(To the right, Edgar Allan Poe)
It all started when my eighth-grade English teacher, Bill Watson, introduced us to Edgar Allan Poe’s poems and tales of horror. He told us of other writers, too, but Poe was my man.
When I got back home after school in my North Carolina town, I went immediately to my room and starting writing. Oh, the words that poured forth! Pages and pages of epic poetry! Story after story of Poe-like terror and mayhem so pitiably inadequate they deserved to be killed and buried like Poe’s “tell-tale heart.”
When my Poe fixation faded, I turned to Jack London. Here was a challenge. What adventures could I boast to a writer who had been a gold prospector, hobo, able-bodied seaman, oyster pirate and war correspondent? Working summers on a tobacco farm just didn’t compare.
No matter. At my writing desk, I spun great long tales of frozen barrens with roaming packs of wolves, pirates on stormy seas.
Mr. Watson admitted to me decades later he never had any idea he was changing forever the life of the unremarkable-but-wide-eyed 14-year-old near the back of the room.
I’m reminiscing these days about those childhood years when I envisioned writing both the greatest epic poem since Milton and the Great American Novel. Today, this aging, ink-stained wretch, after decades of banging out true stories in newspapers, magazines and a couple books, can now claim a published novel.
Mine has been a long apprenticeship.
(To the right, the cover to my recently published novel, Casey's Last Chance)
Ernest Hemingway once said this about journalists writing fiction: “On the (Kansas City) Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”
Papa Hemingway had a good point. Newspaper work can be a wonderful muse. You write fast and hard against deadline, often under a tough editor’s stern eye, ridding your language of excess baggage, boiling it down to crystalline purity. That’s what I see in my favorite writing journalists, from A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Day and Ernie Pyle to modern-day masters like Charlie LeDuff.
Some of my favorite fiction writers got their training banging out newspaper stories, like hardboiled master James Cain, but Hemingway had another point when he said getting “out of it in time” may be necessary.
Making the transition from newspaper articles to magazine articles is no cinch. Newspaper deadlines can be just hours away. A magazine deadline may be six months in the future with publication six months later. Newspaper writers want immediate gratification. Waiting a year to see a byline is an eternity. Today’s online journalism makes old-style newspaper deadlines seem like a luxury.
Fiction’s biggest challenge to the nonfiction writer is that the writer makes most of the decisions. He can't always rely on the facts to make them. Another challenge is failure.
“If there are to be any claims to greatness, they are to be found only in the scope of the failure and persistence in the face of it,” novelist and journalist Stephen Marche wrote in the New York Times about the failures of great writers like Herman Melville. “That persistence may be the one truly writerly virtue, a salvation indistinguishable from stupidity. To keep going, despite everything. … To keep failing.”
For many years, I was the stereotypical newspaper reporter with the unpublished manuscript in the bottom drawer of his desk. I looked everywhere for models. Mississippian Eudora Welty talked about the importance of a writer’s “sense of place.” The great worker poet Philip Levine, who died this month, believed writers should leave their “place”.
“It’s important to get away from the place where you’re from,” he told an Oxford audience in 2000. “When you’re away from (such places), it is then that you can look back and see their beauty and their horror.”
In other words, writers disagree with each other.
Hacking away at an earlier, never-published novel many years ago, I’d get up at five in the morning and put in a couple hours before spending the next nine hours reporting and writing nonfiction. Got it finished, but 40-plus rejections and my friend, novelist and crime reporter Ace Atkins (no relation), finally convinced me to shelve it and start working on a second.
It was good advice. I later learned that’s what a lot of writers did and with success, including Ace Atkins and now me. Writing (and publishing) short stories also provided good training for that future novel.
Fiction and nonfiction share one thing in common. Both give you a joy that’s hard to describe when you finish what you’re writing and know it’s good. At that point, it’s not even important whether someone else knows it, too.
Except Mr. Watson. If he were still with us, I’d want him to know.
A version of this column was published recently in the Jackson Free Press of Jackson, Miss.