Sunday, February 14, 2010

Do Not Go Gentle Onto That Good Page

James Scott Bell

Do not go gentle into that good night . . .Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

Brett Favre, one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game of football, was supposed to be over-the-hill at 40. But he recently finished what is probably his finest season and almost got the Minnesota Vikings to the Super Bowl. In the NFC championship game against the New Orleans Saints, he took a beating. He was on the turf constantly, sometimes under 380 pounds of beef. In the second half he got his left ankle twisted, limped off, got re-taped, and came back into the game. But for a number of turnovers by his teammates and one ill-timed interception, the Vikes would have won. It was an inspiring performance, adding to his legend.

Robert B. Parker, creator of Spenser and one of the most prolific authors of our time, died last month at the age of 77. He was supposed to be over-the-hill, too. Some critics thought he was, but most readers did not. Parker was turning out books to the very end, and not just in his Spenser series. He had other series going, including Jesse Stone, which Tom Selleck has brought to TV. He also wrote stand alones and Westerns.

He was reportedly about 40 pages into a new Spenser novel when he died at his desk of a heart attack.

For a writer, baby, that's the way to go. I only hope I've just typed the last page.

Regardless, Favre and Parker are two guys who refused to go gentle into that good night. To write well, there has to be a part of you that is determined to rage, rage against the dying of the light––and against rejection, criticism and the slough of despond.

You've got to have some attitude.

Now, this attitude is not the same as arrogance. Arrogance shouts and gets tiresome pretty fast. Attitude is just as ornery, but it's quiet. It does its work and keeps on doing it. It wants to prove itself on the page, not in the mouth. And it refuses to give up.

A knock on Parker in the latter phase of his career was that he wrote too much, sacrificing quality. Well, that's between him and his readers. He wrote, they bought, they enjoyed, maybe some got frustrated. But the relationship was lasting, and the man was doing what he loved.

If you love to write, you'll find a way to do it. No one can promise how that'll turn out. No one can guarantee you a publishing contract. But you'll never get close if you don't rage a little, and turn that into determination to keep writing, keep going, keep producing the words.

My grandfather and my mom both wanted to be writers. So they wrote. My grandfather wrote historical fiction and ended up self-publishing some of it. It's really not bad at all, but it's very niche stuff. Yet I remember him being proud of it, and it pleased the family.

My mom wrote radio scripts while she was in college in WWII. I have a whole bunch of them. Quite good. She worked on a small local newspaper when I was a kid. I remember, when I was twelve or so, finding a short story she wrote, a sci-fi kind of thing, that had a cool twist ending. She never got it published but it influenced at least one young writer––me.

So do not go gentle onto that good page. At the very least you'll know you're alive, and you won't walk around (as Murray says in A Thousand Clowns) with that wide-eyed look some people put on their faces so no one will know their head's asleep.

Rage a little, throw the heat, write.

How do you actually feel when you're writing? What's going on in your head? And how long do you expect to be writing?

21 comments:

  1. I hate to write until I write. Then I love it.

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  2. I'm usually writing when I'm not writing. The boys in the basement are working and I keep opening the door, trying to hear what's going on down there.

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  3. What a great analogy! Keep up the good work!

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  4. This was an awesome post. How do I feel when I'm writing? It varies. Sometimes it's like the story is being dictated to me and I can't write fast enough. Other times it's a pain in the neck because I know it's crap.

    My stories simmer. I'm usually always thinking about them either consciously or subconsciously. Then, out of the blue, either a scene pops up like a clip from a movie or a solution to a problem arrives.

    I plan on ending my life writing and having just enrolled in a class to learn something new like watercolors.

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  5. Julie, you have precisely described the variance of feelings writers can experience when putting down the words. The trick, of course, is to keep going even when it's a pain. And those subconscious thoughts really do matter...we have to follow them.

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  6. Just like Beethoven, who heard songs though deaf, I hear stories (and music) constantly. The discipline of putting them all down is daunting, Your whip cracking is just what I need. Thanks for taking the time from your own writing to give struggling authors such nourishing verbal food. It inspires me to not only write but encourage others to write.

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  7. amylmaris, thanks for the kind word. It's true we all need motivation, being solitary beings at our keyboards most of the time. Keep writing.

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  8. Being in the total story zone is elusive, but when I enter it, I am swept away and the real world is left far behind ...until an outside force invades the zone, kicking it to splinters. Then getting back in the groove is a hit or miss thing that is never planned, and can't be. Only rarely have I had to stop due to fatigue, which is preferable to a ringing phone and someone waylaying me. The worst is the morning after a zone spurt and trying to get back there again. That to me is the more frustrating part of this wonderful craft.

    I will write as long as I can, and after no one wants to publish, then for myself and my family's enjoyment.

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  9. Both of my parents have developed vibrant interest in new hobbies (writing, photography, and historical research) since they retired (they're now in their 80's). I plan to do the same, although my one and only "hobby" is writing.

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  10. Great post, dude. I feel great when writing. Except when I don't. ;-) I plan to be writing forever, like Parker. And Wodehouse.

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  11. John, I love being in that zone. It's not something we can control, really, but we can throw heat and sometimes be allowed in.

    Kathryn, I like the idea of new hobbies, esp. as it helps research. Like Krav Maga. Or knitting.

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  12. Brad, dude, long may you pound the keys!

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  13. I'll never stop writing, until they pry the quill from my stilled hand...

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  14. When I write, I feel as though I'm discharging an obligation. Don't get me wrong, I love it, hate it, curse it, embrace it, and usually tell myself I have no business doing it. But I'm required to do it anyway.

    If I miss a day or two of writing, as I did this weekend because of personal matters, I find myself approaching the computer feeling like I need a whip and a chair. I don't know about anyone else, but I have to do it every day. Not necessarily churn out 2000 words a day, but something. Right now, I'm doing an edit on a recent novel, so I feel that counts, even though at the end of the day, I might actually end up with fewer words than when I started.

    Write all day, then end up with a net minus. What a way to slog through life.

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  15. Love it. Hate it. Driven crazy by it. My characters are in my head all day - scenes chug along and work themselves out while I sleep Sometimes I swear my writing brain never stops - until I sit down and tear my hair out trying to get it all to work perfectly on the page:)!

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  16. I sure hope I can write for the rest of my life. Patrick O'Brian was another who died with his boots on, halfway through an Aubrey/Maturin novel.

    I have to say, I love to think about writing, to talk about writing, and to write, but it's hard to get myself started. I dread failure. It's even harder if I wrote well yesterday - I dread breaking a winning streak.

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  17. I love this post. Prior to the past year, I loved writing it was an escape. I went into my writing world and blocked everything out. Now it is like a war and every word is a triumph. This is because I have been learning how to write again after a brain injury. I will not go gentle into the night and hope once again to have writing become my escape.

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  18. Great post as always, Jim. With me it varies- sometimes it flows so smoothly I almost can't believe it, without any thought or effort on my part. Other times I'm wrestling the dang words on to the page.
    But to keel over at your typewriter- that's all any writer can hope for.

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  19. Another great post! Your words are always an inspiration, Jim! I am sure many would agree.

    I feel great when I am writing! I can't thank God enough for giving me such a blessing...a passion that I love.
    Editing, revising that is a lttle different. ;) I still enjoy it though.

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  20. I'll keep writing until the voices stop.

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