Marjorie Klein, “The Three R’s of Writing”
Over my years of writing and teaching, I’ve been asked questions such as How did you become a writer? and Why do you write fiction? and Where do you get your ideas? I can sum up my answers with the following.
I don’t know where I learned to love books. We had very few in our home when I was growing up. I rarely saw my mother read except for the newspaper, recipes, and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. My father read constantly but I don’t think he ever bought a book. He got them from the library.
That’s where my books came from. I see myself after school, crouched against the wind at the bus stop, eating a pickle, reading a book. That was my routine: swing by the library, pick up the latest Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, then stop at the deli to fish a pickle from the barrel. I’d munch and read until the bus came along, then I’d stand over some lucky person, reading and dripping pickle juice.
I didn’t think it was strange that we had so few books in our house until I noticed that other people had more. My friend Linda had so many books that I made up a great game for us to play: “Library.” These were the rules: We always played at her house; we always used her books. I made little pockets for the last page of her books like they had at the library, and sign-out cards that fit inside them. That way I could check out her books. She had really neat ones: The Wind in the Willows and Anderson’s Fairy Tales and the entire Cherry Ames, Student Nurse series.
One day Linda came to my house and asked if she could check out one of my books but all I had to offer was an obscure Ring Lardner book, a Great American Humor anthology, Tales from Gilbert and Sullivan, the Encyclopedia Brittanica, some Readers Digest Condensed Books, and a bunch of my father’s medical books. We spent the afternoon looking at diagrams of male and female anatomies, and leafed through a couple of books of illustrated operations. She never asked again.
Later, when my aunt gave me some books that my cousin outgrew, we had something Linda could check out: The Wizard of Oz. She declined. She said she had seen the movie. It doesn’t matter, I said, I saw the movie too, but this was different. I couldn’t explain why it was different, only that it was magic.
The book had an ugly lime green cover smeared with what looked like jelly stains. The paper was heavy and the print was nice and clear. The illustrations were old-fashioned line drawings and didn’t look that much like Judy Garland or Bert Lahr, but they fit the story perfectly. The drawings that were in color took up an entire page. Those that weren’t, I took the liberty of coloring in myself.
Best of all was the story. I knew the story from the movie, but reading gave it a whole new dimension. I was there. I was Dorothy. I felt what she felt, wondered when she wondered, wanted what she wanted. Each time I read it, it was as if I were reading it for the first time. I read it during breakfast, in the bathroom, under the covers at night. I dripped pickle juice on it. I wore it to a frazzle.
I didn’t know who L. Frank Baum was, and I didn’t care. His name may have been on the cover, but to me, the book was self-created. It just magically appeared, poof, like the Good Witch Glinda. And I didn’t wonder about the writers of the other books I read. To me, writers were just names on covers.
Until I fell in love with Edgar Allen Poe. This wasn’t my crush on Tommy, who wore his jeans low and spit-curled his hair in a slow curve over his Clearasil’ed forehead. This was true passion--for a writer.
A very dead writer, which made Poe all the more romantic. No more would he pen (and I was sure it was a plumed pen, taken in hand by candlelight in the dark recesses of night) the lush verses that I committed to memory, the horrific tales that captured my darkest imagination. Alas, alas!
I was nuts for the guy. Even now I get retroactive palpitations. I know. He looks pretty hokey today, and I don’t think I would voluntarily wade through “The Fall of the House of Usher” again. But, as convoluted and archaic as the language now seems to be, that’s what sucked me in, in the first place: his language.
Language. Compelling plots. Complex characters. Evocation of time and place. Flashes of insight. Poe did that for me, spoiled me, made me seek those things in everything I’ve read since. Sometimes I find one or two of those qualities in a book. That’s good; I’ll read on. Three, four or more and I’m in love.
In high school I found all of the above in John Steinbeck, whom I adored until he made me Travel With Charley. Then he lost me. The old magic was gone. My reading eye began to wander. In college I became promiscuous, flitting from one to another: D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Wolfe, Hermann Hess, Dorothy Parker, Tolstoy, Katherine Anne Porter, Dostoevsky, and even–God help me–Ayn Rand. I loved them all, even though I’m sure I missed a lot of what they were saying. Without much depth of life experience, it was difficult for me to relate. Poor, poor Anna Karenina, I’d sigh—but I really couldn’t tell you why.
As much as I loved to read, that’s how much I loved to write. It seemed so preposterous, so presumptuous, to even dream of being one of Them. It never really crossed my mind to call myself…a writer.
Whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the answer was automatic: “An artist.” I was the class artist: designer of school posters, president of the art club, cartoonist on the high school paper. When I wasn’t drawing, I was reading. And writing: sappy poetry, maudlin short stories, a journal I kept until I suspected my mother was reading it. But reading and writing were just for fun. My destiny was Art.
In college, I majored in art. I wore sloppy paint-splashed shirts and proudly reeked of turpentine. English was my minor, and those were the classes I found most compelling: reading voraciously, discovering new authors, re-reading the old. Most of all, it was writing that took me deep into the night, the dorm dark and quiet as I scratched away in happy oblivion, writing mostly short stories. But that was just for fun.
My art classes were not fun. I was beginning to dread them as much as I dreaded math. What was wrong? Everyone else actually knew what they were doing. I didn’t. My perspective was off, my colors were muddy, my self-portrait didn’t even look like me. In short, I was lousy.
The chairman of the art department didn’t put it in those words that day when he asked me to come into his office, but he did suggest that I reconsider my major. Taking one last, deep sniff of turpentine fumes, I stumbled from his office, tears staining my paint-daubed shirt. I wandered the campus that day, feeling lost. What could I do—if not well, at least competently? Something that would give me pleasure, something—fun.
And then it dawned on me: Why minor in English, which I loved so much? Why wasn’t it my major? It took that dreadful moment of truth in the art chairman’s office for me to discover that writing wasn’t merely something I did for fun. It could be my focus, my purpose—and it had been there all along. I was still an artist, but words were my medium, and they served me much better than paint.
It was years before I felt that I could say “writer” when people asked what I did. Other descriptions took precedence: Wife. Mother. Volunteer. Writing was something I did when I wasn’t doing something else. I wrote when the kids were napping. I wrote late at night. I wrote furtively, hiding the notebook scribbled with poems and ruminations, stashing short stories and novel chapters high in the closet. I don’t know why I had to be so secretive; no one asked what I was doing.
But what I wanted was someone who would read what I wrote. I say Yay for people who are content just to write for themselves, but I needed feedback, validation, encouragement. Or maybe someone who would tell me I was so awful that I should give it up and bake a cake. So I took a class in creative writing.
It was a continuing education course given at the University of Miami. John Keasler, a columnist for the Miami News, was the teacher. We could write anything we wanted; I wrote short stories. Every week he’d return our work, his comments typed out on Miami News copy paper. I kept them, like other people keep love letters. Someone cared! Someone cared enough to take the time to read what I wrote, and then cared enough to write about what I wrote—honest, kind and encouraging comments that made me want to write more, to write better.
Once I confessed to him, Some day I’d like to be a writer. “But you are a writer,” he said. And I believed him. Somehow, his saying it made it so.
For years, I wrote for free. It wasn’t my intention, but no one at The New Yorker or Harper’s or The Atlantic saw fit to enclose money in the rejection slips they sent. I wasn’t writing for money; I wrote because I had to. There was some itchy thing inside me that made me do it, and I loved the act of turning the mundane into magic. Sure, I had a fantasy that someone would pay me money for my fiction. My alternate fantasy was that someone would just publish my work, even for free.
And then one day, that fantasy came true (kinda sorta). My first sale wasn’t fiction, but an essay for a magazine. And they were paying me! Not much, but to me, it was found money. They were actually giving me money to do something I loved, and they were putting it in print so other people could read it. Amazing. And then I wrote another piece for them, and another, and soon I was getting assignments, which led to other publications, and before I knew it, I was a working writer—a freelancer, writing nonfiction.
As much as I enjoyed that work, I still had that fiction itch that needed scratching. I found relief in graduate school at Florida International University; my MFA thesis later became a published novel. I’ve been writing mostly fiction ever since, with my second novel seeking a publisher, and a third novel half-done. Unpublished, half-written novels don’t contribute to my bank account, but writing fiction has other rewards. It takes me out of my writing room, into the same place I go when I’m falling asleep. I’ve tried to describe this place to others without sounding like I’ve dropped from Planet Looney Tunes: Sometimes there are patterns, designs, colors. Always there are people. People I never saw before, faces and figures, not always earthly. I see peculiar objects, and places I know I’ve never been. It’s a landscape from another world, and I’m just visiting. While doing research for a book, I came across a term for what I saw: Eidetic imagery. It’s what people sometimes see on drugs, like LSD. I did a little more research but didn’t find much. It’s just there. Like writing. The place where dreams begin.
Excerpt from Shifting Gears: A South Beach Story
Maybe he should let his hairdresser take the next step: the pruning of the pony tail. But if he waits for an appointment with Fernando, he may chicken out. Hal rummages through the kitchen drawer and finds a pair of shears whose last duty was to clip a coupon for Rogaine. In the bathroom, he examines the back of his head in the mirror and is momentarily shocked at the regression of his hairline since his last inspection, a cranial low tide revealing flesh he had hoped would never see daylight.
And yet, here it is: a peninsula of pale, tender skin, glowing in the halogen brightness. He reconsiders. Maybe cutting off the pony tail is a bad idea. It’s the only real proof that he can grow hair and grow it well. What’s there is pulled back in a grey-streaked sweep, captured in a tight black band at the nape of his neck, dangling to his shoulders in a lazy coil. But if he is to move on, the deed must be done. If nothing else, this should prove to Max that he’s serious. Hal takes several deep breaths to gird himself.
It’s not just a haircut, he tells himself; it’s a hair bris. It’s a symbol. Scissors in one hand, pony tail gripped in the other, he begins. The scissors gnaw away at the coil, hair by stubborn hair. It’s harder than Hal imagined. Each bite of the scissors brings from his throat, unbidden, a grunt of regret--too late now—until, still gripped by the band, the pony tail is free. His head feels strangely light, as if it might float off like an errant Macy’s parade balloon. The hair that’s left springs free in a frizzled curtain around his ears. He resembles a geriatric Clarabelle. He should have gone to Fernando.
Hal gently lays the pony tail on the kitchen counter. It seems to gasp for breath, then goes limp. Hal is filled with an immense sadness as he strokes the length of the coil and says goodbye to his youth. Goodbye to dreams, to ambition, to his secret fantasy of becoming a rock star. The pony tail and earring were a statement: he was a child of the seventies. He thought it would last forever.
Marjorie Klein's first novel, Test Pattern (Wm. Morrow Publishers, 2000; HarperCollins/
Perenniel 2001, now an e-book) was a Barnes and Noble "Discover Great New Writers"
selection. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in various publications, including 20
years of free-lance work for Tropic, the Miami Herald's former Sunday magazine. She
received her MFA from Florida International University. Recipient of a Florida
Individual Artist Fellowship, she has taught at the University of Miami, Florida
International University, Warren Wilson College, University of North Carolina at
Asheville’s Great Smokies Writers Program, and served as a preliminary judge for the
National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts. She has completed another novel,
Shifting Gears, and has begun a new one. (www.marjorieklein.com)