Articles

How to drive an author crazy

When Bob tells them what he does for a living his friends, neighbors and people he’s never seen before (or since) bombard him with movie scripts, crime plots and back copies of the Entomologist’s Review

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN December 10 1955
Articles

How to drive an author crazy

When Bob tells them what he does for a living his friends, neighbors and people he’s never seen before (or since) bombard him with movie scripts, crime plots and back copies of the Entomologist’s Review

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN December 10 1955

How to drive an author crazy

When Bob tells them what he does for a living his friends, neighbors and people he’s never seen before (or since) bombard him with movie scripts, crime plots and back copies of the Entomologist’s Review

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN

EXPLAINS

DON'T think I'll ever quite get used to the odd ways people act when I tell them I'm a writer. For one thing, they begin wonder-

ing what old junk they have lying around that they can carry over to my house.

Whenever I take a cottage at a summer resort someone appears at my door early in the season, says, “Heard you were a writer— thought you might like to look these over,” and hands me a pile of back copies of the Rotarian, Popular Mechanics, Motor Magazine, folders on the Bahamas, manuals on typewriters and Sunday supplements. “Of course you mightn’t get anything out of them,” he says.

Shy men in old battered hats, brisk nervous salesmen on holidays, elusive men who stand sideways to me when they talk, peering toward the bay, hand me bundles of stock-market analyses, reprints from Fortune on the future of calculating machines, and house organs full of breezy little notices about sales conventions and bridal showers that were given to some girl in steno at Murphy Paint.

Last time I got a cottage I took one way back from the shore, in the woods, and on top of a hill. I didn’t take it just to discourage people using me as a literary trash can, but I thought it might help. All it did was keep the news that I was a writer from getting around for an extra day. On the second morning a big friendly woman in a housedress arrived at my door, wheezing horribly, with a whole carton of jigsaw puzzles and pocketbooks by Mickey

Spillane. “Heard you were a writer,” she panted.

She went on to say that she had a nephew who used to be a writer once.

“One day I caught him chopping up a perfectly good piano out in the garage,” she said. “When I saw what he was doing, I said, ‘Land’s sake, what in the world are you doing that for?’ ‘Oh, it’s so old it doesn’t work any more. I’m going to make a desk out of it,’ he said. Well, by golly, he chopped it up and I didn’t have a piano or a desk for years.”

After this, she disappeared into the woods and I’ve never seen her since. I couldn’t get my mind on anything but her nephew for the rest of the morning.

People also stick books on spiders in my hand as I’m leaving parties. “Read that,” they say.

I open my mouth to say that I’m already behind on my sales-market reports and house organs.

“Just read it, that’s all,” they say, nodding mysteriously.

If I imply politely that I don’t want to read about spiders, they snap, “Why not? They’re very interesting. Wait till you read about some of the webs they make.”

People give me thick paper-backed books that trace the lives of old Louisiana families through four generations, and say, “Somebody gave me this. I couldn’t get through the first chapter. You take it.”

I not only get writing that has been published,

but writing that’s still

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How to Drive an Author Crazy

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 48

in manuscript form. Every now and then a writers’ class sends me eighteen manuscripts of six thousand words each and says, "We’ve had an articlewriter’s contest. You have been elected judge. We’d like these hack by Friday.” I’d like to give them back right away, of course, but I find myself reading them. They are all about

grinding diamonds. They are full of sentences like, "Various things are done to diamonds, from the time they are mined until they appear in all their splendor in the jeweler’s window.”

I settle down to read some of the various things. But the author is finished with that part of it and goes on. "Diamonds have also played an important part in history.*”

Well, maybe this will he interesting. But the writer gets bored and abandons this too. "Just think! If you had a diamond worth $80,000!” he says.

I try to think of this. The writer changes the subject again. "There are five classes of diamonds: the pink, the blue, the green ...”

I read all the manuscripts and make a long report. It’s a conscientious honest report. I finish it at two in the morning and go to bed.

Next week, I get a rather cool letter back from the head of the class. She says she will pass on to the class the sense of some of the things I said, but, after all, many of these people have sold to such publications as the New Brunswick Muskrat and the Friendly Jeweler.

People also tell me the plots of movies with a determination to get from me some sort of reaction that I haven’t yet quite been able to figure out. Often two of them tell it together, so that I find myself twisting my head looking from one to the other, as if I were at a tennis match, with a ghastly smile on my face.

"This girl tells her father she’s getting married,” the guy says.

"You’d DIE!” his wife says.

"But he has already told his daughter that he doesn’t want her to get married. He’s broke.”

"You’ll SCREA M !” his wife screams. "—then all of a sudden this crowd comes in and starts drinking all his liq uor—”

"—the FACES he makes!” his wife hollers.

I snap back toward her husband.

"— and the father says, ‘Who invited this crowd over?’ ”

Both the guy and his wife put their heads down and give themselves up to uncontrollable mirth.

Now a line like "Who invited this

crowd over?” can be very funny, if it comes at the end of a carefully skilfully constructed situation, and if the choice of words has some significance, and if it’s said with just the right intonation by an accomplished comedian who makes about three thousand dollars a week.

But this is being told to me by a rug salesman who doesn’t bother to tell me why it’s funny.

People who hear that I am a writer are always asking me why I don’t write a book on the opening up of northern Ontario. I never know what to say, as the reason is the same as why I don’t write a book on the opening up of Africa: because I’m already writing articles on dogs and things. But they always walk away as if I’m being pigheaded.

Another type of person always tells me why he doesn’t write, then gives me his old plots and lets me worry about it. He says, "I’d like to write, but I can never remember where to put commas,” then says, "See, this first guy didn’t know that the man with the bracelet knew that it was a fake, because he thought that the one who had come in ahead of him was his father. He hadn’t really come in ahead of him, of course, it was just all in this dream that the duchess had been telling before the picture opened, but the audience thinks that the thirteenth guest is real and not the story that the first one is telling.”

He sits back and says, "You can take it from there and do what you want with it.”

I am still worrying about that remark about where to put commas. This is without a doubt the smallest problem a writer has. But sometimes so many people will ask me the same thing in a day that I begin to forget where to put them myself.

For all this, I’d rather talk to these people—even the ones who get that light in their eyes and begin wondering what old junk they have lying around the house—than to the ones who just say nothing.

For five years I’ve been unable to convince my barber that I’m a writer. He’ll ask me how come I’m taking holidays in November. I’ll tell him that I’m not taking holidays; that I work at home. "I’m a writer,” I say.

"Sure. I know, I know,” he says, and allows a silence to fall on the room. Even the other barbers and the customers stop talking. Next time I see him we go through the whole thing over again.

One farmer I lived beside for a year, when I mentioned anything about writing, used to laugh, slap his knee and look out over the fields, shaking his head, letting a silence settle on us again.

In fact, sometimes I think letting a silence settle on the whole subject is not a bad idea. ★