Learning From the Best Writers

(A version of this essay appeared in The Writer magazine)

You can have access to the best writing teachers in the world without ever signing up for a class. During past years I have learned about believing in your dreams from Jacquelyn Mitchard, and what it’s like to immerse yourself in another era from Margaret Atwood. Ray Bradbury exhorted me to stretch my imagination and look always for the metaphor. Jane Hamilton talked calmly about confidence, and Scott Turow weighed in on luck vs. talent. I have learned that passion must ignite your work from Isabel Allende. And John Updike… Well, John Updike just had to stand there reading a poem, and you felt inspired to write twenty poems yourself.

Do I have access to a special university program that somehow attracts only the biggest and brightest names in publishing? Did I have to pay thousands of dollars to attend conferences where these authors were guest speakers?

The answer to both of these questions is “no.” I do, however, scour the book review sections and websites of local news outlets to see what author events are upcoming. Most of the events that featured the authors I mentioned above, and many other well-known writers were free – usually readings and question-and-answer sessions in book stores. And author events that do charge admission are often fundraisers for local library districts, museums, and other cultural institutions. The average ticket price is often affordable, although many venues offer more expensive ticket options, where you had the opportunity to sit in the first ten rows, or perhaps meet the author afterward.


It may help that I live near a very large city, but from what I’ve read in publishing news, the literary luminaries that we all want to learn from do not limit themselves to New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Their book tours take them from Fort Myers, Florida to Davenport, Iowa to Fresno, California. And many points in between.

Isabel Allende came to Chicago to accept a literary award, and since Allende is one of my favorite authors, and I had read Paula straight through in three days, barely taking the time to feed my family, I knew I had to go. I read in the book review section of the Chicago Tribune that Ms. Allende would be recording her appearance before a live audience for National Public Radio.
The interview was held at the Harold Washington Library, a most impressive repository for books, in the downstairs auditorium, an elegant room that seems made for such occasions. It was free of charge.

When Ms. Allende first stepped out on the stage, there was a hush, then excited applause, then a hush again as we in the audience leaned forward slightly in our seats in anticipation of what she would say. Would she sound just as she does in her books? Would her spoken words have the same poetic cadence as her written words? (The answer to both these questions is “yes.”)

She spoke of the courage it took to write Paula. She was lyrical, poetic, and emotional. She spoke of coming to writing later in life, after she had tried many other things. She spoke of her mother and how they write each other a letter every day, and have done so since she can remember. She spoke of leaving a country you love, and finding another home, and another life. All of these things weave in and out of her writing, much as they weave in and out of her life.
. . . . .
I have heard Ray Bradbury speak more than a dozen times, yet every time I learned something new about writing. Some writer friends said they didn’t care about seeing him, because “he would just talk about science fiction.” My advice is to never close yourself off to an author just because he or she is not in your genre. Writers in all genres will discuss their own work, of course, but they will also dissect the writing process for you. And by doing so they are trying to solve this mystery of writing much as you are.

Ray Bradbury inspires for the sheer volume and quality of his writing. He has written short stories, novels, plays, poems, screenplays, non-fiction books and essays. I was once in an audience with about two hundred others when he read a poem he had recently written. The poem evoked such emotion in me I felt tears threatening to spill over, and I glanced furtively around to see if anyone else had had this response. The entire audience was sitting in silent awe, and many cheeks were glistening. I’ll never forget it.

Authors like Ray Bradbury also impart a great sense of history to the writing business. His tale of how he came to write the screenplay for Moby Dick for John Huston is one of the funniest and most inspiring stories (complete with a re-enactment of Mr. Huston’s voice) a writer could hear. Nearly as good as his story about writing Fahrenheit 451 in a library basement at UCLA, feeding dimes into a pay typewriter.

In closing his talks, Mr. Bradbury always gave the best advice I have ever heard one writer give to another, “Now get the hell out of here, and write!
. . . . .
Jane Hamilton said during a reading, “I always knew writing would be a part of my life. But I was always advised on not writing as a profession.”

To those of us who haven’t quite reached the level of success that Ms. Hamilton has with The Book of Ruth, A Map of the World and The Short History of a Prince these are encouraging and honest words. Perhaps we have also been told that writing is not an advisable profession. Perhaps we need to hear that others have gone before us, against the odds, and triumphed.

Such is also the message that Jacquelyn Mitchard (known best for The Deep End of the Ocean) shared with an appreciative audience at a reading at a local community center. She said, “My book is an old-fashioned novel by an average woman. Believing in ourselves is the hardest thing to do. You can’t give up on your dreams.” She didn’t, even in the face of incredible adversity, and her perseverance and belief in her work landed her a lengthy stay on the New York Times bestseller list, and a debut novel chosen as Oprah’s first Book Club selection.
. . . . .
Margaret Atwood spoke for an hour in the high school auditorium of a medium-sized town in the Chicago suburbs. She was charming, witty and brilliant as she talked about the writing process. She opened by saying, “I’m not a pundit; I’m just a lonely fiction writer. They don’t pretend to be experts on anything. They stare out the window and bump into furniture.”

She spoke about immersing oneself in the past, as she did for the writing of her novel Alias Grace. She said, “The past has the appeal of time travel. It appeals to the cultural anthropologist in all of us.” And, “The past belongs to us because we are the ones who need it. Just as the poem belongs not to the poet, but to those who need the poem.”

She advised writers to make a biography for each character. “What did they wear, what did they eat?” she asks. “With Alias Grace,” she said, “Every major element had to be suggested by the research. Then the novel filled in the gaps.”

I learned from Margaret Atwood that much of writing, indeed, is about that very thing: filling in the gaps.
. . . . .
Scott Turow told a group of writers at a luncheon, “The principal ingredient in having a successful bestseller is… luck. Mere merit is never enough.” He remarked, “I spend a lot of time puzzled and confused about how I became a writer. And I decided if you don’t write, you are not a writer, if you do – you are.”

Turow first attempted to write a novel when he was eleven. “…copying from 7th grade reading books.” He cited the great importance placed on reading and writing in his family when he was growing up, and the influence of a high school journalism teacher who told the class, “You will learn to write under inclement circumstances.”

Which must have been good training – Turow wrote Presumed Innocent for four years, handwriting the novel on the train while commuting to work as a lawyer.
. . . . .
As writers, we work mostly in isolation. In my daily life I rarely come into contact with other writers. It nourishes my writer’s soul to get away from my computer and hear stories about the writing life from others who are doing the same thing.

It doesn’t matter that these authors and others I have heard are light years ahead of me in publishing credits. Each of them once sat down and wrote the first sentence of their first book, just as we all must do.

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