In the spring of 1965, I joined the writing staff of my university’s humor magazine.
Old Jebediah Wormwood sucked on his corncob and rocked rhythmically in his favorite chair on the front porch of the ramshackle shack he shared with the old lady and kids. It was unclear how many kids there actually were since Jeb couldn’t count above eleven, it being too confusing to use all appendages. Abruptly and with an exquisitely timed push, he initiated a syncopated lurch backward just in time to execute the perfect decapitation of a wayward chicken that had strayed under the rocker’s left guillotine. “Dinner,” he mumbled to no one in particular.
That was the approximate wording of the first four sentences of the only piece I ever wrote for the magazine, the original wording being long lost because the story was never published. This may be because I never submitted it. In fact, I’m sure that’s the reason. Why? Because those four sentences were the only four sentences I wrote. It wasn’t that I’d suddenly become overwhelmed with writer’s block. No, it was because I never had any idea of what I was going to write in the first place. Nevertheless, in spite of zero output, I fancied myself a budding writer.
At about the same time, I was rather pathetically in love with a girl I’d been dating for a year or so. Love, however, wouldn’t actually be the most accurate way to describe it. When one’s most ardent feelings aren’t being returned, as mine weren’t, it’s more in the nature of unrequited infatuation. I may have been crazy about her, but she always remained at some emotional distance from me. This made me crazy, so I started writing poetry. Very bad poetry. The kind of self-indulgent, agonized poetry that can only spring from the frustrated loins and breast of a suffering college male. This would not help my writing career.
All during this period, I would discuss writing with a fellow classmate who lived a few doors from me in the dormitory. As was I, he was a pre-med student, but with a difference. I, at least, was interested in science and medicine and getting good grades. He was bored and, to make matters worse, a terrible student. On the other hand, while I was writing term papers, he was actually writing stuff that was getting into the humor magazine. I was envious; he was worried about flunking out. I went to med school; he actually became a successful writer. The first time I saw one of his pieces in Playboy, I almost threw up out of sheer jealousy.
Sometime after graduation from college, I heard the old disparaging remark about everyone wanting to write the great American novel and thought, if that’s true, than I’m a hopeless sheep in the crowd. But I decided to try it again.
Several published articles in various magazines and journals and two books later, I’m a writer, albeit still a pretty unknown one. The lessons I’ve learned along the way about generating content are many, but here are a few critical ones:
- Ideas come but, just as quickly, go, and it’s important to make note of them before they’re forgotten in the crush of other thoughts we have during the day.
- If you dream a vivid experience, write it down as soon as you awaken, even if it means keeping a notebook at the bedside. It’s really frustrating to know that you had a great idea when you feel it slipping inexorably through the sieve of your neural network. On the other hand, be merciless. What seems great in the dream may be dreck in the light of day.
- Don’t discuss what you’re currently working on with others unless you’re asking for input that you really want from someone you respect. And if you ask for input, accept it graciously even if you don’t like it. After all, you asked.
- Be receptive of, or thick-skinned in the face of, criticism of the published work, as it will help you for your next opus. Not everyone will love what you write, and reviews, especially those entered anonymously or semi-anonymously on sites like Amazon.com, are sometimes on the mark but just as often may be rude and witless. And, while we’re on this, be careful about asking your friends to post reviews. Only do it if you’re sure they liked your work…a lot. I can think of little that will upset you as a writer more than to have a friend lambaste you on the web in a review that you requested.
- Read a lot; write a lot. Your writing will improve as you continue to do both.
As I have readily admitted, I’m still pretty much unknown as a writer, so for me to be giving advice might seem presumptuous. If you’ve read the pointers above, though, I hope you’ll understand that I’m only relating a few guidelines and suggestions drawn from what I’ve learned from my own experience. If it’s helpful, great. If not, so be it.
If you think the word is “orientate”, you really need to be re-oriented.