Dear Margaret,

I read ______’s two stories and the good news is he has some talent, wit and imagination, essential ingredients without which craft seems purposeless; the bad news is that to be at a “professional” level he needs more experience yet in the craftsmanship of writing, observable from ten paces since he failed to number his pages.  Or, to find a more subtle example, here and there one finds overworking and overdramatizing of the parenthetical clause: sometimes leaving unessential matters caught under the spotlight onstage between the commas, or sometimes, even with more excitement between the comma covers, self-consciously or, however unintentionally, immodestly drawing questionable attention to one’s wit.

_______ appears reasonably well-read, which helps. He can put a sentence together well enough and he varies these nicely so that the rhythm doesn’t get boring (compared to much choppy or longwinded writing I’ve seen), but such subtle matters as emphasis, tone, diction, point of view, sense of unity, the merging of plot and character, I think, are not easily taught, beyond the rudiments; although with a little luck and effort these improve over time.  It would be easier to comment in person on such matters and of course _______ is welcome to stop by sometimes if he gets to Los Angeles, or he’s welcome to write with any specific questions.

As for success, whether _____can succeed in writing might be better answered by him, depending upon his needs and commitment.  He may have what it takes to be a fine writer but--probably more defining--does one have not just the right stuff but the wherewithal to know what to do with it and the persistence to struggle with it. Being intelligent or even articulate is not the same, by a long shot, as knowing the mechanics of writing. And another good question is does the writer/potential author have the enthusiasm to sustain oneself over the long haul.  And the measure of success, of course, is somewhat subjective, depending upon expectations: therapeutic, financial, degrees of recognition, personal development and growth, an outlet for creativity, satisfaction, pleasure, a way to satisfy one’s human need for expression . .. Writing can do all of these things, and more, although none of them are achieved easily.

I can only add here that as one gains more experience, becomes more comfortable juggling all of the balls in the minefield of language and storytelling, one can concentrate more easily and usually do a better job on the particulars, i.e., on what to emphasize or de-emphasize whether in a clause or in a line of ideas.  And in time one becomes more capable of listening to that little voice at the back of your head, to hear what thought or dialogue is truly coming from inside the character, and is credible, or what is superimposed from outside the character; and, not least--seemingly even more important than that of being a writer--over time presumably one becomes more able to sit in as a reader in order to feel what deserves emphasis and what doesn’t, what’s exciting and what isn’t, what serves the purpose of the story and what doesn’t, what does or does not move the story forward, what adds something unique and what doesn’t; in short, what works and what doesn’t . . . Here, too, the amateur reader, that voice at the back of your head, a different perception, may not know much about the workings of the vehicle but he can hear the hum of the motor and, in this sense, is often more sensitive to the knocks in the engine than the writer.  At the risk of being repetitive, you have to let the writer in you concentrate on the details; the reader in you concentrate on the impact.  Anyway I guess that’s a long way of saying I’ve seen plenty worse writing that these two stories but, more bad news--and Douglas probably realizes as much--the process of learning how to write well is never ending like a deep pit you jump into hoping there’s a little liquid refreshment at the bottom.

To ramble onward, here are some of my words and ideas “off the top”; my not wishing to be overly-encouraging (considering today’s difficult market) and not wishing to be disillusioning either by overwhelming with the fearful truth that there is much to learn about writing or by overwhelming with too much detail or explanation.  I believe it was Lord Byron who said, “Coleridge goes about explaining his metaphysics to the nation, which is fine, except I wish he would explain his explanation.”  And as Talleyrand observed about men of letters in his 18th century France, “If we go on explaining we shall cease to understand one another.”

Thus from the oft-ignored or underrated perceptions of Serbia’s ethnic cleansing in Bosnia* to the more overrated restoration and cleaned up image of Nixon--his new slate ironically coming almost simultaneously with the over-rated restoration and new paint job on the Sistine Chapel**  (including “the last judgment”)--there seems so much more to explain nowadays.  Especially for those—is_________’s bent too?--who feel some need to untangle and articulate our confusing and disturbing modern world, something like Don Quixote in his day confidently charging onward into mysterious or abysmal depths.

As for practical considerations, of course people are writing and publishing but I would be remiss in any “writerly advice” to overlook that a quality publication today must qualify as something of a fortress-like wall to the Quixotian spear.  Thus Harpers, for example, even before the ease of email, reported (as far back as 1986) to buying about twelve articles a year from the approximately 2,400 unsolicited queries and manuscripts it receives.  The odds here not all that unusual, it suggests, perhaps, as the querying _____ might observe, that the main qualification for gaining publication in a major market nowadays may be a tendency to masochism, that is, to tolerate whatever it takes in time and effort to get published.  So, short of a decent commitment, forget it; or alter your sights to be the less formidable target.  Ironically, unlike less-experienced writers setting their sights on the super-fortress, the pro’s (except for established contacts) tend to lower their sights, turn their efforts toward publications where they have significantly better odds.  An odds turn of events, you might say.

Anyway, with Talleyrand, rather than lose the real sense of things (and in keeping with my diet) I’ll try, despite meandering diversions, to “contain myself” to a few more cursory aspects of ____’s work and to consider one’s odds for success in today’s market and even some bizarre glimmers of hope.

As noted, _______may follow the ________tradition and his work suggests a fair amount of intelligence and imaginative flare; perhaps as much, if not more, than might be found even in some successful writers/artists/whoevers.  After all, as Dr. ____would probably put it, if Bozo (Reagan) could succeed, and even Nixon resurrected as a master statesman, why shouldn’t ____ succeed with his efforts.  He’s probably not only just as smart but a much nicer guy, less locked-into some old world cold-war absurdities and more open to new ideas and to learning.  And as the art critic Bernard Berenson suggests, probably __________ at his age is not too young to be unaware of what new things he’s buying into and not too old to change his ways.  So far so good.

Of course, keep in mind that even though a Ronald Reagan or even a George W. Bush might succeed—which seemingly offers hope to all of us—he had enough charismatic talent and enough support to somehow run the country in his sleep; and, as Nixon himself supposedly put it, Reagan was dumb enough that the country actually believed him about Iran Contra, while when it came to Watergate, he, Nixon lamented, didn’t have that option.  So even a modicum of smarts, to give the Devil his due, is not always sufficient.

Of course Nixon had sufficient moxie, for example, to take credit for recognizing China; even though he himself was among those leading the parade in denying China’s existence for decades; and, not least, after years of red-baiting until, finally, only a true blue patriot--in need of diversion from his other failures--could “get away with” recognizing China.  And keep in mind, too, that even with the Nixon resurrection, little or no recognition has been given to Nixon’s occasional genuine statesmanship--such as being among the first to call for meaningful aid to Russia long before Yeltsin was forced to sell out to the Russian military who recently saved Yeltsin’s butt at the very last minute of the palace revolt.

Nixon’s early call here to truly aid Russia—before it was too late—could turn out to be, however ineffectual, one of the more perceptive moments of modern times.  Perhaps this will turn out to be a lost opportunity comparable to the world’s bad luck when Stalin—and hopes for easing the cold war—died almost immediately after the new Ike-Nixon administration rode into office after stirring up fears for months about the perils of a Pinko or Peacenik administration unable to face up to Russia.  If only the timing had been different.  The US and Russia tried a dance or two together to ease the cold war after Ike and Nixon came in but were obviously out if step, in turn followed by a continued cold war clumsiness and macabre dance for some forty years while the real world continued to bankrupt itself and fall apart, from the environment to a cynical loss of faith (helped along by such as Nixon’s law-breaking) in civilization itself, including finally a disdain even for language and literature; which, one can guess, won’t make it any easier for new writers to attract an audience.

One might easily admit that even the best of ideas don’t always cut it, while the dumbest of ideas might go far, some of them, in our own time, lasting for decades—who says there’s no long term thinking?  On the other hand it’s been well noted that ideas have consequences, even in literature, and without them one is not likely to make any genuine and worth while contribution.  In this sense it’s apparent that _________at least has ideas, often something to say that seems worthwhile; yet, as a relatively inexperienced writer, as often as not these ideas are dropped into his fiction äčin passing in dialogue, etc., or narrative asides—rather than built into the story. A more extreme example of this, for instance, might be found in one of Ayn Rand’s thousand page short stories where—even if she made good sense, which she often doesn’t—she is generally more interested in what she says than in how she says it.  So one might argue that she’s a philosopher or a teacher, but she seems not hardly a “writer,”  as suggested by the groaning reviews even by right-wing critics.

One might find philosophizing and thinking aloud, with the story, as something of an excuse—a vehicle, so to speak—even in great works of the past; not by the the likes of a tedious Ayn Rand but by the rambling and psychologizing Dostoevsky, the moralizing Tolstoy, the thinking Brecht, the feeling Ionesco, the intellectualizing and ofttimes brilliant Aldus Huxley (held in considerable disdain by today’s somewhat anti-intellectual critics), and a touch of philosophizing even among some of our overly subjective and solipsizing postmoderns.  Admittedly sometimes you can get away with it, and the effort to say something—despite the unpopularity today of any “message” writing—is in ways even a pleasant repast compared to much of today’s ‘art for art’s sake’ or stories with masterful technique that say little or nothing.  Admittedly some of Dreiser’s American Tragedy offered the most butchered language*** to be found anywhere—very possibly written when he was drunk—but in his better moments he was a master storyteller, as were all of the others, with a sense of what they could get away with and what they couldn’t; and how to slip ideas in; and my guess is it takes some time, years probably, to be able to accomplish this successfully.

If one looks, for example, at Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco, the wise-cracking Humphrey Bogart/ Sam Spade of ancient Rome, one sees in each of the author’s books how masterfully the plot emerges out of character and the character emerges out of plot, until one doesn’t really know which came first.  But, an improvement even in some ways over the early Agatha Christie works which generally emphasized plot at the expense of character, and an improvement over many modern novels which emphasize character at the expense of plot, here you have both.  The ideas, the wit, the philosophizing, the insights, not only fit into the story but somehow essential to the story.

An interesting contrast might be the novels of Ellis Peters.  Here a twelfth-century story with a personable monk, like one of our modern priest detectives, gains credibility for us not so much by bringing us into another time and place, as with Falco, but my emphasizing universal quantities, such as empathy for the innocent, and we are at home with these characters because they seem to think and feel as we do today.  Of course the work by Peters, however much fun to read, lacks the historical depth and a larger credibility and social and political insight that we find amid the wisecracking by Didius Falco.  Which may account, unfortunately, for why there are so many fewer Lindsey Davis Falco books than Ellis Peter books.

Among possibilities, writing may be topical (pertaining to or based up current events), more historical, or appealing to the reader through fanciful or universal and timeless qualities.  _________seemed to offer more universal qualities; ________the more fanciful.  As Edgar Wind observed in Art and Anarchy some thirty years ago—and I think this even more apt today—as part of the artist’s romantic rebellion against science and technology our imagination and learning are driven apart, mistakenly leaving much learned work short on imagination and much imaginative work light on facts (not necessarily in what’s in the story but also in what’s missing), almost as if there were a fear of facts, as if such unpoetic factualism might pollute the story.

In______’ ______ felt the character somewhat imposed from the outside, and I think the credibility somewhat affected by the narrator’s omniscient point of view. (An unpopular point of view even when found in some of today’s literature involving people.)  As for my own taste, anyway, I’d have enjoyed more realistic insight and something to stimulate my thoughts more on the _______, ala the non-fiction work, A Zoo in My Luggage by Gerald Durrell, or A Cat is Watching, by Roger A. Caras, the latter suggesting, interestingly, how alien in some ways the cat’s thinking is to ours.  In important ways, cats and dogs, etc., seem like people in their emotions, clearly expressing fear, satisfaction, anger . . . By contrast, the insects seem light years away, at least as we have little sense of any emotion of their part.  A caterpillar, moth or butterfly (although all insects) might seem to be even in an intermediate dimension.  In this sense, anyway, I felt _______a little too anthropomorphized (including names like ______and_______).

In_______, which I found more to my personal taste than________, there are some fine wisecracking moments.  These are not exactly out of character, but unlike Lindsay Davis I don’t know that he’s yet found the right character or the right literary milieu where such wit is integral to the story.  One has to learn to match one’s style to the right project, in short, to find one’s niche as a writer.  This takes time.

So, to repeat myself, ________appears to be a man with a good supply of ideas and imagination—not insignificant ingredients.  It’s a nice beginning.… He might wish to check out The Writer and The Writer’s Digest magazines, and he might consider taking some writing class where he can get some reaction and support from teacher and students.

Hope this helps. 

By Ron Kenner — Who Can Be A Writer?

* Or, in Rwanda, the “cleansing” of the minority by the majority; and all that follows

** Fresher and brighter but no doubt losing many subtleties in the transformation.  With Nixon’s stonewalling, of course, we got less light on matters, unlike Michelangelo’s stonewall of “the Last Judgement,” which at least was up front and one of the largest frescoes in world history.

*** An example of subtle, small language land mines (and I noted some similar small slips in _____’s stories), originally I wrote: “Admittedly Dreiser’s American Tragedy offered some of the most butchered language to be found anywhere . . .”  True, I think, but only parts of the book.