Odd Type Writers

Actors hear the audience weep when they strike home to the heart. Comedians bask in the glow of a thousand strangers’ laughter. Even mediocre musicians reap polite applause at concert’s end. And painters and sculptors can look forward to, if nothing else, the faint praise of “well, I don’t know if it’s art, but not everyone can do that.”

But writers? They never know if their signal has been received. They sit in their silent rooms and transmit their messages from brainpan to fingertips to the outside world… and who knows? I am writing these words in a quiet midwestern garret on the eve of a new year. You are reading them god knows where or when. Did these sentiments travel across time and space and evoke anything in you like what I am trying to say? The signal is sent, like primitive radio waves out into a sullen and disinterested universe in hopes of reception by some sort of life, alien or otherwise. It is perhaps the ultimate secular act of faith.

And at the same time, we are told that what we are doing is nothing special. Because everyone can write. It’s a thing you learn in grammar school. It’s the thing of countless emails, texts, memos, reports and blogs. No one paints or sculpts or sings that much every day, but everyone writes that much. So how hard can it be?

Because they are constantly hoisted upon these twin petards, I think writers are driven to the stories of other writers. Not so much for inspiration, as is probably commonly thought, but for affirmation. For some sort of confirmation that the work they are sweating over in their solitary silos, the nuances they are grasping to articulate, the insights they know are right there but can’t quite say, will be heard. Some guideposts or roadmaps that other writers used as they were sweating and grasping and crafting those lonely interstellar signals as we are, something that gave them hope that what they were doing would strike home.

The problem, however, is that we often take the wrong lessons from these stories. The lesson we usually take is “oh, that’s the way to do it. If I, for example, keep a draw full of rotting apples in my desk as the great Schiller did, then I will be able to accomplish what he accomplished! Or if I lock myself in a garret, dressed only in a robe so I can’t go out and am therefore forced to stay in and write (as Victor Hugo did), I will produce something on the level of Les Miserables.”

The lesson we take is that the way they achieved genius is the way to achieve genius. But that’s wrong.

(It sounds silly when it’s put that way, in black and white, right in front of your nose, of course. But you know that’s what you’re thinking. And you’re thinking it because of the vacuum we all work in. Is this the right path? Am I wasting my time? How will I know? Should I give up and go work for UPS?)

Instead, the lesson we should take from these stories is this: keep hunting until you find the way that works for you. Try these things. They worked for these people. There is no guarantee they will work for you. They may. They may not. If one doesn’t, try another. If that one doesn’t, try another. If it didn’t work last time, it may work this time. Or mash a few together and see how that goes.

And that is the real value of a book like Odd Type Writers. The number of stories of writers using as much ingenuity to help themselves write, as they are using actually writing. From Schiller and Hugo to Welty and Dickens and Joyce and on and on – here is a cornucopia of tactics that are not the way, but may help you find your way. Which is all you get as a writer, because in the end there is no right way to do this.

Now, you may say, oh sure, for fiction writers, I get it. But I write advertising. Ah, but we believe it’s harder still in advertising. Because we labor under a burden that those noble Nobel laureates didn’t have to deal with. For in addition to crafting work for an unseen audience who will laugh or cry or understand far from us in the space-time continuum, we have coworkers from other departments, and senior management, and clients, all of whom feel that they can tell us what will really work with the customer and why what we’ve been writing will not. Why? Because, as they will happily tell you, they are the customer. But wait, are not you the customer too? Just as much the customer as they are? No, no, no. You are a writer. And by virtue of the fact that you have been thinking about this and sweating over it – and god forbid doing research into the category and the competition and the actual customers – you disqualify yourself as an arbiter of the written word. Then should you stop? No, no, no – don’t stop! You’re the writer! You have a way with words. Just keep writing things and then let us – who are not poisoned by thinking about the writing – judge whether the writing works or not.

Which is exactly the time – as you go back for the third or fourth or twelfth revision because half a dozen people who skimmed what you wrote while they were on a conference call felt that it “just didn’t, I don’t know, something…” – you should reach for a book like this in hopes that it will do anything to jog loose some new idea, some new insight, some new path to the waterfall.

And if it doesn’t, well, then perhaps a desk drawerful of rotting apples will keep people the hell away from your desk while you’re working.


Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson, was published by TarcherPerigee on 09/30/2006 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).


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