Welcome! Welcome to another exciting installment of Writers in the Storm.
This episode promises, thrills, chills, journeys to foreign lands in search of writing glory, as well as encounters with writing history and deadly foreign bacteria! And, Gentle Reader, there is a Moral to this story.
Writing is sometimes exhilarating, but most often it’s lonely and painful — and the latter can be on a good day.
You must learn the craft, practice, find your voice, practice, complete manuscripts and send them out. See the Notes at the end of this essay for a way to find those steps in detail.
And through all of that, when you wake up at 2:00 am and think, “Am I any good?” even if you answer that with, “Bah! Humbug!” you must, must find the courage to keep going. You must avoid the impulse to say, “I suck! This is useless. No one cares.” If you are a regular reader of this blog (and if you’re not you should be) you have heard reasons to keep going. I’ve contributed some of them.
Well, here’s something new.
At a low point in my writing career the Universe, God, fill in your own idea, stepped up and spoke to me. Here’s what happened.
It was an age long ago, in the distant past, 1978 to be exact. Some college friends, my wife Nancy, and I went on vacation to Great Britain and France.
I’d written book reviews and a magazine called The Pacific Northwest Review Of Books seemed to like my work, or at least they didn’t hate it, so I wrote them and pitched an idea for an article about antiquarian bookstores in London. They wrote back saying they might be interested and could I supply pictures? Sure! (I had a camera, so how hard could it be? Don’t answer that.)
I looked up three London bookstores and about a month before we left, wrote to them, sort of “Oh hi, I’m coming to London, can I talk to you?”
None of the bookstores answered the letters, but no matter.
The first bookstore on my list was Peter Eaton, Ltd. I showed up and met a nice man, and was convinced he’d have everything I’d need, until he said he’d never heard of me. I showed him the letter. He said it must have gone to the owners, who rarely came in to the store. I could try calling back later. He couldn’t talk to me.
Next was G. Greer. This time — good news — they had received my letter but it would not be convenient to talk to me. At all.
Then there was Magg’s. The older gentleman said I could try calling back for an appointment with the owner, but he didn’t come into the shop very often. He couldn’t talk to me.
So I tried a new approach — wandering aimlessly into bookstores to ask about business and see what happened. The kids working the cash registers were about my age and they could tell me how to ring up a sale. The owners, if they were there, basically said, “You want what?! An interview?” when they spoke to me at all.
Okay, I was bummed. No joy. Snake-belly low.
So it was all a waste, right? Not just a waste, humiliating. Not only a humiliating waste of valuable vacation time, but also a black mark against my name at a magazine that liked me.
But, of course, this True-Life Adventure story has a happy ending, right?
Well, England is cold. Apparently even in the summer. And, uh, well, actually I got pneumonia, then turned out to be allergic to the ampicillin I was prescribed, and then didn’t know what was happening so I kept taking it. Later, when I was writing medical training scripts one of our staff nurses heard this story and explained that the germ was foreign and I had no immunity. I had no chance at all once those nasty bacteria got ahold of me. And the allergic reaction? I could have died. Next, most of the friends we were traveling with left Nancy & me behind and went to off to Wales. We later dubbed this the “Eat the Weak” vacation. Yeah, they ditched me. I didn’t blame them; I just waved weakly at the car as it drove away.
But it wasn’t a waste. Here’s why.
We visited Stratford-on-Avon, yes, that Stratford-on-Avon, home of Shakespeare. And while we were there I saw a framed poster advertising a production of “The Merry Wives Of Windsor” to raise money for restoration of the building.
One of the stars of the charity event was Charles Dickens.
Yes, that Charles Dickens. He was donating time to help save the home of one of his favorite writers. I realized there was this long tradition of writers helping each other as they created stories to entertain and enlighten, a chain that goes back past Beowulf to campfire tales to cave paintings.
And in one of the few true epiphanies I have ever experienced I realized that I was part of that same tradition. A small part but a link in that chain nevertheless.
And you are, too.
It didn’t matter that no one liked my sf novel. It didn’t matter that my article was a disaster. I’m not alone. Neither are you.
Back home, after the rash that covered my back and chest cleared up and I had for the most part stopped coughing, not letting a minor detail like I didn’t get any of the interviews I’d promised to deliver stop me, I wrote the article anyway. Content? We don’t need no stinkin’ content. “Let’s Not Talk About Old Books in London, or, Opening the Mummy’s Tomb” was sent off to the magazine which promptly rejected it despite the catchy title and a nice picture of the front of one of the bookstores.
Forty years later I remembered Stratford-on-Avon and that Dickens poster and I thought of sharing the story with all of you.
Because, unless you are Stephen King, you will hit low spots. And like all those who came before you, you will have to find a way to suck it up and keep going.
I can tell you, dear reader, about the adventure and hope to provide a chuckle and — in a way — the article lives.
There is value in your work. No matter what, there is value in your work.
In 1848 Dickens helped save Stratford-on Avon. A hundred and thirty years later that act helped save my writing career.
Remember, always remember, you are part of that tradition. Some writers are 33rd Degree, we may be 1st Degree, but we’re members of the same lodge, the fraternity of ink-stained wretches, and when you are sitting there at 2:00 am wondering “What happens next?”, thinking “Bah! Humbug! Why am I doing this?” and you feel like Tiny Tim on crutches hobbling through the snow, remember Dickens scribbling notes on a scrap of paper held on his knee as his carriage races through the foggy London night.
If you feel like you’re part of the tradition, share with us the writers you’re proud to be associated with. After all, we’re in this together.
God bless us every one. Happy Holidays!
Thanks to Robert A Heinlein for articulating the “33rd Degree” idea in his wonderful YA novel, Space Cadet.
Google Heinlein’s Five Rules for Writing for all of them spelled out.
For the Stratford-on-Avon restoration story do a Google search. It’s a great tale, with P. T. Barnum actually trying to buy the building and move it to his collection in the U. S. I’m not making this up.
Even King wondered if he was selling only because he was Stephen King and were the stories any good, and that led to the “Bachman Books.” They sold well. They’re good.
James Preston survived the Attack of the Alien Virus and went on to write the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. His most recent work, however, is not part of that series. It’s a novella called Buzzkill, a historical thriller that Kirkus Reviews said is “enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” For more about the stories, check out his web page, www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His next appearance will be a panel on January 26 at the Fullerton Public Library.
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