I had my first epiphany about writing in college. When I turned in the first draft of my senior thesis, my advisor sent it back with a curt note. He couldn’t give me any feedback, because the draft didn’t make sense. I was mortified. How had I made it almost through college without knowing how to write? I stayed up all night drinking coffee and smoking Camels until I saw the problem. My work was riddled with non-sequiturs. My sentences had no connection with one another. The draft was like a scatter-gun spray of birdshot. There were no links between paragraphs. There were no warning signs when I made a transition or changed the subject.
Another lesson came to me after I’d spent a year teaching in Beirut, Lebanon. That tragic country was teeming with wonderful subjects, a goldmine of stories for a writer. But I went through that year sleepwalking. I was guilty of a failure of curiosity. Henry James said, “Be someone on whom nothing is lost.” If I’d been an observant, investigative person, if I’d shown an interest, I could have had access to all the secret niches and powerful forces that offered keys to the Middle Eastern storms that were coming. But it was all lost on me.
When I returned to Kansas City in 1965 after the year in Lebanon, I was confronted with the daunting question of what to do with my life. I’d majored in English. The only thing I was qualified to do was to teach. But my experience in Lebanon taught me that teaching wasn’t my thing. I took out books from the library on stocks and bonds and banking. I skimmed through them without a flicker of interest. I had an interview at a stock brokerage firm. The manager told me that the only qualification for that job was salesmanship. Someone who could sell a bushel of corn or a can of paint could sell shares of stock. I suspected he’d intuited that I wasn’t endowed with that talent.
I finally got employed at an insurance company as an apprentice appraiser. My job was to verify value of real estate for loan purposes. This job connected me to property and value
which years later would furnish material for The Griefmaker and the character of Henry Tenbrook, who turns out also to be an appraiser.
Most of my high school friends returned to Kansas City, dutifully got married and started having children. Unable to imagine any alternatives, I fell in line. I got married. I tried to develop an assertive business persona, but it was a hollow sham. I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for business. Raising a family became my raison d’etre. But my marriage was unhappy. My wife was discontent with the Kansas City goldfish bowl. After producing a son, we got divorced.
Divorce left me with no sense of purpose or direction. But it did shake me up. I became more conscious of the world around me, more observant, more curious about myself and others. I began writing – poems, stories and plays. I had some success getting published. After years of wallowing in the real estate business, I got a break: The Kansas City Star was looking for a columnist. An editor saw something I’d written and invited me to compete for the job. A sample column I offered persuaded the paper to take a chance on me. It was an extraordinary piece of luck: I hadn’t gone to journalism school. I hadn’t worked for a newspaper.
Getting paid to write was a dream job for me. For ten years, I wrote three columns a week. At first, my mind was swarming with ideas. I had a wonderful sense of infinite possibilities. Of course, after a few years, the easy gold had been mined. Coming up with fresh ideas became harder. Conflicts with micro-managing editors became more common. Eventually, we had a peace treaty and I became the paper’s book review editor. The discipline of writing some 1,500 columns on deadline made me a more workmanlike writer. I had a keener sense of when I was losing the thread of a subject. I became a more ruthless assassin of those brilliant gems that every writer falls in love with, precious “darlings” that deserve to die. I learned to pay closer attention to the mutterings of the subconscious that sometimes, rarely, become useful ideas. I also learned that shorter is almost always better. And that you never get it one hundred percent right. Everything can be improved by re-writing.
But those lessons didn’t prepare me for the kind of writing I had in mind. After I retired and began trying to write a novel, my education began all over again. It was like the plight with my senior thesis and my post-college groping for a vocation, like starting from scratch. When I sat down to write the The Griefmaker, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no story in mind, no plot, no idea of where I was headed, only a handful of apparently unrelated anecdotes and scraps of experience. I wrote these down as separate episodes with no connection I was aware of. Then, when I tried to make a novel, I had to hammer the fragments into a coherent entity. It was like skydiving into an unmapped jungle tangled with traps and deadend paths.
I didn’t realize when I started that I was following a story that had in a sense already been written. It took me ten years and a lot of groping and false starts to discover the story between the lines and to find the thread out of the labyrinth...