Friday, September 3, 2010

Lessons I Learned from my Uncle

September 2 is a birthday I shared with my uncle, Allen Drury. And it was on his 80th birthday, in 1998, that he passed away.

Uncle Al was a writer. And though he never taught me a thing about style or structure or dialog or plot, much of what I know about being a writer I learned from him.

Al's house was a lesson. Al lived in California, in a marvelous little house of only about 1300 square feet high above Tiburon. Every room except his office had a view of Oakland, Angel Island, or San Francisco. Okay, the house was also an ideal to strive for; the lesson was his office. Because his office did have a window that overlooked Angel Island; Uncle Al just put a bookcase in front of it. Other office furniture included another bookcase, six filing cabinets, a utilitarian desk, and one wooden armchair. Items of interest relevant to whatever he was working on -- postcards, photos, maps, menus, -- were tacked to the walls in an ever-changing collage. No luxuries, no creature comforts and no distractions -- nothing irrelevant to his work could be found in his workplace.

If ever we were visiting Uncle Al –- or if Al was visiting us in Florida, particularly the week every summer when we rented an electricity-free cabin on Sanibel Island (try doing that since they built a bridge to the place), or if he was staying with friends in New York, or if he was back in his beloved Washington DC –- none of us saw him before noon. Oh, we'd hear him. Sometime just after five he'd be puttering in the kitchen –- brewing coffee, poaching eggs, toasting toast, and juicing oranges. On the rare mornings I'd cross his path, he'd ignore me –- beyond absent responses to morning greetings. With breakfast done and the dishes washed, he'd disappear into his office at 6AM. And from that moment until noon, the only evidence of his existence was the sound of his typewriter. Six hours a day, six days a week, he was at the keyboard writing. Thirty-six hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year of butt in chair work went into everything he wrote.

Back in the days before internet, Uncle Al had a research assistant who would scour libraries for books he needed. Then Al would go through them, doing all his own research and clipping metal tabs to pages with information of use to whatever he was working on. He avoided digests or encyclopedias, going as near to the source as he could in search of unopinionated facts. When writing a series of novels, he'd use those tabs to mark pages in earlier books that had information he wanted to carry forward –- keeping continuity and developing multi-volume arcs. (I use paper stickies instead of metal tabs, but Uncle Al's system stands me in good stead)

I learned two lessons from Uncle Al about listening to others about your work. First, listen to editors. As Al became established as a writer he became less and less amenable to the criticisms of his editors. His books became longer and heavier as he resisted their input and all his research –- attention to detail that made his work so involvingly real –- became an impediment to storytelling. (His Pentagon is perhaps the most telling example of this. A fascinating story about the inner workings of the political heart of America's military is diluted and buried within an exhaustive textbook about the inner workings of the political heart of America's military.) Second, don't listen to family –- or to nonwriters who mean well. My mother was so upset by the brutal, downbeat ending of Decision that she didn't just cry, she was furious with her brother for doing that to her. For her sake he lightened the ending, blunting its impact.

Which speaks to one last lesson I learned from Uncle Al. Every single one of his novels was about something he cared about. More than just the story, his personal beliefs and passions informed how he told his tale. Everything he wrote was infused with his convictions. And I don't just mean his politics –- which were about 180 degrees from mine and which, due to the lack of editors, came to dominate his later fiction. What made his novels work was his commitment. If you as a writer are not fully invested in what you're writing, the reader will never care enough to be moved by your words.

What about you? What lessons have you learned from writers who have gone before? What lessons would you like to pass on to writers who will follow?


Charles Gramlich said...

Good questions. I posted on my own blog today about learning that one has to withold every bit of information that you can from the reader until he or she absolutely has to have it.

the first writer I ever met was in college. Before that I didn't know anyone who'd ever written anything that was published.

Liane Spicer said...

Happy Birthday, KeVin! 35, is it? :)

You learned valuable lessons, and you learned them early. I never met a writer in person until I was in my 30s and a colleague on the staff where I taught published a book of poems.