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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, November 01, 2007

writers and nonwriters

When I used to work at the Insurance Corporation, one of my colleagues was a fellow writer named Greg. He was also serious about the craft, and had an MFA and about two draft novels to his credit, among other things. I think we were quite different as writers, but we enjoyed talking with each other and recognized that we were kindred spirits: writers who actually wrote, who had carved out time and space for it in our lives at basement desks and in predawn hours. I thought of him just now because we came up with a Latinized term to describe getting back to work after a break: rockus pilus. Opening up the page here at Blogger to enter another post, I thought, "rockus pilus".

Sometimes, when people find out that I'm a writer, they say, "Oh! I have a great idea for a book!" or "I have a great idea for a TV show!" An old schoolmate recently asked me about how to get a TV sitcom going, since she thought the madcap aspects of her little store would make a good TV show. My response?

"Well, I've created and written a successful TV series already, and no one will take my calls."

That dashed some water on her enthusiasm, but she didn't seem too crestfallen. After all, she hadn't invested too much in the idea yet.

Others have tried to persuade me to write the life stories of their relatives and such. Richard, who used to cut my hair, was one such. He wanted me to write about his mother in Chilliwack, who apparently had had quite a wild life.

"I just have all these ideas," he would say, between bouts of speaking in a Donald Duck voice and teasing the women stylists around him, "but I'm no good at writing."

If it sounds like people are serious, as I think Richard was, I have to come up with a response. Usually I just report, truthfully, that I already have more ideas than I can write. Coming up with ideas is not my problem and never has been. Choosing one and then executing it fully has been my problem.

Sometimes they're serious or semi-serious projects, as when a fellow dharma student, Betty, approached me once with her idea of having our center put on a show to commemorate the life of our teacher, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.

"And you're a writer," she said in her quiet, breathy voice. "So maybe you could write some ideas."

"And you're the producer," I said.

"Producer?" she said. (She had never had any experience in show business.) She sounded mystified, impressed, and wary.

"Yes. The producer is someone who wants to put on a show, and her first job is to sweet-talk a writer into working for free."

Of course, there was no question of such a project being a paying job--we both knew this. I wouldn't dream of charging for it. But I also didn't want to do it, and I wriggled away with the laugh that my statement got.

Often I give encouragement back to them: "How do you know you can't write? Go ahead--give it a try."

Yes: stage productions, memoirs, TV shows--people have these great ideas but they "don't have the time" or "don't know how" to write. They'd love to see their idea executed by someone who knows what he's doing--why not me?

Well, for one thing, as I said to Michael (who eventually went on to produce The Odyssey) when he was trying to put together a movie project and suggesting that Warren and I could write a script for it on spec, "If I'm going to work for free, I'm going to write something that I want to write."

For another, of course I'm not going to let myself get hooked into other people's frivolous vanity projects! Do the same people, upon meeting a builder, say, "I have a great idea for a house--how about building it for me?"--with the idea that it will done gratis? I think people believe they are flattering the writer by being willing to share their fabulous idea with him.

People love the idea of having some record made of their thoughts, but they don't want to, well, go to all that effort. But it's easy when you're already a writer, right? No sweat off your back!

Alas, I suspect that writing is no easier for a "writer" than for a "nonwriter". The main difference between them is probably the desire, drive, and willingness to actually do it. When Warren and I wrote our first TV pilot script (Flash Dispatch, a sitcom about bicycle couriers, written in 1984), we worked between midnight and 3:00 a.m. each night in his little apartment over Bageland on Oak Street. It was the time we had together, after I'd finished my evening shift at ICBC, and after he'd taken a nap following his own daytime shift working as a messenger downtown. We were both tired and not at our best, but we wanted to do this, so we did it. The script got written, and it got read. It wound up opening doors for us.

So there you have it. A writer is not someone who finds writing easy. A writer is someone who writes.

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