So I’m going to put this out there right now so there’s no confusion, in case one day I am selected to run for public office.
You can see my scholastic records any time. I was a lousy student, C+ at best, though I did get a cum laude on my French Baccalaureate. Since I am being buck-naked honest, I will also reveal that I failed the Bac the first time. It was embarrassing; I majored in science and couldn’t tell you the difference between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. I still can’t. The second time arounds, I did the Bac with an emphasis on philosophy and literature. I positively shone. Mind you, majoring in philosophy means you can do one thing and one thing only, and that is teach philosophy.
I dropped out of Georgetown University to take a job as a copy boy (that’s what we were called back then) with the Washington Post. I worked from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. and loved every minute of it. No one ever asked me about the sympathetic/parasympathetic systems. nor did they test my knowledge of philosophy. But I wrote a whole bunch of articles for the Post, including several Sunday magazine covers, and one of those stories got me a contract with Harper & Row for a book.
Before anyone else does so, I will also tell you that I flunked out of typing school. I still type with three fingers, or four if I’m really excited, and I make a dozen errors per paragraph. I would suggest anyone wanting to be writer not learn to type. Since I look at my fingers and at the screen, whenever I type, I am editing as well. In other words, I write a first and second draft at the same time, which I think is pretty clever.
I did go back to school after a few years and there met a Creative Writing professor who taught me an important lesson, that being When To Let Go.
Professor C was an amazingly erudite man. He was impressed that I knew the difference between Plato and plagiarism. He had a novel in his desk drawer, a 1000-page thing he’d been working on for a dozen years. He allowed me to read a few chapters and it was an amazing experience. He wrote flawlessly. His characters were brilliant, as was his plotting. The dialogues and trilogues were so real I felt as if I’d just stepped into the pages and conversed with his people.
I took all the classes he taught. At the beginning of each semester, I asked him when he’d submit the book to a publisher, and he would say it wasn’t ready yet; he was still revising.
Some eleven years later, I ran into Professor C in a restaurant near where I worked. He had aged a bit and my first question was, what happened to your novel? There was a brief, embarrassed silence, and then the professor said it remained in the same drawer. He was still revising, but he was almost done.
If it’s possible to be intellectually sad, that’s what I was when I left the restaurant. I don’t know what happened to Professor C, but I’m willing to bet his novel is still in a drawer somewhere.
Winston Churchill once wrote, “Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” This is my favorite quote on writing.
I’ve had seven books in print and letting each one go was painful. Another dozen-or-so works are in various stages of completion. Some will have legs—in a while if I keep writing them, they’ll begin to write themselves. Others, after 150 pages or so, will let me know there’s no future there. This is okay; not every project has to come to fruition. These works become like friends I rarely see, and every couple of years I’ll take an unfinished book out, reread it and see if, perhaps, it has sprung limbs while left to its own device. That hasn’t happened yet.
My second-favorite writing quote is, “Writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” This was the advice writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse gave to a young Sinclair Lewis.
I have no intention of running for office. If elected, I will not serve. And did not learn either quote in school.