One Pastime all Great Writers Share? They were all Avid Readers!
If you want to be a Writer, first be a Reader!
As this is an area covered by loads of professional writers, many providing self-help information way beyond my reach, I will confine this article to some of my own experiences, plus some general observations about the wordsmith’s art.
I don’t know whether writers are born or made, I tend to believe both is true. In these days of the internet, computers games, 200-channel digital TV and the rest, information on just about any subject is available at the touch of a few keys. Yet book publishing, forecast to fail completely, has hardly suffered at all.
My claim to some talent as a writer began around age 10 in secondary school. I was so far above the rest of the class in essay writing it was obvious I had a well-spring of imagination that may have been possible to tap and produce a writing career, so….so, nothing! I went to some crappy agricultural school run by the government with the view of becoming a farmer. That didn’t last,so I joined the navy and soon learned to keep my writer’s imagination under control by dour matelots with a vocabulary of about 100 words. Four years of that was enough, so I came out and started a scrap-metal company. Another couple of years of partner woes, both in business and private, I ran off to Australia where the gold nuggets fell from the sky.
I lived and worked in Oz for about 5 years, all in jobs or scams that had nothing to do with writing, and even less with easy money, there's little of that there, especially for annoying Poms. Then came trouble with the thieving Australian plod motor-squad, leading to an early morning flight to San Francisco, and I washed up in Berkeley, a good place for a berk who couldn’t see the forest for the trees regarding his vocation. I lived in Southern California and Texas for about ten years, discovering pot, coke and copious amounts of Wild Turkey. This period included getting busted by the DAS (el plod) in Barrenquila, Columbia; returning to the US with a warning to stay away from dodgy business deals in the south, and serving 3 years in the Texas Dept. of Corrections, Huntsville for just being an all round screw-up.
Before and in between all of the above I had discovered Mexico and after being deported to England, I headed back out there.
OK, great career to date chaps! But do you sense anything developing here? First, there is the talent, forgotten for 20 years, except aiding the silver-tongued lizard with the ladies, then the life experiences - most not recommended, of course, but all adding an exotic layer to the roots which nourish writers; encouraging ideas from the brain to the pen which might hold a reader’s interest. Until you can learn to do that, you might as well stay waiting tables. In fact, giving up your day-job while you learn a writer's craft, is a foolish move.
This can be done in many ways, of course, I don’t recommend 3 years banged-up in Wynne Farm Unit, Huntsville, to all people seeking an attention-grabbing style. But in my case, seeing blokes pushed off landings and bleeding to death from knife wounds, does give me a mine of information I can fall back on to hold my readers awed attention. ("A head breaks like a cantaloupe when it hit’s the concrete floor after it’s owner is thrown off the fourth landing, even after an entertaining bounce off the first floor wire safety net" I wrote somewhere once) See what I mean? To heck with what this nut did as a writer, you growl, let’s hear more about prison!
Yes, the trauma of life in the big US state prisons does attract a steady readership, but that is not what this small hub is about, I promise to do another about prison experiences soon; for now, may I press on?
Some time before being sentenced to TDC, I had married a woman from Mexico City, Lourdes and I had had a son, Alex, so I decided to head back to Mexico after the round trip to Blighty and back west.
That didn’t work out too well, so I went back over to Europe and taught English in Barcelona for a year, hooked-up with a local lady, and headed back to Oz with her to open a roofing business that soon attracted the interest of the Aussie tax men. So much so, that I was almost relieved to be told I couldn’t stay in Oz ; The British were going through a period of being persona non grata, since that oaf, Geoff Whitlam slammed the door on easy residency. Heck! And we bloody invented the place! I swore right then to never touch another sheep! (But I did, they are just so loving).
Please understand that the chronology of all this - and there was much more - is highly inaccurate.
Miss Barcelona and I returned to Mexico and rented a lovely little ranchita in Valle de Bravo in the mountains near Toluca. When IS this w----r going to get round to writing, you snarl.
Right now! For some reason I remembered all those essays with a ten out of ten on them and the sneers from the less fat pupils who could play cricket, and that I was descended from Alfred Tennyson, (his brother, Turner, actually); bought a used brother word-processor and began firing-off farticles to US magazines. Don’t worry, darling, look up from your salt sandwich, we’re going to be rich! Ha! Some readers at this point will be feeling empathy with me I’m sure; their stack of rejection slips had them contemplating suicide, too. But did I give up? You bet you’re sweet booty I did! (advice. Watch the use of exclamation points. The most useful punctuation mark in the language is disliked by editors, who say the writer’s words themselves should convey the emphasis of the message. Up yours!!).
I gave up shot-gunning articles to all and sundry because it was too much work - never liked that much; it cost too much in materials and postage; certainly more than I ever made from the one article that sold.
But then, after a few months back in England, Brrrr! I returned to Mexico and had my first bit of luck. I met the fabulous editor of the Mexico City News, Pat Nelson. Pat, may her memory live for ever, was a self-confessed butch lesbian (can I say that?) who claimed to have slept with every good looking actress in Mexico. She had been a sergeant in the coastguard, a science fiction writer of note and ran the News with a green eye-shield, a murderous Camel non-filtered stuck in the corner of an unforgiving mouth; tobacco and whisky snarl, and an iron fist. We all adored her.
“Robert,” she said. “We need a reporter to cover the bullfights, do you want the job.” I knew absolutely nothing about the taurine arts and said so. “You’ll soon learn,” she grated, “And it's all we've got. Get out to the Monumental Bullring and start writing about bloody bullfighting today!.” And all because I said I had once seen El Cordobes in the July Feria in Valencia!
Nope. This ain’t about bullfighting, either - anyway, we Brits hate it: not half so much fun as shooting poor bloody defenceless pheasants; giving cuddly bunnies horrendous diseases, and kicking the kids around Tesco. At least facing a fighting bull takes cojones! I know, I did, and ran for my life!
During the wonderful 5 years I worked at the News I began to learn what it meant to be a reporter; next to writing good poetry, one of the hardest disciplines a writer can learn. My speciality was Mexican sports: bullfighting, jai-alai and the charros (cowboys), along with weekly stints at the Hippodrome to cover the gee-gees. (my early training as a scammer was useful here in getting and using tips). I had a friend who was a jai-alai player, too, if he pulled his right sock up, his team was going to loose; his left, win. That was a source of bread and butter bucks.
When Pat was finally fired for screwing the boss’s girlfriend, I was ganged-up on by the simpering new editor, Dan Dial, and gay buddies in the newsroom and fired from the News. By then, I was a legend for reporting and boozing, (these skills go hand-in-hand in the newspaper business, at least, when real men worked there). So, after a stint teaching speech and debate at the Mexico City Uni, I quickly carried on as a columnist with pages in several Mexican papers in Cuernavaca and La Paz, Baja California.
I was close to pensionable age by then and returned to the UK to claim what I could of the bennies here and stayed, publishing a few books on Mexico, language and poetry. The publisher stole all the royalties and is being sued; meanwhile, here I languish, dreaming of better times in far-off places and Mexico's luscious senoritas.
So that’s a brief glimpse into my writing world, folks, a sip of a complex broth, as it were.
Go into television chaps and chapesses! That’s where the money is and you can shag all those wild, good-looking presenters!
Now. Did I hold your interest? Some of you, I hope. Are any of the exploits of this author mentioned herein true? More importantly, was it believable? That’s the secret of the writer’s art.
Footnote: If you were ask me what one thing helps to make a writer, apart from having literary genes, a decent education, some formal training in the art, and just practising, the answer would be easy. Read. Just read. I am no Shakespeare, but I can string a sentence together and have produced screeds of acceptable text for newspapers, magazines and my books. Since I learned to read, I have done so, all my life. This is, above all, what gives a writer his treasure trove of a good vocabulary; his in-built thesaurus of alternative words, with the different shades of meaning they convey. And his love of words and the images they call forth.
I notice the help this has given me when I write poetry. I know in a second whether any word is easy to rhyme, what words rhyme with it, or how many syllables lines need in free verse to turn prose into a recognizable poetic cadence. And I can write passable verse as fast as I can type the words.
My generation had a huge advantage over those that followed. We had no TV, much less laptops and search engines. We had to live life, or read about it in wonderful books. I am astonished today to see how many people can’t spell, never mind write interestingly. But their lives and careers in the main don’t demand it. Shame.