PRISM, Volume 1, Part 13
PRISM, Volume 1, Part 13
Dangerous Dwarf Proudly Presents
George C. Chesbro's
PRISM: A Memoir as Fiction
Volume One: "Dark Engine"

Published by Apache Beach Publications

Click here to purchase Prism

Copyright © 2001 by George C. Chesbro. All rights reserved.
Reprinted here with by permission of the author.

Installment #13
Chapter Three
The Writing Lesson

His chronically precarious financial situation and current lack of an American publisher notwithstanding, for years Fugue had enjoyed an international reputation. He was considered a cult author, an appellation both pejorative and praise arising primarily from a series of detective novels he had written featuring a protagonist who was a college professor with a doctorate in criminology, a martial arts expert, an ex-circus headliner and a private investigator who just happened to be a dwarf. His was a body of work both fans and critics agreed was not only decidedly offbeat but unfailingly bizarre. He was especially popular in France, where all of his books published there to date were kept in print, but his success in one European country could not financially offset a lack of significant interest in the United States, where all of his books had been out of print for two years before he finally ran out of money and went back to work for a second time with the shattered children at Little Ark.

He was often asked to speak to groups ranging from elementary school pupils to high school English classes to civic organizations to university students, for whom he offered a two-day seminar on the business of writing. Over the years he had developed for these occasions a body of material on which he could draw to deliver workshops and lectures lasting from fifteen minutes to a weekend, the length of his performance depending upon the age and interest group, the setting, or the academic level and requirements of his audience. At the heart of most of his talks was his contention that there are four basic ingredients in the complex and delicate genetic and spiritual soufflé that is a successful writer of fiction. Lacking any one of them, the artist will fail to rise.

Begin by greasing the brain pan with a gene paste of talent, Fugue tells his older audiences, a recipe direction so obvious as to seem absurd were it not for the fact that talent is such a ghostly measure in a writer. In fact, the absence at any age of a clear indicator of talent is what makes fiction writing, the darkest and most difficult of the arts, different from all other creative pursuits. The talent for writing publishable fiction, whether popular or literary, is virtually always hidden from plain view in its early stages of manifestation; even if it is present, it must be painstakingly and patiently birthed by the individual, at considerable personal cost.

Fugue will point out that there are three fields of human endeavor that produce prodigies, namely chess, music, and mathematics. For those wishing to pursue a career in these fields, failure to perform at or near a world-class level by the time one is a teenager is a clear message that one should think of training for other gainful employment.

But there are no writing prodigies. On the contrary, even the dormant presence of nascent writing talent is most difficult to discern in children, while talent in all of the other arts, and in sports, is readily glimpsed in the early stages. Frequently in elementary school, and virtually always by middle or high school, almost everyone in a community knows who is a good athlete and who has a flair for acting, singing, dancing, drawing, playing a musical instrument, or even balancing a plate on the end of his nose. These talents shine, often brightly, in some children, and their gifts are quickly validated and strongly encouraged by teachers, parents and peers. Elite classes, sometimes entire schools, are organized to nurture the talents of these gifted children. For talented athletes, scholarships beckon, and beyond school perhaps even a career in professional sports. Sophisticated training is available at every level. There is constant feedback from teachers and other students, and there is ample opportunity for the talented in the other arts and sports to compare their abilities with those of their gifted peers. The option of pursuing a career based on these talents can be weighed for years and at many stages of development that others may observe and evaluate. A student may enter any one of thousands of programs geared to train the professional. Those who do formally train but who do not have sufficient talent or will to withstand the abundant competition for livelihoods in sports and the arts will be weeded out early.

Educational pedigrees can have considerable value; a degree from Julliard will almost certainly earn an aspiring cellist an interview and audition, and maybe even a chair, with a symphony orchestra.

The seed of a fiction writer in a child, if such a thing even exists at a young age, receives no such warmth, light, or nourishing showers of encouragement. This seed, embedded in hard ground, does not germinate easily, and its flowering is always fraught with difficulty. It must be a hearty and self-sufficient plant, for its early stages of growth are almost always unattended. While the best and measurably brightest students usually excel at English composition, it is not necessarily the best and measurably brightest who will become professional writers; high profile academic achievers are much more likely to become trained professionals, doctors, lawyers, academicians, dentists. Life itself is the only training ground, experience the only exercise, for a fiction writer, and any attempt to formalize this preparation into a curriculum is largely an exercise in futility. While a degree from a good music school will usually get a musician some measure of courteous attention from prospective employers, studying for a degree in "creative writing" can, more often than not, actually damage a budding writer's skills insofar as he or she may be encouraged to write the kind of painless, pointless and plotless fiction favored by academics and published in academic journals read mostly by other academics. A degree in fiction writing is not only worthless outside academia, it may be considered by editors who are implored to consider it as a credential to be the badge of a dilettante. An aspiring novelist or short story writer who takes too seriously the views and advice of professors who teach rather than write for a living is someone who has not yet grasped the most basic lesson of professional writing, namely that the only person whose opinion of their work matters is an editor, and the only useful "grade" for their work a check or rejection slip. The opinions of friends, relatives and writing instructors may or may not inflate the ego, but they are assuredly irrelevant to the goal of seeing one's work in print.

In an effort to amplify his contention that writing is different from the other arts, a talent for it more difficult to identify and nurture, Fugue equates fiction writing with awake dreaming, a kind of controlled madness that is an outgrowth of a natural tendency toward eccentricity. Madness, controlled or not, dreaming and eccentricity are qualities that are usually punished, not rewarded, by most public school systems, which are in the business of leveling the emotional landscape of its products so that they will fit smoothly into society. Consequently it is not the child at the front of the classroom who is most likely to one day earn a living weaving tales, but the one in the back who is constantly admonished for staring out the window. The cues and signposts and encouragement that exist for those talented in the other arts are simply not there for the child who will eventually be driven, not trained, to write fiction as an adult. Indeed, Fugue expresses doubt that the writing of publishable fiction can be taught at all. He doubts that people can be trained to successfully create alternate worlds that entertain, amuse, terrify, enrage, sadden, and even radically change lives with nothing more than words.

He suspects that writers, thought conjurers, are grown, cut deeply in the heart's trunk by pain, then tortured by experience and need into their final shape, like bonsai trees. He advises students listening to his lectures who are serious about writing fiction and who are thinking of studying for a degree in "creative writing" that they would be better off majoring in something else, like cosmology or hotel management. For aspiring writers in college, of far more importance than their major area of study is the need to look ahead and prepare for a career that will afford them a living, a "day job" that will pay their bills but is not too time-consuming, because it will undoubtedly be many years and millions of words before even the talented among them are published. Their self-confidence will be constantly under attack because, for years, the only feedback they are likely to get will be negative, in the form of rejection slips. A growing pile of rejection slips could be an indicator that you simply don't have the necessary talent and you've made a bad investment of your time and energy, but this is not necessarily the case. Rejection slips could just as well mean only that your talent has not yet grown the muscle that is necessary to write publishable fiction, or that your material is not quite right for the markets to which you have been submitting it.

Fugue believes that a writer can track his or her progress toward publication through the types of rejection slips received. He divides rejections into 3 categories---A, B, and C.

A "C" rejection is an anonymous, boilerplate form slipped into a manuscript, sometimes after the perusal of only a page or two, by an editor who has found the work unacceptable for any of dozens of reasons, including possibly a headache or dyspepsia on the day that particular manuscript rose to the top of the pile of unsolicited work on his desk.

A "B" rejection is a "C" slip with some smudge of humanity on it, like the word "sorry" initialed by an editor. Such a personal touch should be taken as a sign of encouragement; the story was close to being accepted. Steps should immediately be taken to identify the editor whose initials those are, and then another story sent to that particular editor, perhaps with a brief cover letter reminding that person that she or he had offered encouragement on a previous submission.

A class "A" rejection is a letter from an editor who, while still rejecting the manuscript, thought enough of the story to take time to communicate personally, often at length, and sometimes even citing specific reasons why the work was rejected. As with class "B" rejections, another story should be written and submitted to this sympathetic editor as quickly as possible. It is a sad fact, Fugue points out, that many aspiring writers work fruitlessly for years without receiving so much as a class "A" rejection. On the other hand, publishing history in America is replete with true tales of books like Gone with The Wind that were rejected dozens of times before being accepted by a publisher and then becoming a best seller earning their authors fortune and fame.

Fugue's point is that, while publication is obviously a validation of talent, getting a piece of fiction, novel or short story, into print is so difficult even for those with proven talent that it is a waste of time and energy for an aspiring writer to worry about whether or not he or she has that all-important gift. If the writer wants publication badly enough and is still laboring away after a period of what may be many years and for his efforts is collecting only a stack of rejection slips, the odds are good that he or she does have talent, and it is still manifesting itself in this formative stage as an unquenchable desire and need to write. Desire and need are the two most common of many masks the shy gift of writing talent may wear before it has developed the strength and confidence to allow itself to be introduced to the public.

In Fugue's own case it had taken him seven years of steady work, four hours of writing five days a week wrapped around a day job of teaching a Special Education class of educable mentally retarded children, three long novels, dozens of short stories, articles and poems, before he ever published anything---a short poem in a literary journal, for which he was paid $1.00. In those seven years he had collected enough rejection slips to completely paper the walls and ceilings of a living room and bathroom in an apartment he had been living in between marriages. This had not amused his landlady, who had considered the yellowing sea of scraps of paper a fire hazard, but he supposed he had stuck up the rejections as an act of defiance, a challenge to himself not to give up, and a reminder that he could think of nothing else in life he wanted more, no accomplishment more prestigious and exciting, than to see his work and name in print and be a published fiction writer. And he had finally done and become just that. In a society where the median income of published authors is well below the poverty line and only a handful of writers are able to earn a living solely from their work, he had spent long periods of time, punctuated when he ran out of money by gainful employment in places like Little Ark or in the world of night that had almost destroyed him, among the elite 5% of authors who can support themselves with their stories.

If you want to be a writer, Fugue tells his audiences, write; if you want to write badly enough and can stay the obstacle course of crushing disappointment and frustration and fatigue, you probably have talent. Don't worry about it. Trust your desire, as he had.

Read the next installment.

Copyright © 2018, Hunter Goatley. All rights reserved.
Last updated 25-MAR-2018 21:42:51.21.