Monday, April 14, 2014

What J.D. Salinger Got Right

I recently watched a documentary called "Salinger", and when it was over that sadness that always lingered after reading his stories was present in the room.

Media called Salinger hermit and recluse. Clearly he was neither of those as he was constantly seen about the small town near where he lived, took frequent trips to New York and Florida. He wasn't hermiting, he was simply trying to live out the last thread of sane left to him after surviving WWII, and then surviving the crashing success of Catcher in the Rye--the same novel that would be fingered as the reason and justification of three high profile shootings including the murder of John Lennon and the shooting of then President of the US, Ronald Reagan.

It's possible that Salinger decided to withdraw from life in public because he understood his capacity to be a dangerous man if allowed to stew too long in the soup of public pressure. Men and women hunted him down believing he had answers to their chaotic, hopeless lives. He didn't. And he knew it.

It's possible that Salinger's own writing left him with no alternative but to turn his back on the media lest he become entrapped in the same poser culture he railed against in his theology thinly disguised as fiction stories (he was a follower of Vedanta, Hindu philosophy and his stories always preached the tension between    body    and     spirit).

No doubt, Salinger walked a tightrope of being and maintaining his status as public figure and being fully dedicated to writing itself. Pure writing without any distractions.

It's murky and complicated (just like life), but there's one thing that stood out for me, one point where I believe Salinger was right: you can't talk about writing and be a writer. You must write. Only that.

There's a discipline to this, especially in the world of the internet where it is (literally) possible to glean so much information about how to write fiction that you could--in time--present college level courses on the subject and yet not be able to execute any of it.

A writer could, in theory, spend every weekend at one writer's conference after another soaking in so much knowledge he or she might feel a brain burst coming on. But so what if you can't actually do it?

I'm not against writing conferences. If you have a plan and have carefully selected workshops that will actually benefit your writing, and leave the conference with measurable ROI (return on investment), then great. Rare. But great.

But.

Nothing trumps the doing.

Write.

Read.

Write.

Read.

Don't stop.

Remember that well hashed saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill? My husband recently pointed out that I've passed that milestone. I am, according to the hour formula, a master writer. (Can you see me giggling right now?)

What's the singular biggest lesson those 10,000+ hours of writing have taught me?

I can't talk myself into becoming a good writer.

I can only write, and write, and write some more until I find my true self and then write that.

18 comments:

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

So beautifully written, like everything you write.

Robert White said...

Saw a similar documentary on John Irving last night. He also decried the PR aspect of being a successful published author as a necessary evil (my words, not his).

I think both Salinger and Irving are a warning to writers that, like it or not, if you're works are successful, you have to expect a certain aspect of celebrity. Especially since the a good portion of marketing and publicity is now falling to the author, with the expectation of a platform.

While writing makes you a writer, a public profile is expected of those who become successful.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I'm still recovering from a fantastic conference I attended over the weekend. I feel that I've received a masters level education.

That, unfortunately, has not been the case at all writers conferences I've attended. One felt like camp for adults. It wasn't my style. But, I knew it would be that way when I registered. More than anything, I went so I could connect with a few editors.

You're absolutely right, Bonnie. Conferences and writers groups can be all talk, no do. By the end of even fantastic conferences my fingers are itching to get back to the writing.

After the weekend I had, though, I've got a few more tools in the box for my writing.

Bonnie Grove said...

Karen: ;) Thanks for that.

Robert: Salinger worked hard to be published in The New Yorker, submitted story after rejected story for years until he accomplished that goal which he saw as the pinnacle of publishing success. This smacks of poser in my estimation. The single-mindedness of chasing the (imaginary) golden ring meant, in my estimation, that Salinger wanted very much to be a successful writer and was willing to do whatever it took. And yes, he wanted success.
What he didn't want, and couldn't have predicted, was the kind or type of success he encountered after the release of Catcher in the Rye. Strangers on his doorstep asking for hours of his time, asking him the meaning of life, begging for things he had no way of giving them.

It's a cause for pause (though this kind of success is extreme and rare) that while we are out there putting our work forward, are we really willing to pay the price success exacts? It's nice to daydream about. :)

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: I'm glad you had a good time at the conference you attended. I would like to gently challenge the idea that you came away from it with "more tools" than you possessed before you went.

I would venture to guess that they were there in your toolbox all along. ;)

Robert White said...

"What he didn't want, and couldn't have predicted, was the kind or type of success he encountered after the release of Catcher in the Rye. Strangers on his doorstep asking for hours of his time, asking him the meaning of life, begging for things he had no way of giving them."

Agreed - some of Salinger's "fans" went way too far. But so did Tolkien's and Lewis' and a lot of other writers who suddenly find themselves the subject of entirely unwanted attention.

"It's a cause for pause (though this kind of success is extreme and rare) that while we are out there putting our work forward, are we really willing to pay the price success exacts? It's nice to daydream about. :)"

I think, in light of today's social media pervasive world, that any writer who wants to be published, has to be aware of what that might lead to. We may very well find ourselves the object of unwanted attention.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Thank you, Bonnie. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I was reminded of the tools.

I'm planning to watch the Salinger documentary you mentioned.

CATHERINE LEGGITT said...

Thanks, Bonnie. I really needed that today. Having submitted a chapter of my WIP to my critique group and cringing while they blasted it to smithereens (whatever smithereens are) I had decided that I would quit writing because I will never GET IT. After reading your post, I think maybe I'm just not at the 10,000 words yet. Although after ten years and 5 1/2 books I ought to be close. Maybe it matters which 10,000 words you write. The ones you delete don't count. I am grateful for your wise words and I will write. Not because I am good, but because I must.

Bonnie Grove said...

Robert: Likely Tolkien wasn't suffering PTSD--I have no doubt Salinger never recovered from what he experienced and saw in Europe and that made him especially vulnerable to the trauma of success.

Success, as it turns out, is as much a treadmill as trying to become successful. Just a shinier treadmill with more buttons.

Yes, writer's need to be aware of what it will cost them to write, keep writing, and risk success. Too often our awareness is idealistic if it's truly there at all.

Bonnie Grove said...

Susie: I'm all for heading off to a party once in a while to hang out with writers and talk of writerly stuff and finding encouragement there. I think the greatest benefit of conferences is the chance to meet face-to-face with agents/editors--if the timing is right.

Let me know your thoughts about the documentary.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Cheers Bonnie! I've been busy gearing up to release my full-length and haven't been writing for a few weeks. I feel like I'm shriveling up. In all this stirring I'm missing the thing I love most.

Great observations here today!
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

Catherine: It's difficult to hold our work up to ridicule--which is different from critique--and I wonder if it isn't the group you should have momentarily considered quitting rather than writing.

It's not 10,000 words, it's 10,000 hours spent at the craft. After ten years, you are likely nearing that milestone (though, it's not really a milestone, it is an indication that you're far too gone to be of any use in another profession).

I was talking to Arthur Slade a couple of weeks ago about writing and publishing and all that. We conceded it was a tough business but we both (and he especially) were too far gone by now.

Woelf2.0 said...

I've been getting your emails for a while now, and this is the first time that I comment or visit your blog, though I must have visited it at some point to have been subscribed. It's a beautiful blog, btw.

I love this post and I think it's true. It's good to learn and gather wisdom, to talk with others about writing, but at some stage you need to write. And not just to implement what you've learned but to learn new things, things only writing self can teach you.

Thanks again.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Great conversation! Thanks for starting it and posting it publicly.

Bonnie Grove said...

Woelf: Thanks for stopping in. I like the way you put it, "not just to implement what you've learned but to learn new things, things only writing self can teach you."

While it can be refreshing and even inspiring to be around truly creative people, it's nothing unless the feeling of inspiration spurs you to action. Usually long, intensive, difficult, prolonged action.

I've seen people melt down at conferences. Rather than being allowed to soak in the arty atmosphere, they are caught up in the pressure and false sense of urgency.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cherry: You're welcome!

Lex from Bohemia said...

Thank you for this call to do, Bonnie! I needed that. It's easy to fool myself into stepping away from my writing to read a book on craft or go to a conference, but it's the writing that makes me better with the writing.
Great post. I appreciate your thoughts!

Bonnie Grove said...

Lex: Happy you feel inspired to write! You are absolutely correct: reading about writing, and talking about writing can become distractions if we let them.

I have books on writing that I read, and I haven't ruled out attending a writer's conference in the future, both in strict moderation can be very helpful. But nothing trumps writing and writing and writing and reading and writing and writing and reading. The best book on writing is the novel you read over and over again year after year because it haunts you and won't let you go.