ON THE BOOKS: Larry Brown – the will and the will

A friend of mine doesn’t like reading “process” columns; he thinks it’s too easy for a writer to write about writing, which usually results in a lot of navel-gazing nonsense. Maybe he’s right; the only ones who enjoy writing about writing are writers, or at least those who would like to imagine themselves as writers.

They are the audience for true but self-serving observations such as “a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than for others”. It’s a paraphrase of something Thomas Mann put in the mouth – or head – of one of his characters in his 1903 novel “Tristan.”

The full context is that an omniscient narrator is commenting on what he observed of the working habits of an important writer named Detlev Spinell, so it’s possible Mann doesn’t mean it seriously, though, like all good jokes, it is certainly true.

I know a columnist who claimed he could knock out a tune in 15 minutes before breakfast every day and be done with his job. You might say.

Then I heard Ann Hornaday, the Washington Post film critic, on the Tony Kornheiser podcast a few weeks ago, talk about the wonderful, long story she wrote about the genesis of the movie “All the President’s Men “. She said nobody really likes to write; we just like to have written.

I take a slight exception to this. Detlev Spinell loved to write. Sometimes me too.

I missed a great opportunity to do a summer reading column where I could offer some suggestions and crack a few jokes and erase some of the bedside books I wanted to mention. But the truth is, my reading habits don’t change in the summer, and I’m generally not drawn to the kind of books that most readers consider “beach.” (Although I regularly check Carl Hiaasen, John Sandford and Lee Child.)

I don’t sample across the spectrum. I read pretty much what I want, at the pace I want, which I’m afraid is a bit slow. (Another selfish adage: a reader is someone for whom reading is more difficult than others. Maybe we need to workshop that one.)

Anyway, I don’t think the writing is that mysterious; it’s something you can learn to do. With practice (and YouTube), you can learn just about anything: take a motor apart and put it back together with no parts left over, build a house, or maybe play a few chords on the guitar.

It starts with something like will – something like wanting.

I thought of Larry Brown recently. He had the will and the desire.

Larry Brown was a Mississippi firefighter who looked like a farmer who decided he wanted to be a writer, so he sat down and did it. (Illustration by Philippe Martin)
Brown was a Mississippi writer I got to know; he was a firefighter who looked like a farmer who decided he wanted to be a writer, so he sat down and did it.

In 1980, when he was 29, he went to his sister’s house and retrieved his wife’s Smith-Corona portable typewriter that they had stored there. He walked into a room and started typing. When he emerged seven months later, he had written something of a novel – 327 single-spaced pages about a bear gone mad in Yellowstone National Park.

“I never had the benefit of going to Yellowstone National Park,” he told me, “but that didn’t concern me.”

Larry packed it in an envelope and sent it to a publisher in New York, “expecting to get a check for $1 million”.

The manuscript came back. He packed it up and sent it back. Again it came back. And even. And even.

“I sent it enough times to know it would never be taken,” he said. “But all I did was sit down and start writing another novel. I’ve been through this process five times.”

None of the early novels met with success. But Brown had always loved short stories, so in 1982 motorcycle magazine Easyriders accepted one of his first attempts at writing a short story for publication.

“At that time, I was just trying to write whatever I could to get published,” he says. “I remember the day this story was accepted; it was a horrible day. It was February, it was raining, muddy and cold; see, my wife was pregnant and my eldest son was sick and we were en route We had no money to buy gas to heat the house and probably not enough money to pay the doctor either.

“I thought I was going to go down to the mailbox and check the mail before I left, and there was this letter of acceptance from Malibu. They were going to buy the story, they were going to pay me $375 for it It became the happiest day of my life – I thought I was going to publish everything I wrote after that.”

He didn’t, but ended up being very successful. He was one of my favorite novelists and when he died suddenly in 2004 I felt cheated and sad.

My friend who doesn’t like chronicles about the process is probably not going to like this one, and that’s okay. People who want to write — or have written — sometimes ask me for advice, and I’m not sure I have anything useful to say to them except that the first thing to do is to start. You say one word and then another.

If it sounds easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. If that seems impossible, maybe you’re on to something.

E-mail: pmartin@adgnewsroom.com

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