Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Thoughts about Writing

I got up the nerve to tell a colleague, who happens to be an English professor, that I want to write a book. I was having a pleasant lunch with him, and I didn't want to ruin it with a question whose answer might burst my bubble or tempt him to lie. But I asked him anyway, because I thought he could offer me some good advice. And he did.

He said the first thing to do was write regularly. Forty five minutes a day, five days a week, will get you a novel in a year, he said. Notice he didn't say it would be good.

Secondly, he said I should find a group to share my writing, and to share and receive feedback and advice. That, I do not have, other than my wife who loves everything I do, and this blog which receives scant, but appreciated, comments.

Third, he said to read a book called "Bird by Bird" by Anne Lamott. I bought it on Amazon and it came in today. I read three pages. It's hilarious.

Fourth, he said to identify books I want to emulate. I have identified the following:
1) Breath of Kenya by Charles Herrick,
2) A Man Called Daddy by Hugh O'Neill, and
3) perhaps Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. (The conditionality arises from the fact that I'm only a few chapters into it, but so far it's great.)

They are all non-fiction blends of serious events but with humorous observations. That's what I'm shooting for. As an example, I want to give you an excerpt from A Man Called Daddy. This is just one of many such chapters:

Daddy Loses Consciousness
Of Jellybean Epics and Glassy Eyes

Psychologists who've studied the conversational styles of men and women agree on just one gender distinction. Women enjoy the aimless burble of talk, while men tend to see the conversation as goal-oriented - as in, "What's your point, pal?"

Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know. But I do know that any male-female rift is nothing compared to the conversation Grand Canyon between men and kids. Conversationally speaking, men and kids are so far apart no psychologist has ever had the guts to study the gap.

Consider: Men are the strong, silent type. Kids are the small, chatty type. Men are cut to the chase. Bing-bang. Speak your piece. Lose the palaver. Kids never met a tedious detail they didn't like. They don't know you're supposed to skip the boring parts. Their stories go all around the cobbler's bench or the mulberry bush, whichever way's longest.
Over the years, I've tried to follow kid stories that made the Odyssey look like a one-liner, stories so slow and serpentine that I wanted to cry out, "Wrap it up! What the hell happened to the bunny?" Not only did my eyes glaze over, my higher brain function glazed over, too. Once, while listening to Rebecca tell me a story about how she found three pennies and two nickels in her backpack and then Brian took one of the pennies and ran down the hall, I actually slipped into a quasicoma.

For a long time I felt guilty about my feelings. I was pretty sure it couldn't help a child's self-esteem for Dad to drift off during the story of Daniel and the raisins and how Blair tried to tie her shoe but wouldn't share her snack with Kate who hurt her hand and then did her homework with David's pencil. But then one afternoon I saw the light and realized there was no reason to feel guilty.

Josh and I were driving around town on errands when, with great enthusiasm, he started to describe an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show he had seen last night... When I told him that I had seen the episode back in 1965 when I was his age, he merely said "That's okay, Dad," and plunged ahead...

That's when I saw the truth. I knew in a flash that his stories weren't supposed to interest or amuse or edify me. No, they were supposed to interest or amuse or edify him. Somehow, recapitulating a television show helped him shape his experience of it.

I don't presume to understand the psychological kick of telling a story that's boring your audience to death. But one thing was perfectly clear: As long as I was willing to sit there and play the role of audience, Josh was happy. I didn't have to actually pay attention. I just had to give him cover, be a warm body to whom he might conceivably be talking.
The point is that kids set out from day one to dismantle the logical man you have spent a lifetime becoming. I'd love to suggest you take a hard line here, stand by the idea of coherence, of making sense. Only one problem with that position. The guys who enjoy fatherhood are they guys who don't.

The guys who enjoy fatherhood surrender. Like a suspension bridge that sways in the wind to survive the storm, they go along to get along. They go with the childish flow, give up the need to understand in favor of an apprehension that is, in truth, deeper and, finally, more satisfying...


Anonymous said...

have you read Blue Like Jazz? Your writing reminds me of this book a bit.

Orangehouse said...

I haven't read it, but I have heard people talk about it. Some of my students have read it and liked it. Can you identify the similarities?

jimKK said...

Bird by Bird is a great book to help with the rhythms of writing! When I first started a book project a friend recommended the same book!

Be sure to post excerpts of your forthcoming book!