Writing and Richard Ford


There’s a great article about novelist Richard Ford in the Nov/Dec issue of Poets & Writers magazine (okay, so I’m a little behind in my magazine reading). P&W always has such thought-provoking features, and the author profiles are especially good reading because they’re so inspiring (you know: Gee, someday I could be on the cover just like Paul Muldoon!). But this one really struck a chord in me because in it, Ford claims that he’s not a “born writer,” that it was simply a decision he made. I was especially impressed by the article writer’s description of him as someone who was never one of those “brash young writer[s] who packed everything [they] knew into an oversized, best-selling first novel, only to spend the rest of [their] career attempting to live up to that first book.” Rather, the writer says that Ford “began slowly and matured with each successive publication.”

Ah yes, c’est moi. I didn’t realize I was all that good at writing (despite awards in high school English) until I was in college, after a composition professor (Dr. Ireland, thank you, wherever you are) took the time to scrawl a long, encouraging letter to me basically saying that I should be a writer. I mean, Wow. No one had ever told me that before, so it was such a seismic moment in my life, ya know? I mean, over 14 years later, and I still have that note among my papers.

In any case, I came in rather late to the whole idea that writing could actually be a vocation. Much later than, say, Ford, who decided to become a writer at twenty-three, although not as late as the late, great James Michener, who published his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, when he was forty. I’d like to believe that, while I struggle now to slog through the novel, it’s just a part of my maturation process as a writer.

Not that I think I can even come close to reaching the heights of a Richard Ford or a (my personal favorite) Mark Salzman, but it’s reassuring to know that even Ford started out with a few duds (according to P&W, his first two novels sold only 12,000 copies altogether). It was only after a detour into sportswriting that he found his voice, his stride, and came out with his most famous character, Frank Bascombe, in The Sportswriter.

So I just have to keep telling myself that this, this ‘dark night of the soul,’ is merely an apprenticeship, shall we say. When it takes all my mental energy to come up with even half-way decent crap to fill my daily five-page quota, I guess I should think of it as simply the work required to be able to fully tell my story.

Besides, I’ve worked in enough office jobs in the corporate and nonprofit world to know that, hell, this is still way better than sitting in a windowless cube, wearing a suit, and desperately waiting for five o’clock.

Anyway, I’m going to have to take a brief (maybe 2-3 day) break from the novel and go back to the research. I think I can salvage the story without having to completely rewrite it, but I need to do more background work. I suppose I was a little too impatient, not doing enough research before plunging into an ambitious work, but that’s vintage moi. I think I can begin Chapter Four soon, though, and that’s when things will really get cookin’, as that’s when those Japanese Zeros will bomb Pearl Harbor. I’ll definitely have to tread carefully with the research on that one.

Aside from the research, my book this week (and possibly the next few weeks) is Memoirs of a Geisha. I love the fact that the book is heavy on the exposition, as that’s the style I’ve chosen for my novel. If I had a dime for every time I read/heard the suggestion to Show, Not Tell, I could live in Tahiti and write from the beach, but it feels more like a genre novel or script than a literary novel if I were to adhere to that. Besides, like Memoirs, my novel’s POV is first-person, and the main character is very introspective. Makes more sense to be generous and allow him to express his thoughts and observations. He’s in Singapore during WW2, for cryin’ out loud. He’s got tons to say.