainment was being absorbed by a major transatlantic talent agency that wanted to represent many of the writers whose contracts he held. I wasn’t one of them. I should have seen this coming, any fool could have seen this coming, anyone but a drooling moron could have seen this in the works, but I, of course, didn’t. To the contrary. I was complaining that productions of my work were few and far between and I laid this at his doorstep. He responded that those few of us lucky enough to hang around for a while in American theater go through four basic phases, and he acted it out over our salads with memorable aplomb as a waiter in a white shirt and black slacks brought us still more balsamic. The first phase of my own career was marked by putting my toes in the waters of New York theater, if in some very modest productions, after many years of labor. This breakthrough began when a few producers looking for new scripts began to give my own a reading, and their reaction, at least in my wry agent’s gloss on the process, amounted to a cramped, steam heated office on New York City’s upper Westside with one overburdened reader calling out to another, “This one might work,” then, after looking at the cover, “But who’s Jay Boyer? Hey, has anyone heard of Jay Boyer? Hey! If I may say so, WTF! Am I invisible? Jay Boyer? Anyone?”
I’d been lucky. A second phase followed on the heels of this one. Now, in a few limited situations, among a few Off-Off-Broadway producers, my name on the cover was enough to get me at least a few pages of reading before the script was put aside, something along the lines then of, “Hey. Here’s one by Jay Boyer.”
Phase three was marked by the beginnings of the fall of a star that had not exactly soared through the heavens to begin with. In this phase a script that had caught a producer’s passing fancy might prompt, “This one might work, let’s look at it again in the second round, but I’ve never heard of her. Her bio says she went to Brown. Studied with Paula Vogel. She writes a little like, oh, I don’t know, what’shisname, long hair and a beard, always tugging at his beard. That little theater on the eighth floor on Bank Street? Jay Boyer!”
In the fourth and final phase, an unpaid intern to a producer at Lincoln Center going through a slush pile of scripts that has been taking up space in a corner looks at the cover of mine before she opens it and says, “Who’s Jay Boyer? Anyone? Hello? I went to Princeton, I could have gone to Yale Law, my LSATs would knock you on your ass. I’m invisible aren’t I?! Jay Boyer?”
2. CHASING FAME AND NOTORIETY THROUGH YOUR WRITING IS A FOOL’S ERRAND. IF THAT’S WHAT YOU WANT, TRY SERIAL MURDER, OR WORSE, REALITY TV
-Mark Harris, in SHORT WORK OF IT
3. DON’T LOSE SLEEP OVER WHERE YOUR WORK APPEARS
The legendary Sid Caesar passed away several days ago at the age of 91. I met him just once, many, many years ago, and it was a meeting that had a profound effect on my work and me. I met him at the millennium just as my work was beginning to get little serious New York attention. Even when my plays are in New York, they are produced in small theaters Off-Off-Broadway. If there are a hundred and fifty people in the audience on a given night, that’s a big crowd for someone like me, and there were times as I was starting out that I thought to myself, My work is good, you can see how well it mounts, the audience is loving this, I deserve better, I deserve bigger. I never said that aloud, you’ve never met anyone more humble than me, look up “humility” in the OED online and there I am, there’s my jpeg, but I said it a lot to myself, then one night I went to Michael’s Pub in New York. There was a portable stage, one of those things that unfolds, and thirty of those tiny cabaret tables, so there couldn’t have been more than fifty people in the audience. Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca were trying out a show with an eye toward taking it to Broadway, a compendium of the classic skits they’d done on Caesar’s television variety The Show of Shows, groundbreaking work that established what television could do if only given a chance. Once it was finished, Sid Caesar went from table to table. He shook hands and thanked everyone individually for coming. Since that night — and it can be in the basement of a church, there can be five people on folding chairs – I’m grateful that my script found an audience. I don’t take the attention for granted. Ever.
Be wary of wanting your work in only the most prestigious of venues. That’s a trap. Your work’s your work. All you can do is write as well as you can, then tear it up and try and improve it. That’s the only part of this the writer can control. After that? You hope for an audience. At least metaphorically, go table to table and thank them for coming. And I mean everyone. Make sure you’re the last one out of the building.
4. WRITING ISN’T HARD, UNLESS YOU WANT TO WRITE SOMETHING WORTH READING, AND, FOR MOST OF US, IF YOU WANT TO WRITE WELL IT IS NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE
-E. I. Lonoff/Philip Roth, The Ghost Writer
5. WRITING PERIODICALLY AT A LEVEL ABOVE YOUR TALENTS CAN BE A PITFALL
There’s nothing half so sweet as breathing the ether of a breakthrough and occasionally all of us manage a few pages of writing that is so far above the level at which we normally write that we’re sure a breakthrough has come. It hasn’t. It’s pointless going back and trying to pick up where you left off. Yet go back to the pages we do, time after time after time, sometimes month after month or even year after year, generally at the expense of a project that we might actually succeed with. Writing clichés aside, a blank page is not half so daunting as the best three pages we’ve ever managed, and those are the ones to fear most. We just can’t let go.
I’m put in mind of something I witnessed in the spring of 2007 at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, which is in China’s Sichuan Province, just about as far west as you can go, and almost in Tibet. I’d come with novelist Jewell Parker Rhodes who I was teaching with at ASU as well as with five of the senior graduate students from the fiction tract of our Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. We were at Sichuan University to work with students and faculty in their Foreign Language Program. We were there to help them initiate a creative component to longstanding requirements in composition and expository writing. All of this writing was in English. None of us spoke a word of Chinese but the students and faculty with whom we worked both spoke and wrote English with enviable skill after long years of practice, which served as a constant reminder that we were foreigners in their land in ways they wouldn’t have been in ours—save this: the idea of teaching someone to write a story, that is, teaching them to write a most convincing lie, was as foreign to the Chinese as any lunar landscape.
Sichuan University is in many ways a very modern campus, in a very modern China. Cell phones were everywhere we looked. Neither students nor teachers were apt to own a car, and at the time laptops were still a luxury enjoyed by relatively few, but everyone seemed to be talking on their cell phones as they negotiated the campus, and students had had access to computers since before they could walk. Even a casual conversation could remind you of how technology has shrunk the world. Speaking of which, if you are planning on traveling to Sichuan University, you’d do well to revisit the first few seasons of Friends. They knew more about Chandler and Monica than was all for the good.
Once I was beyond the campus though I could be quickly reminded that I was far away from where I belonged. One of the staff had brought her delightful young daughter—delightfully named “Rain”—on the trip, perhaps the best traveler among us despite being a grade schooler, and certainly the sunniest and most even-tempered. Rain was a bright, beautiful little girl whose luminous red hair never failed to draw attention on the streets of Chengdu or anywhere else we traveled as tourists. The Chinese wanted to touch it, to have their photo taken with her, and on several occasions there were so many people eager to be near her that I was unnerved as a crowd gathered around us, wanting to know what such beautiful red hair felt like. There was no reason to be, they meant Rain no harm, they meant none of us any harm, and I knew that, I really did; but I was always a little relieved when the last snapshot was snapped and we were free to move on. So beyond their normal experience was a little girl with hair like Rain’s that what began harmlessly enough could seem to a foreigner like me to become a crowd caught up in the moment, at once careless about who or what was standing in their way.
Think of Rain’s red hair as those pages. They’re not ours, not really, we’re never going to sustain that level of writing, it’s just not in the cards we’ve been dealt. Savor the moment. Push anyone out of the way to get to it, then feel perfectly free to reach out and touch it. But all you get is a touch, then you need to move on. There’s nothing to do once you’ve got the snapshot but just get on with the day and go back to the writer you are. Which isn’t that bad. Seriously. You’re not a failed writer. Except in the sense that all of us are. Get past it. That’s writing.
6. “Melville had his finger on the pulse of what it means to be a successful American writer: Surface, and you’ll be harpooned.” -John Barth
7. THERE ARE BASICALLY THREE KINDS OF REVIEWS, AND ONLY ONE WILL BE OF USE TO YOU
I’ve found that there are three kinds of reviews and only one of these is instructive if you want to improve your writing. No, I take it back. My best advice is don’t read any review, not under any circumstances, ever, particularly the favorable ones. Those are death! And don’t show anything to your wife before it’s finished either, because she’s going to tell you the truth.
8. ONE OF THE INEVITABLE LABORS OF TRULY TALENTED YOUNG WRITERS IS TO MOUNT A STYLE SO DISTINCT AS TO BE AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
Few of us have a writing style that we can rightfully claim as ours and ours alone, and when you’re starting out imitation can be your single greatest asset. I have no idea where one’s prose style comes from save through imitation, conscious or not. No two fiction writers could seem farther removed in terms of their prose than Joyce and Beckett. Once one knows Beckett’s was Joyce’s secretary though one can see that the lushness of Joyce’s prose is distilled to the bone in Beckett’s. Suddenly they are blood kin. With rare exception, good writers are also good readers, at least in the sense that they are attuned to the nuances of fiction in ways a casual reader has no need to be, and my experience has been that our high stylists are often in the debt of any number of stylists before them, though in the end they bring something to the table of their own as well. Such is the way with art, I imagine, at its many levels and its so-very-many forms. No great artist has ever really gotten there first. It’s not that sort of endeavor.
Michael Jackson, may he rest, seems to be enjoying something of a second life as an entertainer I understand. I’m pleased for his estate, for his kids. I cringe though each time someone proclaims his capacity for stage performance as his and his alone. That’s not where genius comes from. His stage performance owes so much to James Brown, Fred Astaire, etc., and the genius with which he’s credited should be better attributed to having what all but a very few people lack, namely the capacity to know who best to borrow from in order to depart from the same, then set off and create a style distinctly his signature.
9. WRITING’S NOT SOMETHING TO BE LEARNED FROM TRAINING, LIKE PLUMBING OR THE BREAST STROKE. ULTIMATELY EVERYONE TEACHES THEMSELVES, AND ALL WORKSHOPS AND CONFERENCES AND THE ADVICE I’VE JUST GIVEN CAN DO IS HELP EXPEDITE THAT PROCESS A LITTLE. BUT HELP’S HELP, WRITING’S PRETTY F****** HARD, SO THE BEST ADVICE I CAN GIVE YOU IS TAKE IT ANYWHERE YOU CAN GET IT.
-Jack Burden/Robert Penn Warren, ALL THE KING’S MEN