You’ve no doubt read about the passing of Jim Lehrer, the PBS mainstay and presidential debate moderator. His day job was a journalist, but this, from the Robert D. McFadden writing for the New York Times, tells what Lehrer did in his spare time.
“Writing nights and weekends, on trains, planes and sometimes in the office. Mr. Lehrer churned out a novel almost every year for more than two decades: spy thrillers, political satires, murder mysteries and series featuring One-Eyed Mack, a lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, and Charlie Henderson, a C.I.A. agent. ”
He also wrote four plays and three memoirs.
So, occasional writer, what do we learn from this?
I make it sound like it’s no big deal, but she drove two hundred miles. She’s on her way to Texas to fetch the old man and I’m in the general direction of heading south, but she had to veer a little east and tack on another couple of hours of driving time, so it’s something, even if it’s not a big deal.
She’s looking a little rough. Tired. She’s wrinkled around the eyes and her hair has lost its fire. But look at me. A little more belly than I ought to have and my whiskers come in with more grey than brown, and who am I to talk about hair? Then again, I’ve got twelve years on her.
She pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon. I’d been to the store that morning and picked up a couple of steaks, among other things, not because I was expecting company, but they sell them by the pair and that would take care of two meals for the week. So here comes Heather and I grab the steaks from the fridge and act like I’m Emeril and douse the steaks in olive oil and sprinkle on some salt and grind a little pepper and I can tell she’s digging this man-at-home-in-the-kitchen act. But it’s no act. I don’t have much of a choice if I don’t want to eat out every night. I scrub a couple of potatoes and wrap them in wax paper and put them in the microwave. I offer her an iced tea.
That’s all that needs to be said. In the old days we would have shared a few beers. She’s probably a wine drinker now. I’m sober and aim to stay that way. Maybe if I’d quit ten years ago, things would be different.
I drop the steaks in the skillet and they sizzle and pop and release a faint cloud of steam that fills the room with the primal smell of meat on a fire and as I look at Heather sitting at the counter sipping her tea, I imagine we’re on the roof of that building on Westwood with the sun setting across the bay behind us. Me grilling and Heather reading a book, and I wish I had a beer. Funny how smells can throw you back in time.
And she’s twenty years younger and her eyes look softer and her hair is smoother. I’m still in my thirties. And I really wish I had a beer. I’d give it all up, start over, just to go back in time with Heather.
He’s staying with Owen, she says.
Abrupt change of subject. She’s not interested in the way we were. Smart woman.
She’s talking about the old man. He’s been paroled. Going to stay with her brother, apparently.
How’s Owen feel about that?
They wouldn’t be letting him out if he hadn’t agreed to it. He’s an idiot.
I decide not to argue with her.
The boys have moved out of her house. Robbie’s got a family of his own. Micah’s finishing up school. I think, anyway. Don’t hear much from him. Don’t hear much from any of them.
Which is why Heather dropping by was as big a surprise as they come. Good surprise, though.
The old man killed her mother. Mercy killing, though the judge didn’t see it that way, or if he did, he didn’t give a crap. She was suffering bad. Huntington’s disease. Now they’re letting him go.
Like I said, I’m older than Heather. She was a kid when we met. We ran off to San Francisco doing dope and drinking all the time. Then here comes Robbie. So we got married and tried to act like family, but we were still partying. When Micah was born we left California and moved back to West Virginia. Heather straightened up and I tried, but my roots were deeper than hers. It took me a while. She ditched me and I moved to Charlotte. And there you go.
I think Heather has Huntington’s. She’s never come out and told me but I can put the pieces together. Her hand was all trembly. Her right hand. Or maybe it was her left. And she looked so tired. I reached across the table and touched her. She drew back. I guess she thought I was making a move. She doesn’t know how much I still care about her. She told me she was seeing a photographer, but I don’t believe her. She’s driving to Texas. Alone. That’s why I touched her hand. She’s alone. I’m alone. I needed to feel her skin, feel her warmth. She needed the same thing. I know her better than she knows herself, even though we’ve been apart for so long. And I know we’ll never be together again. But she’s still my Heather girl.
Confidence. Most people only feel confident when they’re sure of themselves. The rest of the time, and generally the majority of the time, they’re faking it. It is impossible to tell the difference. Especially if you say less instead of more. Stand as straight as possible, and look people in the eyes during conversations.
Explaining. Don’t make explanations: Anyone who expects one has already come to his own conclusion anyway. Or, to quote a fortune cookie I got in Sacramento in 1992: Never explain. Your friends would never demand it, and your enemies will never believe you.
Be shrewd. Never go into business with a friend, or loan money if you expect it back.
Friendship. Very few friends last a lifetime. This is because people always change. This is the natural progression of life. When the shared experience is removed (school, work, community, club) there becomes no link or mutual appreciation. Expecting the friendship to retain the old mold will end in heartbreak. Move on and expect nothing. Appreciate the honor of glimpsing another human being’s life for a time – but keep growing.
Giving. A gift is not a gift without both hands open. If you expect something in return for a gift or favor, don’t give it. Give only for the good feeling of being able to share something. Anything else is usury.
Love. People are becoming afraid these days to make commitments and allow themselves to love others because they know the other person will either leave them or die. This is true. All the more reason to love them now. Change is the only thing we can depend on.
Reputation. Your name is the one thing no one can take away from you. It will be your most valuable resource. Make sure that when people hear your name they associate it with honesty and decency. This is more important than I can say here. Your word must be your bond.
Promptness. Always be on time, if not early, for any appointment little or small. Keep no one waiting. It is rude and presumptuous. It implies that your time is more important than theirs. Which is not so. All time is equal.
Courtesy. Look people in the eyes when you talk to them. Smile and mean it. Make it a point to remember the name of everyone you meet. Everyone likes to be known and remembered.
Tact. Life is full of petty irritations – people who say and do rude things, forget your name, seem to exclude you in or from gatherings, or generally fail to remember your own humanity. Let it go. Things are not always what they seem. People often have problems going on in their private lives that we know nothing of but would explain their apparent self-involvement. Try not to judge. Let it go.
Diligence. Bosses never want to hear why something didn’t get done. They are only interested in what has been accomplished or how soon it will be.
Responsibility. There is no one to credit for your successes or failures but yourself.
Clarity. Fear exists to show us where we need to improve ourselves.
Foresight. You can follow your heart if you want to, but be sure to pack a survival kit. Millions have already perished believing they could live on passion alone. It does not hurt to be practical.
Want to know how to write a novel? Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.
I saw the movie…40 years ago? I just read the book.
There’s so much to talk about. It’s a great book (but not without controversy) and another day we’ll get into what the book’s about.
If you’re a student of the craft of novel writing, you know the rules. And as you try hard to stick the rules, you see so many successful novels that break them. Cuckoo’s Next follows the rules. And is brilliant for it.
Randle McMurphy is serving a sentence at a prison work farm and gets himself committed to a mental hospital in hopes of doing his time in a cushier setting.
McMurphy arrives at the hospital. No backstory. No set-up. No character development. No prologue, just story. In medias res. The way it’s supposed to be.
The rules say to tell the story from one perspective. Yes, modern sensibilities allow for multiple points-of-view, but that approach is fraught with potential trouble. One point-of-view is the safe choice.
Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the point-of-view of mental patient, Chief Bromden, a Native-American. Everything is told from his perspective. If Chief doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Chief can only surmise character motivations based on what he sees and what others may tell him. The author doesn’t jump around and tell us what the other characters are thinking. It’s all from Chief’s point of view. No omniscient narrator. And because we know what he thinks, we know much more about him than any other character.
McMurphy is the protagonist. That doesn’t mean he is the most virtuous character in the book. That’s probably Chief Bromden. McMurphy is the classic anti-hero. He’s not a good guy, but he’s very likable. And as he hustles his fellow patients, he does it in a way that lifts their spirits. Everybody loves him. Everybody but Nurse Ratched.
Sometimes the antagonist in a novel isn’t a person, but something keeping the protagonist from reaching his/her goal. McMurphy fighting the system? Well, yes, but the antagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest is not so amorphous. It’s Nurse Ratched. No doubt about it. One of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever met. She’s not evil in a Bond villain kind of way; she’s just cold and mean and against McMurphy in every way. The lines are drawn. The reader wants McMurphy to win. And Ratched to lose.
I’ve read that in classic literature, there is comedy and tragedy. The comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s prime characteristic is the happy ending. The tragedy is just the opposite.
Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragedy. The happy ending may give you a moment of contentment, but the tragedy stays with you, haunts you, makes you think. What might have been? What if McMurphy had won? What if Nurse Ratched had lost? Could it have made a difference for Billy Bibbit? And what of Chief Bromden? Did he ever make it home?
If you read this 50 year-old novel, you’ll be jarred by some references that are considered offensive today. But is it Kesey or his characters making the references? The characters, of course. They’re flawed. But does that give Kesey license to let them say what they do? We’ll get into that in more detail later. What Kesey does that’s indisputable is craft a story that takes you to the edge of realism at a pace that seems perfect. In the second half of the book, when the story rolls like a boulder down a mountain, he does nothing to get in the way. It’s a great example of plot and character development in perfect sync.
Spring is the death of death and the erasure of memory.
Who can ruminate over what was lost in the ice and snow when the brook runs free and clear? This is new life, again. Stop your brooding and take off your coat and hat. Clean the ashes from your hearth and open the windows and let the accumulated scents of stew and woodsmoke escape into the gold and blue. — Larry Ellis, from Mid-day Post, March 30, 2019.
On page 83 of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing, I had a moment of realization.
In the years before World War II, young Billy Parham has trapped a wolf and is determined to take it back from where it came, the mountains of Mexico. How the wolf is trapped, how he frees it from the trap, how he manages to transport the wolf while on horseback, is in itself a captivating story. The details provided by McCarthy, the knowledge of the pre-war cowboy, the behavior of wild wolves, his knowledge of geography, his use of language is masterful.
And on page 83, I realized that he couldn’t have accomplished all of this in the first draft. Or the first major revision. As I marvel at his writing, I know, without the need for confirmation, that this part of the story required so much work. I can see a first draft getting down the basics. Then another layer of detail. And another. And another. I can see complete restructuring of scenes when something strikes McCarthy as unrealistic or implausible or maybe not the right tone.
So much work.
Yeah, it’s hard enough to get to 80,000 words. But if you think you’re done after the first draft, you fooling yourself. The first draft is not worth reading.
It will be better after your first round of revisions. But it will take more. Painful edits. Re-writing entire sections. Killing off beloved characters. New beginnings. New endings.
But the truth is, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. It’s true for anything you do.
Can you handle that?
Buck up, friends. Do the work. Don’t expect it to be easy.
The night was falling down from the east and the darkness that passed over them came in a sudden breath of cold and stillness and passed on. As if the darkness had a soul itself that was the sun’s assassin hurrying to the west as once men did believe, as they may believe again.