I’ve heard it said that reading cheap paperbacks and calling it “research” is a waste, but I’ve never found it any worse (quite the opposite) than watching television. Read Conrad, and it’s worth any number of hours watching COPS or the History Channel about crab fishermen. Used copies of Joseph Conrad’s work are probably cheaper than Stephen King’s. They’ll go farther though. He’s a few inches away on bookstore shelves from anything by Graham Greene. Read Greene, even type out entire paragraphs of his, so the weight and proper balance of a sentence runs through your arms and fingers. Also, try it with the last paragraph of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” I did, several times. If you give up COPS, and please do, pick up a bargain-bin James Ellroy. Just about anything of his will do.
I live in a cheap hotel, or did. If you can pull it off, live with someone who thinks of you as an “artist.” I’ve had trouble with this, and you will too, but if you can live with yourself, it’s better than living with yourself, if you know what I mean.
Coupons, well, try it. Don’t smoke a pipe. You can’t afford that, and it just torpedoes the hell out of your credibility, and you have none. Try Maverick cigarettes; you can get them for $2.99 a pack. Better yet, forget them. Distorting Conrad’s Kurtz: “Make friends with the horror.”
Know where to steal. Again, we’re back to the Internet. When you do, be convincingly disdainful of Wikipedia and at least some of your own sources. Use Google like the phone book. No computer? Phone book, it still works.
John Gardner, a fine novelist and writing teacher (author of The Art of Fiction, On Moral Fiction, and others), pointed out the need for writers to experience some degree of success at some point, if not early on, then at least at regular intervals. How you define this success to yourself is key. Getting paid for your work is a fine example, but more than once (and I am not referring to these pages), I have had the temerity to ask for payment well after acceptance but before it was convenient for an editorial panel that could have formed a basketball team to convene. I earned a reputation for being “difficult.” Another and very famous writer friend told me that in order to be considered difficult you must first be somebody. It is a comforting thought, but comforting thoughts and bus fare.…
What about ideas? What to write about? Once you enjoy a modicum of success — say, you get paid for something — you will be asked: Where do you get your ideas? You may want to know yourself. If you write science fiction, this question will be guaranteed. In the case of one such writer, Roger Zelazny, I heard he grew so tired of the query (with the word “crazy” usually added before “ideas” because it was science fiction), he formulated his own quick response: “Schenectady.” He swore he saw people wearing Mr. Spock ears jotting this down. I adopted a more elaborate answer for science-fiction panels. I must have lifted this from somebody, but I cannot remember whom. My answer was “I don’t know, but every night before I go to bed, I leave a quart of milk on the back porch, a box of cookies, kosher salami, and a jar of pickles. Every morning, I wake up and these things are gone, but there is this stack of crazy ideas.”
One item you must be very careful about and that is hope. Obama aside, this is dangerous stuff. If you do not use a computer or typewriter, you are probably among those, not unlike me, who would fancy a quill. It was, I think, Emily Dickenson who said, “Hope is a thing with feathers.” Use a ballpoint. — John Brizzolara