I spent most of my time prior to publishing my first book as a wannabe writer, one who talked about writing and adopted the mannerisms and eccentricities of a writer, and one who, if pressed, would whip out a bunch of undergraduate manuscripts and read them at parties. The only good news about these readings is that the audience was usually drunk enough not to remember them.
I remembered them, however, with a deep morning-after embarrassment. There’s drunk driving, drunk dialing, and drunk reading, and even at the time—in my mid-twenties—I knew there was something wrong with all three. I tried to avoid the first two, but get a couple of gin-and-tonics in me and I’d tell stories about my writing, and someone who hadn’t heard it before would ask me to read some, and I would just happen to have some with me.
My characters were stick-figures. My descriptions were saccharine-syrupy. My plots were borrowed from TV sit-coms when they weren’t borrowed from Rashomon. I prided myself for long, convoluted sentences which had been vaguely intoxicating to write and which I hoped would affect the reader the same way.
After having inflicted my whole oeuvre on every tolerant or immobile person of my acquaintance, I faced a bleak choice: either write some new stuff or quit calling myself a writer. The latter would have been the saner alternative, but instead I went to the editor of the local resort-town paper and asked her if she needed some filler. She did, and I began writing a series of Coyote stories, similar in concept to the indigenous myth but updated to visualize Coyote as a ski-bum in a resort town in the American West.
It should have been a disaster. But years of lying every time I called myself a writer, and even the self-loathing that had come from my inability to get anything on the page during those years, had functioned as preparation. I had promised the editor a series of stories, and she had given me a series of deadlines, and I would either meet them or watch a cherished identity be revealed as self-deception.
There wasn’t time for writerly wordplay or convoluted plots. There wasn’t room for big words or philosophy, even, because I was writing for busy people who lived and worked in a ski resort. I was working as a bartender at the time, and people who had read my stories in the paper would come in, sit at the bar, and after a couple of drinks tell me in no uncertain terms what was wrong with my writing.
I learned from their feedback to be as honest and direct as possible. If I had a point, I made sure I stated it as quickly and as plainly as I could. If a character thought about doing something, he did it. If he thought about saying something, he said it. Otherwise, I just bored people.
I stopped worrying about impressing my audience with my intellect, which wasn’t likely in any event, and started worrying about telling good stories, usually gossip that I’d heard around closing time from the same people who criticized my writing. Telling them their own stories was a way of getting them over to my side.
Now when I look at those Coyote stories—my first little book, written so I could stop lying about what I was—I can’t believe how much I did right. I’ve taught writing for a long time now, but I still can’t articulate all the steps in the huge and happy transition from being a wannabe writer to being a storyteller who could make people laugh and cry.
But here are some lessons I’ve taken from that time in my life:
- You can’t underestimate the importance of focusing on and respecting your audience if you’re going to tell a story.
- People are always more interested in the story you tell than in the story you tell about being a writer.
- Alcohol may be a step on the way to becoming a writer, but over time it gets shameful. Unless you’re good at turning shame into productive hard work*, a drinking life will either have you reading yellowed manuscripts that all your friends make fun of behind your back, or it will keep your real writing—the stuff you really care about—safely in the future. Or both.
- Calling yourself a writer and thinking about being a writer and talking about being a writer is not always wasted time. It’s a psychic apprenticeship, a kind of visualizing what you’re going to become before you become it. But it’s only an apprenticeship in retrospect, seen from the position of a writer who’s got some hard-won book covers framed on the wall above his or her writing table. It does no good to pretend to be a writer unless you eventually decide to live up to pretense.
- Feeling guilty because you’re not writing enough may be a holdover from the time you really weren’t writing enough, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away. Maybe it goes away for the first week or so after publishing a book. Then the little internal buddy—the one with horns and the tail—speaks: “So what are you working on now?”
- Don’t leave people hanging with inconclusive endings. Always finish your stories. You’re not a writer until you can finish your stories.
These days, I’ve quit calling myself a writer. Other people call me a writer, and that’s okay. They can make the charge stick. I’ve even signed my name to some of the evidence.
But I’m far more comfortable with the title of storyteller. Now and then I get together with other old guys like myself, and we’ll have a beer—two, if we’re feeling rambunctious—and tell stories. Usually the stories are not about who or what we are, and they’re never about our moments of success or wisdom. They’re about our mistakes and false starts and the selves we’ve discarded because we took them way too seriously. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t go home and work on our stories so they’ll be even better next time. That’s a serious business and we put far more thought into it than into the question of personal identity.
*Unfortunately for themselves and for the people around them, some writers have been able to take alcoholic shame and use it as fuel to work. They’ve contributed to a terrible myth about alcohol abuse and writing that has destroyed a lot of writers. Every one of our great alcoholic writers would have written better—and more importantly, lived better—without alcohol. Even Bukowski.