Becoming a Hack

So I have an MFA, and I'm trying to write, but I'm stuck and I need help. There's only one thing to do. I start to reread Dorothea Brande's Becoming a Writer. Again.

Encourage me, Dorothea. I mean, I'm not getting any younger, and there's only so long that I can keep writing in this vacuum without completely losing my sense of humor. I need to believe that I can do this, actually write something worth publication that won't give me the willies later on. I pick up Dorothea's optimistic book and dare to hope.

And I do find hope, at least up until page 28 where she writes, "Your embryo journalist or hack writer seldom asks for help of any sort; he is off after agents and editors while his more serious brother-in-arms is suffering the torments of the damned because of his insufficiencies."

I always pause right about here. She reminds me of questions I asked out loud in front of peers back in school. These were probing questions about agents and editors and writing software. Yet worrying about this is a little like being tormented, so I wonder if I'm just on my way, you know, becoming a writer, as opposed to failing as one.

You see, here's my theory. Back in 1934 when Dorothea wrote this book, she was probably a Freshman comp teacher who'd had it with new students sporting French berets and blank notebooks. It was getting old for her, this process of explaining the reality that writing was mostly lonely work far removed from the Left Bank in Paris.

I'm betting, though, that she wanted to remain a Freshman comp teacher, and she had to figure out a way to keep her classroom filled with students actually prepared to write. She wrote an encouraging book to take the edge off of her smell-the-coffee lectures to her students. Keep the berets, she probably told them, but fill those darned notebooks. Maybe she even cursed.

So she used labels to keep them motivated. You are writing while everyone else is sleeping, dancing and dating, she probably said the way George Ballanchine talked to his ballerinas, because you are an artist and a craftsperson. If you decide to sleep and merely dream about writing, then you are a hack.

Normally, anyone overly fond of labels acts like some self-appointed gatekeeper, you know, an art gallery staffer intent on booting commoners out the door. Take, for instance, my theory about John Gardner and his book, The Art of Fiction. By the time he was hired at SUNY-Binghamton, he'd probably become so famous that only a select few upper classmen were able to take his classes. He could afford to alienate the masses. For the record, this is complete conjecture, which I feel qualified to do having read the first 12 pages of his book. By the time I'd read his opinions about "artists of true authority" such as Homer and Dante, about "clodpole ways of doing things," and the self-made (nice try) Jack Londons of the writing world, I'd pretty much made up my mind about him, as he apparently had made up his mind about everyone else like me. Page 12's the corker. That's where he called any writer without a good education an "ignoramus." Suddenly, I had a hankering to return to Dorothea.

So let's review. "Embryonic" writer is not a bad label, but "Hack" provides better motivation. Call me a Hack and I'll start writing just to prove you wrong. Call me Embryonic and I figure there's time for a cup of coffee first, and hey, why not bake a pie while I'm at it too? Or maybe squeeze in a few paragraphs by Dante? No, better to go by her other title, "Yearner."

A Hack is to a period what an Embryonic writer is to a comma and a Yearner is to a dash. A Hack always thinks she's done. An Embryonic writer writes about the day her grandmother died, about how she learned to ride a bike, and why flossing teeth is a good idea, because it all might be relevant someday, and besides she just thought of something else to add. A Yearner, though you see, thinks about great themes, related quotes from favorite writers, and original metaphors. The only problem is she has a hard time getting her thoughts down on paper. Like her work, her thoughts are usually unfinished. Maybe a little hasty too. If I yearn too hard -- that is, if she yearns too hard -- she tends to rush things -- like worry about publishing before she's written anything.

So maybe you're like me and you belong in one or more of the above categories. Maybe you also struggle to write a couple of sentences every day. Maybe you hang around writing conferences and buy books that tell you that this is a reasonable, healthy activity. Maybe you go to book signings to ask some big name author, like Joyce Carol Oates, to give up her industry contacts because you're certain you're ready for the big time.

Think like a period and stop. Don't ask questions, don't be brave. Imagine that you are surrounded by the apostles of John Gardner. Let silence reign. Silence is only your enemy when you're on the other side of the podium. Think of it as a way to measure your teacher's poise and maturity. At the very least, wait for someone else to go first. This will give you time to reconsider and perhaps force yourself to remain silent. Why? Have you ever heard of the Mark Twain quote, "It is better to remain silent and appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?" This is the quote that established the man's genius. It is now a rule that I try to follow on every occasion.

OK, say you have a tendency to ignore sage advice and that your hand, like mine, rises at every opportunity. Here's Plan B. When given the opportunity to ask questions of a famous author, I highly recommend that you ask the following Artist questions. Whatever you do, don't ask the Yearner questions under any circumstances. I wouldn't. At least, not anymore.

Artist Do's

1. What's the biggest writing obstacle that you've overcome?

2. Who's your favorite literary influence?

3. I've read all your work. My favorite is The English Patient. Could you discuss the themes you explored in that book. Would you ever write about those themes again?

4. What's the most helpful advice you've ever been given?

5. Your work touched me.

Yearner Don'ts

1. What kind of pen, paper, or computer software do you use? (This question resembles the one Mr. Gardner answers in his book, On Becoming a Novelist, according to the preface of his book, The Art of Fiction.)

2. Would you introduce me to your agent?

3. Will you ever write a book about alien invasions? Or hobbits? Screwdrivers?

4. What do you think I should write about?

5. I need your email address so we can keep in touch.

This last comment might not only repel the subject of your inquiry, but perhaps get you arrested as well. But I won't frighten you with any more possible consequences of asking the Yearner questions. I agree with Dorothea. There are plenty of other places where you can go and read something discouraging, if that's what you want to do.

She's converted others besides me. Guess who wrote the prologue to her book? That's right, John Gardner. And what did Mr. Gardner admit in those few pages? "One often takes that tone [scornful of teachers who don't help their students] when one feels guilty. I mean to improve myself (pray for me)." In other words, he admitted that he was wrong. Aha.

As for me, it's back to the last 147 pages of Dorothea's book. If only she'd been a little more specific about which insufficiencies were worth suffering torments over. Did these insufficiencies leave serious students without paper, ideas or postage? Wish I could ask her a question.

- - -

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1934. Reprinted as A Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Book, Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, NY. 1981

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1984

About the author:

Other than read their books, the author did not research the circumstances under which either Ms. Brande or Mr. Gardner taught classes. She thought this would be an appropriate amount of research, considering the topic. Also, this work is occasionally fictional. The author didn't really ask any questions about writing software, she just thought that it would be especially amusing if she had. She never asked Joyce Carol Oates for her industry contacts either. "Usually, I asked other, less memorably stupid questions," she now says. She also once read Mr. Gardner's entire book. Ms. Round accepted her MFA from Goucher College in 1999. She keeps trying to write in Massachusetts.