Sunday, June 22, 2014

Write As If It Were Impossible To Fail


Here is another entry from the unpublished journal of that great pulp writer, William "Wild Bill" Armbrewster. The first entry can be found here. The second is here.

I was killing a dame when Benny walked in.
The dame was Gilda Hathaway and she was an icy blonde in the story I was pounding out for Black Mask. The killer was her husband, an action Jackson named Mickey Hathaway. He was about to use an ice pick on his wife when Benny said, "Hello, Mr. Armbrewster."
"What? Huh?" I looked up from my Underwood, which was sitting on my usual table at Musso's in Hollywood. "Don't you know better than to interrupt a writer when he's typing?"
"I'm sorry, sir, I thought we had—"
"I don't care what we had! Go get yourself a Coke and let me finish my murder!"
Benny put his head down, but he did what I told him. I liked that about the kid.
Mickey dispatched Gilda, then wiped his fingerprints off the ice pick. He was out of the apartment by the time Benny got back to the table.
"Say, kid," I said, "you've got the hangdog look of a mortician without a stiff. What gives?"
"I do have a stiff," Benny said. "It's that story you told me to write. I just couldn't. I don’t know, I froze. I just sat there staring at the paper."
"Welcome to the world of the professional writer, son."
"This is what it's like?"
"A blank page is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God."
He stared at me like I was the blank page.
    "Before you try to write anything," I said, "you've got to get your head right. You've got to get your mind running like Seabiscuit at Pimlico."
Benny took a sip of his Coke, looking more concerned than ever.
I took out a White Owl, bit off the end, fired it up. A matronly woman at the adjoining table gave me a hard look. I made a mental note to put her in my story as another victim of the ice pick killer.
"You've got a will to fail," I said.
"I do not!" Benny said. Good. He had a fighting spirit. He was going to need that if he wanted to make it in this game.
"Cool your radiator, Benny. We all have a will to fail. It's subconscious. It's deep in the memory banks. All of the things we tried to do in our past, and failed at, collect there. All the embarrassments we've suffered, all the people who made fun of us, those experiences pepper our brains. It's human nature. We almost always act in order to avoid pain. So rather than try something and possibly fail, we freeze up. Or we choose something easy because we know there's no risk of failure. We don't act boldly."
Benny was silent, but I could tell I was getting through.
"Our job is to fight that will to fail, to give it the boot. You were afraid I'd rip apart your story, so you didn't write it."
Benny paused, frowned, then said, "You're right."
"Of course I'm right. This is Armbrewster you're talking to."
"So what do I do?"
"You really want to know?"
"More than anything!"
"More than a new Packard?"
"More than a sweet gal to smother you with kisses?"
"I kind of want that," he said. "But only after I'm a successful writer!"
"Just what I wanted to hear, kid. So here's what you must do from now on––write as if it were impossible to fail."
"That's it?"
"It? Why, boy, I'm giving you the Promethean fire here! If the gods find out I've told you, I could get lashed to a rock and have my liver pecked out by a predatory bird! Which, by the way, isn't all that different from working with an editor."
"But I can't just write that way, can I?"
"You're not a Presbyterian, are you?"
"Then you're a free-will being! And as such you are in control of your thoughts. And if you don't control them, they will certainly control you. It takes effort, sure, but so does anything worthwhile. Now, have you ever done anything successfully?"
"Like what?"
"I ran the anchor leg on our state championship relay team in high school."
"Aces! Think about that moment."
"No, in the late Spring of 1954. Of course now! Close your eyes and keep 'em closed."
He did as I asked.
"You remember taking the baton?" I said.
"I sure do."
"Remember your adrenal glands firing on all cylinders?"
"How about the roar of the crowd, the feel of the track, the exhilaration of crossing the finish line?"
"Drink it in!"
"I'm drinking!"
"Keep those eyes closed. Your teammates are around you, slapping you on the back."
"And your best girl is in the stands, watching."
"Judy Parrish! How did you know?"
"This is Armbrewster. Now, you're feeling good, right?"
"You see? You're in control of your thoughts and your thoughts feed your feelings. Now, I want you to see yourself standing in Stanley Rose's bookstore, holding your novel from Scribner's in your hands, as a crowd starts to gather for your reading."
Behind those closed lids, Benny's brain was starting to run. When he smiled, I knew he was ready.
            "Open your eyes! Next time you freeze up, remember those good feelings and imagine yourself with the book. Then write as if it were impossible to fail."
"Does it really work?"
"A sweet kid named Dorothea Brande wrote a book called Wake Up And Live! and it sold a million copies. It's the only way to stomp that will to fail and write your best stuff."
"Gee. I feel better already."
"Swell! Now get back to your room and start typing."
Springing up, he almost knocked over the table. He did a 50-yard dash out the door.
I sat back, remembering when I felt the way Benny did right now––ready to write like the wind. To write as if I couldn't fail. That got me through a lot of cold nights and dismal days. And now here I was, making a living with the written word, but also realizing I'd been skating on the story I was working on. The encounter with Benny left me with the uneasy feeling I was playing it safe, mailing it in, avoiding risks. That old will to fail can sneak up on you like a jungle viper.
"Phooey!" I said.
I tore out the page I'd just typed, crumpled it, tossed it on the small pile at my feet. Then rolled in a fresh piece of paper.
This time, Gilda had an ice pick of her own.

Do you have fear when you write? Do you find yourself afraid to take risks? 



  1. That was fun. And very timely. And wise. Cheers!

  2. So easy to read, so easy to say, so hard to remember and apply~

    My fear is more of not living up the "greatness of the idea" ~ falling short of what the story COULD be instead of rolling up the sleeves, licking the tip of the pencil and scribbling-n-scrawling through...

    After all, it's not like the idea will tell other folks you fell short. You can have a heart to heart with it in private and make up with it on your own terms if needs be~ or realize maybe it wasn't that great an idea RO begin with. But you won't find out unless give it a chance to do one or the other ~

  3. Everyone says you'll experience the "sophomore slump" when you're trying to get out your second book. They're wrong. I'm trying to write and "perfect" my third in a series, and holy cow, I've had moments of paralyzing fear that this story won't live up to the expectations of the readers who have loved one and two.

    And yes, I'm afraid I haven't taken enough risks b/c I want the story to be perfect for the readers who are already vested. Which is strange, because I know that it was the risks I took in books 1 & 2 that drew people to the story in the first place.

    I'm so glad that I still have time to amp up the risk-taking now that I'm in the editing stage.

    Thanks, Jim, for some timely inspiration today!

  4. Great post!! Very wise and uplifting. I really like the idea of using a previous success to fuel my current efforts. Thank you, James, for speaking to my heart again.

  5. I have a tendacy to listen to the opinions of other writers, agents, and publishers. I have to keep reminding myself that some of the biggest best-sellers never should have sold. And wouldn't have if the author had listened to a lot of well-meaning people. I like the advice in books like Write. Publish. Repeat--all you need is 1000 people who love your stuff. And it stands to reason that if I love what I'm writing, there are probably 1000 more like me in a world of 7 billion people. Thanks for another uplifting, and entertaining, post.

  6. Great post! Wild Bill's Journal is such a fun way to learn. Hope you'll publish him someday when you've accumulated all his wisdom. You had me laughing all the way through. Your Presbyterian - Methodist comment reminded me of the old defense attorney, Earl Rogers, telling Kit Shannon how to pick a jury. I'm enjoying reading through the Kit Shannon series. Love the way you do historical fiction.

    Back to the question for discussion. My biggest fear is not "living up to" success I've already achieved in another profession. Sometimes it makes me think about hiding behind a pen name.

    Thanks for another great post. And for anyone enjoying Wild Bill's journal as much as I do, check out the Kit Shannon series. I believe the first one is free right now.

    1. Thanks for mentioning Kit, Steve. That bit of Earl Rogers I got from an old Clarence Darrow article on how to pick a jury. It's really quite a good window into that whole era.

      And yes, City of Angles is currently a freebie.

  7. I love this line:

    "A blank page is God's way of telling us how hard it is to be God."

  8. Great advice, which I needed to hear today. Thank you, Jim!

  9. Great post. I love the Wild Bill series. I agree with Eric Troyer on that line and the Presbyterian - Methodist deal. What a hoot. And, as always, great advice.

  10. Jim, got curious after reading this and downloaded the Brande book. (hey, it was $2.99!) Is is a quick read and has some rather amazing advice in it for writers. (or refrigerator makers for that matter). Thanks for the link. Now I am going to go clean my house as if failure is not an option. J/K...not about house. That needs tending. But after that, I face the unfinished short story....

    1. Brande also wrote Becoming a Writer, which contains many little gems.

  11. The hotest thing in psychology these days is the plasticity of the brain; ie, how repeated thoughts change brain chemistry and pathways. As "Wild Bill" knew in his soul, negative experiences and thoughts have a far greater and lasting effect on the brain than positive. I guess it's just one more old adage (glass half full vs half empty) proved right empirically. Great post.

  12. Gosh, that voice is awesome! Thanks for the reminder to write without fear of failure. I sometimes let that hold me back.

  13. Thanks for the nice comments today. I take it there are those who would like Armbrewster to continue his lessons....

  14. Absolutely keep the lessons coming. I was telling my bestie just the other day that I am currently standing at the corner of "Fear of Failure" and "Fear of Success," rooted to the spot as the light keeps cycling from red to green and back again.

  15. I have yet to find anything impossible for me. Some things are more difficult, and some things may hurt more than I'm willing to endure, but the longer I go, the more I realize there really are no actual limits. Except the ones God and the law impose. Those of course are still doable you just get splatted at the end.

    Interested in becoming an audiobook narrator? It's not impossible either: Check out Episode 4 of the "Voices In My Head" video podcast where I talk about what it takes to become an audiobook narrator, with running commentary by Roger the Squirrel.

  16. Thank you, James, for the perspective.