Writing fascinates authors. Why not – it’s their stock in trade. Just as those of us who toil in the information vineyard spend a lot of time exchanging ideas about how to do our jobs better, writers do too. And when they do a particularly good job of thinking about writing and its impact on themselves and their readers, they might go ahead and write an interesting book about the process. Here are several I’ve read lately.
Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction by Leonard Bishop. Cincinnati : Writer’s Digest Books, c1988. 319 p.
Leonard Bishop co-taught the 1st “team-teaching” creative writing class at Columbia University. He’s also taught at NYU and the University of California. In the 1950 and 60′s Bishop was a best-selling novelist and a successful magazine writer. He has 2 credits on imdb, one for a 1969 made-for-tv film based on his novel, Against Heaven’s Hand and one for an episode of a terrific classic television show, Naked City.
“The Tragic Success of Alfred Tiloff” was based on a story he wrote and was first broadcast in 1961. I’m not certain that snatching children off busy streets and holding them for ransom was a very common crime in the early 1960′s, so in a way this foreshadows a situation that became a major issue in the following decades leading to pictures of missing children on milk cartons and mailers and Amber Alerts. A fellow NC fan and I exchanged quite a few emails about this episode – especially the performances of Jack Klugman, Jan Sterling and Ruth White, the characteristic street scenes of a poor NYC neighborhood that probably became a Yuppie magnet a few decades later, the major goof that the investigating detectives made after the hotel fire (a real NCY hotel is credited at the end – not exactly the best publicity for most hotels, imo) and, of course, the melodramatic story of a kidnapping of a child.
Out of curiosity I checked Countycat and the only Bishop title that turned up was Dare to Be a Great Writer. I couldn’t resist it. First off, this book is organized idiosyncratically to say the least. It’s almost as if Bishop tossed his index cards for a semester’s worth of lectures into the air and let his publisher take it from there. There are examples galore (many pretty outrageous and most noir-influenced), an interesting topically organized index, a warning to readers against reading the book straight through (which of course I did), generous dollops of advice for beginning writers, and wonderful suggestions for the temporarily stymied writer (Bishop doesn’t believe in writer’s block.) While the book would benefit from an updating that reflects changes in publishing and book-selling brought about by the Internet, there’s still plenty of practical and sensible information for any would-be writer.
Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon. San Francisco, McSweeney’s Books, c2008. 222 p.
Every Chabon book is different and this one is a meditation on the types of writing that influenced him with significant autobiographical detail included for Chabon fans of which I am one. His thoughts on the boundary between actual life and fictionalized life take up a couple of chapters near the end and absolutely must be read. The dust jacket is a thing of beauty.
I learned about a half-dozen different writers that I now want to read which is not really what how I need to spend my time at the moment since it’s gardening weather around here. In any case I’ve resolved to try the graphic novel form again and read Kavalier & Clay. Growing up I relished comic books and hid them from my mother; later I graduated to teen-oriented movie magazines which also had to be hid. Wish I knew what happened to all those magazines; probably my younger siblings found them when I went away to college or grad school and eventually they were tossed when the house was sold.
Tolkien & the Silmarillion by Clyde S. Kilby. Wheaton, Ill. : H. Shaw, c1976. 89 p.
My good friend of nearly 20 years acquaintance (argh, but it’s so), Bob Shuster, who’s Director of the Archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois suggested I read this book since I’ve always been a bit amazed that C.S. Lewis’ papers and some Tolkien material wound up at Wheaton College, an Evangelical Protestant foundation. Last week, Bob was kind enough to edit some informal comments he’s sent me early. Here’s his account of Prof. Kilby’s work:
“Dr. Clyde Kilby was the literature professor who had the connection with C. S. Lewis and he really deserves a statue in the archivist hall of fame (where is that, by the way?) His connection with Lewis was that they corresponded over the years, nothing much more than that. But after Lewis died, Kilby thought this was a major figure in modern Church history and in literature and somebody should preserve his manuscripts and other papers. (The English at the time and today for that matter were much, much more restrained about Lewis than the Americans.) So he started collecting Lewis papers and eventually began to collect the papers of others who were contemporaries and/or influences on Lewis approach to apologetics and literature: J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, G. K. Chesterton, George McDonald, and Owen Barfield. Kilby got no support at the beginning and more or less ran the collection out of his own back pocket with much effort and frustration and expense. Eventually, he got a gift from Servicemaster Industries to endow the Marion E. Wade Center (Wade was the founder of Servicemaster.) So that is why the collection of Lewis papers is named after an American businessman. The Wade Center had quarters here and there on campus until a few years back an anonymous donor gave a couple of million dollars for a beautiful building in the English style which houses the collections and has a small exhibit too (including the desk on which Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and the Lewis family wardrobe that his grandfather handmade and is supposed to be the model for a wardrobe in some book he wrote. ) Anyway, it was Kilby’s truly heroic efforts that pretty much singlehanded brought the Wade Center into being. He would never have called himself an archivist, but perhaps he would have accepted the honorable title of curator.
One other Kilby story. He also kept up a correspondence with Tolkien and did all he could to encourage him to publish The Silmarillion. But Tolkien as always delayed and delayed and delayed and finally in the 1960s, Kilby went to England for the several months to labor as an unpaid assistant to Tolkien to help him get The Silmarillion published. (Kilby was a tenured full professor at the time, so you can see how much this meant to him.) When he arrived, Tolkien said he a number of projects he wanted Kilby’s help on, but one was primary: there was a scholarly journal that had asked him for an article about ten years before and he still hadn’t finished it (that is, had it in a shape Tolkien thought acceptable.) Tolkien told Kilby, “Whatever you do, make sure I finish that article.” Then, at the end of his stay, when Kilby had to go back to America, Tolkien shook hands with him and thanked him for all his help and friendship, and then said with a big smile, almost proudly, “Well, I still haven’t finished that article!” (The Silmarillion also was not published in Tolkien’s lifetime. The story is that Lewis had to actually take the manuscript of Lord of the Rings out of Tolkien’s hands to get it to the publisher. Not actual true perhaps, but deserves to be.) Kilby told about his adventures with Tolkien that summer in a wonderful little book called Tolkien and the Silmarillion.”
Aaargh, originally this post included some words about Frank McCourt’s 2005(?) memoir, Teacher Man, which I wrote shortly after Mr. McCourt passed away last month. Somehow in the course of revising this, I deleted those paragraphs. Mostly, I remember writing that I hoped, hidden away in a cubby somewhere, there was at least one more McCourt memoir. I enjoyed his two earlier memoirs very much but I want one that deals with his experiences writing. What was it like getting published around the age most people are retiring and how did it feel becoming everybody’s “go-to guy” on matters Irish? That would be a book for the ages.