Lunatics, Authors, and Getting Black on White

By Gehring, Wes D. | USA TODAY, November 2004 | Go to article overview

Lunatics, Authors, and Getting Black on White


Gehring, Wes D., USA TODAY


I RECENTLY WAS AN INSTRUCTOR at a writers' conference. Like most authors who are not named Stephen King, I need a day job. That would be teaching film theory and history, at Ball State University, although I do the occasional writers" conference, too, as I enjoy lecturing on the subject.

Whether one scribbles screenplays, biographies, or haiku poetry, there ,are certain commonalities which go with all forms of writing. For example, I start these talks with a quote from novelist Kurt Vonnegut, most famous for the dark comedy classic, Slaughterhouse Five: "This is what I find encouraging about the writing trades: They allow mediocre people who are patient and industrious to revise their stupidity, to edit themselves into something like intelligence. They also allow lunatics to seem saner than some."

As Vonnegut suggests, the craft of writing really is all about rewriting, or editing. Short story author Guy de Maupassant is credited with the axiom, "Get black on white." This simply means, commit something to paper. Then the magic of editing oneself "into something like intelligence" occurs.

Of course, the blank page can be the most intimidating of challenges. Several have likened it to being "no more difficult than opening a vein." Thus, many people relate to the Robert Lewis Stevenson crack, "I dislike writing, but I enjoy having written." There are, of course, modern variations on the same sentiment, such as, "I love being a writer, what I can't stand is the paperwork."

For all the sacrifice of a job well-done, however I cannot help thinking there is a certain false note in the Stevenson line, too. That is, real writers enjoy mucking around in their scribbling, scrambling for just the right word and cadence. Authorship is a love affair with language. Like my passion for motion pictures, I cannot get enough of this phenomenon called writing--and I never have met an author who did not feel the same way.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite

Still, it all comes back to editing. James Thurber would put his inspired essays through eight to 10 rewrites. Yet, the secret lies in continuing to write, because, as several authors have suggested, "How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." Ernest Hemingway's goal was a mere 250 words a day--roughly one typed page. Yet, at the end of the year, one has a book, or three screenplays. If an author's writing obsession is strong enough, there also is the added "bonus" of productive guilt. For instance, John Updike once said, "A day when I have produced nothing printable, when I have not gotten any words out, is a day lost and damned. …

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