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Till Human Voices Wake Us

June 5th, 2009 3 comments

Happy birthday to me,
I sure as hell don’t feel 53,
Happy birthday and good writing,
It’s another day of word fighting.

As I write this column, my June 4 birthday is imminent. Gemini? Yes, we are.

I had planned to celebrate this birthday as I have umpteen others – by spending the day writing, but my wife tells me that since she’s taking the day off of work I better not be tapping the hours away on my natal day. On the docket is breakfast out, a movie, and a walk on the beach. That said I’ll still bet you $53 that I put in some time writing.

It wasn’t that long ago – or at least it doesn’t seem long ago – when I was invited to give a talk with several other established writers. In 1990 I was the new kid on the block. At the time I remember commenting to the audience that it was a pleasure to be able to throw my diaper into the literary ring.

My first published novel, NO SIGN OF MURDER, was the third book I had written. My first two attempts at writing novels were more akin to typing than writing, and the end products are feeding silverfish somewhere. When I was a fledgling novelist I didn’t know much about the craft of writing, but I did have enough awareness to know those first two books were practice runs. Books are supposed to sing. Those early works didn’t even hum. Since I knew those works weren’t ready for prime time, I didn’t even try to submit them anywhere. Maybe I saved a reader at some publishing house from contemplating a painful form of suicide.

Intuitively, I knew my third book was a keeper and I wanted it to have an audience that extended beyond my own eyes. But like a dog that’s caught a car, I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I didn’t have a writing group. I didn’t have a mentor. I didn’t have a confidante. And I sure didn’t have a literary agent. To sum up, I didn’t know the first thing about the world of publishing, and I am pretty sure I did everything wrong in trying to find an agent (she confessed that upon receiving my manuscript her first thought was, “Oh, God, this will probably be dreadful”). The only thing that I did right was that I wrote a good book. Sometimes the stars are aligned correctly. The book was purchased in a terrible economy (sound familiar?), and when my maiden effort was published it somehow yielded a standalone half-page rave review in the august New York Times. Suddenly I was a bona fide writer. Or at least that’s what everyone assumed.

The truth is that I was still a novice at the craft of writing. I was a storyteller, and good enough at storytelling to get published and noticed, but my writing education was just beginning. Twenty years have passed since that first book was published, and I am still learning about our craft.

Every few years the extension department at the University of California at San Diego talks me into teaching a writing course. I am always aghast at what they charge students for this course (one of the reasons I don’t like teaching at the university), and at the first class meeting I invariably announce, “For what you’re paying, you might consider dropping this course, getting a refund, and then going out to buy fifteen good hard-covers, or thirty good paperbacks.” If you hadn’t noticed, I am not exactly the IMF when it comes to financial matters. My economy of scale is usually calculated on how many books you can buy with how much money.

The students usually laugh when I tell them this, but then I continue on in all seriousness, saying there is no better writing teacher than a good book. A good book is magic, I say, and all of you want to be magicians. Examine that book which has moved you, or at least kept your interest. When did the characters come to life? What was it about that book that made you want to turn the page time, and time again? How did the author’s voice capture you? If you are going to be a good writer, I warn them, you need to pull back the curtains of OZ. You need to dissect books, and take an unflinching look at their guts.
With that advice, I also offer this caveat: once you become a critical reader you lose some of the pure enjoyment of reading. Like a magician that knows the tricks, you begin to observe with a knowing eye how those tricks are done, and while you can admire the craft it no longer seems so goosebumps-on-the-arms-incredible. You no longer go tumbling down Alice’s hole, except on those rare occasions when some author displays a wild magic that’s takes you captive despite your attempt at literary objectivity. I love it when that happens.

Since this is my first Storytellers column, I certainly don’t want readers to think my words are coming down from Olympus. I would put them considerably lower than that. As the proverb goes, “Every cock will crow upon his own dunghill.” Still, it is my dunghill, and since I have constructed that dubious edifice on words I would like to think that I have learned a few things in my 30 years of professional (paid) writing. Every so often I stumble upon some truth (or what I perceive as truth, immutable or not) that applies to writing. As these truths multiplied, I put a name to them: Russell’s Rules.

In the coming months, and forthcoming columns, I will be offering up that dunghill wisdom (all right, no more scatological references – oops, I lied – in the not too distant future there probably will be a mention of Papa Hemingway’s bullshit detector axiom that he said every good writer should have).

Why wait for another month to start in with Russell’s Rules, you ask? Well, it’s my birthday, and today I am going to take that walk on the beach where I will do my best to think no Eliot thoughts (“I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled”).

And like every writer I know, I’ll be listening for mermaids singing, and hoping that I will have ears enough to hear them.

Pax,

Alan Russell