By Alex Berger
Writing is the ability to meet the challenge of filling space. – Rebecca West
A breakfast without a newspaper is a horse without a saddle. You are just riding bareback. Take away my ham, take away my eggs, even my chili, but leave my newspaper. – Will Rogers
Writing is a wonderful avocation. It is a creative endeavor, an outlet for emotion and a sounding board, and it is fun. I am in the newspaper business. Competition in this field is quite fierce and I have had my share of bad moments.
To illustrate that last remark, I remember a bad hair day I had when I worked for another newspaper. A politician was hospitalized. My editor, a grumpy chap, was looking for a scoop, so he sent me out to get the story; however, before I left, I had to dress as a doctor. I did, and I was able to sneak into the hospital without anyone the wiser.
The next day, Mr. Grump asked, “Did you get the story?”
“No,” I replied. “I got thrown out by the chief surgeon from a competing newspaper.”
Yes, writing does have its difficult moments, but I still encourage everyone to try to write something — an unusual incident, a poignant remembrance or even a creative novel, anything, but write. However, not everyone shares my fondness for the written word fashioned by others.
A while ago I came across an article written by one Joseph Epstein, author and professor at Northwestern University, entitled, “Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again.” He quotes a survey noting that 81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them and that they should write one. Epstein strongly disagrees.
In addition to the difficulty of writing, he says, a writer will usually fall into “a state of confusion, doubt and mental imprisonment,” which can be quite stressful, physically and mentally. He further states that 80,000 books a year are published in America and most of them are not needed, wanted or necessary.
“So many people think they can write a book,” adds Epstein, because they believe they can write a better version than the one they just finished, and most likely they can. But why add to the discard heap? Misjudging an individual’s ability to knock out a book can only be a grave and time-wasting error.
He urges potential book-writers not to waste their time writing original manuscripts. They should think of the many trees they would save, simply by pulling the plug on their computers. The desire to write will disappear once they walk the dog around the block three times and take a cold shower. Epstein concludes by stating, “Keep the book inside you where it belongs.”
Mr. E., nobody has the right to dash the dreams of children and young adults who yearn to be writers. For that matter, even old-timers who may one day wish to write their memoirs deserve that chance. Many benefits are derived by writing if a person wishes to devote the time, patience and discipline to it.
So what if discarded manuscripts are mounting up? Why should only a few people have the chance to try to make use of the exquisite gift of language endowed in every human being? Is it a crime if what they write will not (or should not) make it onto the bookstore shelves? It is still a marvelous experience for would-be writers to reach full expression via the written word.
Mr. E., should your opinion be carried over to every person who ever thought he or she could paint, sculpt, sing, compose, write poetry, direct a film or act? Should someone have told Shakespeare, Twain, Da Vinci, Barrymore and other masters to simply forget it? It would be a very sad world, indeed, if people do not feel they have a book inside of them. They must be encouraged to write.
When I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade, I was given a homework assignment to write a short poem about America. I handed in a 10-line poem. For my effort, I received an A. I was also required to recite the poem during assembly, before the entire school.
Although I was a stammerer, that morning I stood tall before my classmates and proudly recited the poem without hesitation. I received a five-minute ovation. The principal and my teacher encouraged me to continue writing.
When I was 21, I enrolled at the City College of New York after serving four years in the Air Force. The first class my freshman year was English. The students were asked to write a 500-word essay about a life experience.
The next day I apprehensively handed in the assignment. Much to my surprise, the learned professor read my essay aloud to the entire class. He praised my writing and gave me an A minus for my effort (the professor never gave students an A grade). He encouraged me to continue writing.
When I graduated from college, I was hesitant about pursuing writing as an occupation; however, I was fortunate to find a job where writing a monthly newsletter was required. I wrote one every month for 31 years. It won many awards.
During this period, I submitted articles to various New York City newspapers, and The New York Times and Newsday printed some of them. This convinced me to become a professional writer after leaving my first job. Mr. E., I certainly am happy I didn’t have you as my teacher when I was 10 and 21.
I believe everyone in America, from physicists and soldiers to plumbers and athletes, should try their hand at writing. Look around, many of them already have. Comedienne Joan Rivers and her daughter Melissa have begun writing a column in a celebrity news magazine, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and attorney Johnnie Cochran have books out.
In staid Yale University, there is an enterprising co-ed who has begun writing a sex column (of all things) in the Yale Daily News, and even 76-year-old Fidel Castro wants to be reincarnated as a writer in the image of Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is quite permissible to want to strive for immortality by writing. Choose any subject, and begin. Just the act of turning on your computer, or taking pen to paper, will start you off.
With that said, remember these two truths: One, “A professional writer is merely an amateur who didn’t quit.” -Richard Bach. And two, “Tell me a fact, and I will learn. Tell me the truth, and I will believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.” -Indian proverb. So, sit down right now and tell me a story.
Mr. E., you sit down right now also and tell me a story about why you became a writer.
Reach columnist Alex Berger by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-229-0300, ext. 140.