REALITIES OF WRITING ARE NO CAUSE TO LOSE HOPE
As a champion of the writer’s art, he tries to avoid sounding like a cross between Dr. Phil and the preface of a Chicken Soup anthology.
“There are so many books out there that say all you need to do is meditate, do some affirmations, let your pen follow its course and you’re going to be a writer,” Ralph Keyes said.
The author of a dozen books and a writing instructor for three decades, Keyes, of Yellow Springs, has always endeavored to tread the path of “honest reassurance” that falls somewhere between sadistic Kathy Bates in Misery and “There, there. Everybody is going to be OK.”
Everybody is not going to be OK. Some will be infinitely better Wal-Mart greeters than wordsmiths.
Telling one from another still baffles Keyes, who would politely demur if asked to identify who might most benefit from his newly published The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting From Frustration to Publication (Henry Holt, $13).
Students who didn’t have a whisper of a chance (in Keyes’ estimation) have published. And, he added, “I’ve had some so committed and so talented, and they end up selling real estate.”
Sorting posers and peacocks from the real producers is made no easier by the aura and allure associated with writing.
“I sometimes think there is nobody out there who is not a closet writer,” Keyes said.
No one ever boasts at a cocktail party, “I’m a frustrated urologist.”
Being an author is “the geek’s version of being a rock star,” Keyes said.
Still, he knows that some of the best-selling books of 2006 are yet a source of unfinished anguish to writers whose names have never crossed the lips of reviewers.
Accordingly, he penned The Writer’s Book of Hope for those writers to whom mornings sometimes begin with a coin-toss decision between pushing on or firing up the paper shredder.
“The hardest part of being a writer is not getting your commas in the right place but getting your head in the right place.”
Part of that process is dealing with discouragers, a topic to which he devotes an entire chapter.
“An Ohio State professor,” Keyes wrote, “told Harlan Ellison that he had no writing talent. By legend, Ellison sent this professor a copy of every one of the dozens of novels he proceeded to publish after dropping out from OSU.”
When, at 26, Margaret Atwood published her first collection of verse, her brother wrote: “Congratulations on publishing your first book of poetry. I used to do that kind of thing myself when I was younger.”
The chapter “Dealing With Discouragers” is immediately followed by one of equal importance, “Exorcising Excuses.”
In the latter, Keyes tries to steer would-be writers away from what he calls the “as-soon-as syndrome”:
As soon as the kids are grown, the dog dies, I leave my husband, I get a better computer or a pristine place to write.
Once it becomes clear that neither one’s dog nor one’s husband is going to die anytime soon, the next hurdle is the all-time bugaboo of scribes: writer’s block.
Keyes suggests using the same approach to writing that has made 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous successful for decades — one page at a time.
“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish,” said Keyes, quoting author John Steinbeck. “Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day.”
Lower your standards, he suggests of overcoming writer’s block. He notes that even the immensely gifted Stanley Kunitz has confessed, “The poem in the head is always perfect.”
Ultimately, the best reason to follow Keyes’ advice may be not his 30 years of teaching the craft so much as the simple fact that he has moved on from publishing his 12th book to his 13th.
– Mike Harden is a Dispatch columnist