So You Want To Be a Writer ... by Lev Butts

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This past March, I was asked to be the keynote speaker for Georgia Highlands College's inaugural Writers' Collaborative Conference, in Rome, Georgia. While trying to gather materials for this month's post, I came across my speech. I am posting it this month because I think it speaks to a lot of misconceptions non-writers and new writers have about being an author. I was going to pull some ideas from it, but I couldn't get it to work as well as it does here, so I'm posting the speech in its entirety. For those of you who wish to read the story, I reference near the end, I am posting on my personal blog and will provide a link at the end. I hope you enjoy it:

Good afternoon.

How many of you plan on making your living writing?

[Just about everyone raised their hand]

That many, huh? Well, I have some, perhaps, disheartening news for you all: the chances of doing that are, if I were to take a fairly educated guess, akin to the chance a black man has of surviving a season of The Walking Dead.   You may want to make nice with any well-to-do relatives or consider moonlighting as a CEO.

“The arts,” says Kurt Vonnegut, “are not a way to make a living. If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

“That [creative writing] is taught anywhere, given the daunting odds against anyone making a living writing stories or poems, might appear to be a scandal,” he argues elsewhere, “as would be courses in pharmacy, if there were no such things as drugstores.”

And there is a lot to be said for Vonnegut’s opinion. There is not much money to be made in the arts, so your parents will worry if you choose such a life. Careers in the arts are rare and mostly poorly paid. I know this. I’m a writer and a humanities professor. In fact, nothing pleased me more than finding out my son was going to technical school to be a nurse. “You’ll make way more money than I do,” I said. “My retirement is assured.”

My goddaughter called me a few weeks ago and told me she was nervous about growing up and entering the real world. I asked her what she wanted to do.

She wanted to be a best-selling novelist.

I told her she’d need something to fall back on while she waited for her novels to be appreciated by the masses.

To her credit, she had thought about just that: “I’ll be an English teacher,” she said, “like you.”

Since no amount of logic can dissuade her from this plan, all I can do is be proud of her, too, and wait for my inevitable opportunity to tell her “I told you so.”

Since you all are sitting here, I assume nothing I or your English teachers can tell you will dissuade you any more than I can dissuade my goddaughter or my English professors could dissuade me. Therefore, I can only do what I can to cushion the blow and help you in some small way to realize what potential you have for artistic expression.

Even though, I have been asked to speak to you about writing, I cannot, unfortunately, teach you to write well. I cannot, to paraphrase Joseph Heller, teach talent, give intelligence, or make a person funny. No one can. This may seem surprising considering that I make my living teaching people how to communicate effectively in college composition courses. However, while comma splices and run-on sentences and subject/verb agreement are all important when it comes to writing, they can only help you write better, not necessarily well. Besides, I suspect that this is not what you all came out to hear me talk about. You can sleep through ENGL 1101 for that information.

All of you are here because you actually want to write, a desire so apparently unpopular that you, and literally thousands of others like you worldwide, have had to create entire conferences to discuss writing openly and without judgment, like cos-players going to Dragon-Con, or addicts to AA. You have come here to share your love of the written word with each other and to listen as other writers share their love of the written word with you. And that I can do.

I cannot teach you to write well enough to make your living at it, but I can share with you why I write fiction and share with you my own methods, such as they are, in the hopes that they may help you.

I knew I wanted to write as soon as I knew I wanted to read. I spent most of my childhood writing stories. None of them good. Most of them were feeble attempts to rewrite or expand on books I already read and wanted more from.

I remember taking a spiral notebook with me wherever I went and scribbling my stories whenever I had to sit still. This annoyed my stepfather to no end (I told you parents will not be happy with this particular life choice). Whenever he’d see me carrying that notebook everywhere I went, it embarrassed him as much as if I had attended church in a frilly pink tutu and Ronald McDonald shoes. “Real writers,” he used to tell me, “do not take their notebooks everywhere. They don’t have to write all the time.” He knew this, I assume, because he had never met a single writer who did this. That he had never met a single writer at all was irrelevant.

This is, by the way, something I still do. I no longer carry a notebook; I use my iPod. I no longer write entire stories during my downtime, I jot down ideas and dialogue. Especially dialogue. One of the things people have complimented most about Emily’s Stitches is its dialogue. I will tell you my secret to writing good dialogue:
I don’t write good dialogue, I steal it.

Whenever I overhear someone say something awesome or (less frequently) I say something awesome, I jot it down in my iPod here.

Here are some of the best lines I’ve never written:
  • “The best thing you could say about him was that he wasn’t Hitler” (a student discussing one of my colleagues).
  • From a conversation with my son about a friend of his I am not a great fan of: 
“I kinda thought you disliked him since, you know, you said you wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire.”
“Well I may have exaggerated a little. If he were on fire, I’d probably piss on him.”
  • An old grizzled man at the Waffle House when asked if he was ordering for here or to go: “I got nothing but internet porn and a wet paper towel waiting for me at home. I think I’ll eat my Waffle House here.”

Sometimes these lines lead me to stories; sometimes they fit into stories I already have. Sometimes, they’re just funny.

Another question I am often asked is how to create memorable characters. The truth is I don’t create characters any more than I write good dialog. I find them, usually after they’ve been in the story a bit and decide to speak up.

Richard Monaco, author of the Parsival novels, a Pulitzer nominated fantasy series in the 70’s and early 80’s, puts it best. He claims that you have to fall in love with your characters in order to make them “real.” “Characters are the soul of literature,” he says. “It’s like meeting a stranger with interesting superficial characteristics. You have to drop your own opinions and prejudices, and you have to look and listen. It is like falling in love because you care and learn as a result. When you love someone or something, you want to learn, to know; you forget yourself; look, listen. That's also how you create characters.”

Yeah, my literary mentors are quite a cheery group.

Yes, some of my characters begin as caricatures of real people. The narrator of “Negative Space” (the story I am about to read) is very much like myself; his estranged wife began as an avatar for my first wife, but as the story grows, the characters develop in their own ways. I am not a photographer; Aleck is. My first wife did not leave me for a tattooed, punk-rocking hellion, Jessi, on the other hand...

Other characters spring completely from my imagination. I never knew anyone like Uncle Birch, for instance, though he seems in many ways, the most real person in the story. He mostly began as a stereotype of the typical conspiracy theorist nut-job who, despite the fact that I had intended him to be simply an amusing character in the background of the story, gradually came to dominate the plot as much as he dominates his family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

The secret to finding good characters is to watch and listen to everyone around you. Anybody play the people-watching game? You sit in a corner or on a bench or otherwise out of the way in a group of people, preferably strangers, and try to figure out what their stories are. You pay attention to their idiosyncrasies. Every time that guy passes a window or mirror or security camera, he struts, but he slumps down whenever someone else walks by. The other guy checks out every girl who walks buy and blows them French-kisses behind their back. I have no idea what that guy’s up to. It’s a great way to find characters for your story.

But how do you find a story for your characters? This may well be the most frequently asked question of me or any author. Where do your ideas come from? And as with dialog and character, there is no easy answer.

My ideas come from everything. My first rule of writing fiction is to imagine a story I want to read that hasn’t been written yet, and write it. Sometimes I begin with an interesting story that actually happened to me or someone else, but then, just as characters have a tendency to get away from you, so does plot. Things start creeping into the story that didn’t actually happen. It starts morphing into something else, something new. Hopefully, something better than truth.

Some of my story ideas come from other people. For instance, my story “Gods for Sale, Cheap” came from a Neil Gaiman interview I read in which he discussed story ideas that never gelled for him. One of those ideas was about a shop that sold religions in the same way that other shops sell books or clothing or inflatable sheep. As much as I adore Gaiman’s work, the only thing that stuck with me from the interview was the idea of a religion store, so I gave myself the writing exercise of crafting a story about such a business and, because I wanted to practice my dialogue, it could not have a narrator. And of course, now that I say it out loud, I see that I totally stole Gaiman’s idea. I only hope that my book sells enough copies for him to sue me over it.

Most of the time, however, my ideas come from combining these two things. Take “Negative Space.” That idea came from two things occurring very close together: First, about a year previous to writing the story, shortly after separating from my first wife, my former mother-in-law invited me to their house for Christmas, and, to everyone’s surprise including my own, I went. Secondly, I had recently read Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, and in a scene that isn’t in the film, the Michael Douglas character, Grady Tripp, and the Tobey Maguire character, James Leer, inadvertently find themselves sharing a Passover Seder with Grady’s estranged parents-in-law. Of course the scene from the book brought to mind the awkward Christmas dinner with my own estranged in-laws, and I began by simply writing up a version of my own experience, then realized that the irony of having the dinner occur on Thanksgiving worked better than Christmas thematically. Once that change was made, the characters morphed into the ones we have now.

All of this to say that there is no magic bullet for writing a story. 

There is one for killing Kennedy, though.
If you have an idea, tinker with it. If the events are based on real events or the characters are versions of real people, don’t try too hard to make them exact replicas of reality. We have plenty enough reality as it is. The world could use more fantasy. Let events and characters go their own way; I suspect you’ll probably find the journeys they take far more interesting than the journeys that have already happened. If not, hell, just throw it away and start again. After all, whether you have an audience of one or one million, when you are alone with your keyboard, you are only writing for yourself.

And that’s really my last bit of advice for you. Write only for yourself because nobody else cares about your writing. Publishers, if you are fortunate enough to get published, will not care about your writing. When they say they do, they care only inasmuch as your writing will bring them money, and that is okay. That’s their job. Bookstore owners do not care about your writing; they care about selling your book, yes, but they are probably not going to read it, and that, too, is okay. It’s their job. Since, as I said in the beginning, you are probably not going be a best-selling author, your audience may not extend further than your friends and family, if that far. Your friends and family, for the most part, do not care about your writing. They care about you and want to encourage you, and that’s okay. It’s their job. Only you care about your writing; that’s your job. So write only about things that interest you. If other people like it, great, but if you are uninterested in it, you have failed yourself as a writer.

When I first taught high school literature, I was saddled with ninth grade lit and composition. As you probably know (and possibly remember) ninth grade is a horrible demographic to teach. On one hand they feel like big shots because they are in high school and they are still naïve enough to believe that means something. On the other hand, they feel intimidated by the upperclassmen, so they show out in order to prove that they are just as jaded about life as they believe the seniors are. On the third hand (because we really need at least three hands), they are brand new teenagers with bodies teeming with amazing new chemicals that make them think only about whatever is not in front of them now. In other words teaching ninth graders is not entirely unlike teaching a pack of Chihuahua puppies.

And I taught these puppies as best I could, and the one thing that helped me through the stress of teaching these Chihuahuas was my development of sarcasm, which is something anyone who has taught high school will tell you that you need. During my first teacher evaluation, my assistant principal praised my lesson plans and my ability to keep the class relatively herded and on task. The only thing she was really concerned about, she said, was my sarcasm.

“I don’t think the kids get it,” she said.

“That’s okay,” I replied. “The sarcasm isn’t for them; it’s for me. If they get it, that’s just gravy.”

Your writing is like my sarcasm: It is for you yourself and no one else. If anyone else gets it, likes it, or wants more of it, that’s just gravy.

Thank you.
I’m going to read you a story now. I hope you enjoy it, but if not, at least I will.

If you'd like to read "Negative Space," click here.


Susan Price said…
Thanks Lev - I enjoyed that a lot. Off to read your story now...
Susan Price said…
And I loved the story.
Lee said…
Like this! (Haven't read the story yet but definitely will - after I finish another *!!*! page of translating.) It's going to be one of my 'linking posts' - the stuff I use to counter self-publishing skeptics.
Leverett Butts said…
Thanks y'all, I am glad you enjoyed the post and the story. I have really enjoyed myself with this blog. Thanks again for inviting me to contribute.
Guernsey Girl said…
Now this is how to write a blog for aspiring writers!
glitter noir said…
Thanks for another firsts-rate post, Lev. I've bookmarked this so I can forward it to aspiring writers.
Dennis Hamley said…
I shall bookmark it too. Every new writer I mentor will get a copy. I sheered every word.
Dennis Hamley said…
I meant 'cheered'. See Jo's post this morning.
Lydia Bennet said…
well blogged Lev! spot-on advice. My Creative MA students, some of them (the novelists rather than the poets) not only wanted to have five figure advances and film deals but expected them as a natural outcome of paying their course fees...

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