Why Don't You Try the Piano Instead?

Author of the Broadway hit THE HAPPY TIME and several books, ROBERT FONTAINE has contributed many amusing pieces to the ATLANTIC.

I have been forced by circumstances (I needed the money) into giving, at long last, a short course on creative writing to several small groups of selected students (selected in the most democratic fashion; those who were unable to pay the stiff fee were eliminated as obviously incapable of learning authorship).

Since I have never been reluctant to insist that creative writing cannot be taught and since I said so flatly in the brochure and advertisements prepared by my sponsor (a fellow who knew human nature better than I did), I was appalled by the number of students ranging from seventeen to seventy who have begun to sit at my uncomfortable and aching feet.

I, furthermore, interviewed most of the hopefuls, not to select those who seemed most worthy of my pearls (this would have been impossible), but to impress upon them individually that they were wasting their money and had better apply themselves to electronics, private detectivey, or mink breeding.

The course meets one hour a day, five days a week for six weeks, and even Truman Capote must have taken longer than that. I remarked to my dewy-eyed dreamers that I had spent a quarter of a century as a free-lance writer and was, at the moment, about $2500 in debt, not counting the payments on my used Plymouth. Success, I was certain they would see, was somewhere due south of authorship, even if accomplishment and technical assurance came. I confessed that I made less than a good carpenter, had nowhere near as much fun as a fireman or a lifeguard, and slept as fitfully as a man out on bail for assault. I went on to suggest that even if they came to the stature of a Faulkner or a Hesse they would suffer indigestion, matrimonial difficulties, frustration, despair, and a wild yearning to chuck it all and take a steamer to Tahiti. I ended up with the shrewd observation that it was a little ridiculous for them to take instruction from me, since had I been at all what they believed me to be, I would not be wasting my time and energy grubbing for a few dollars trying to pound a little something into their vague, wistful heads.

None of this did more than afford them mild amusement. They wanted to hear from the lips of a real author what it was like. They wanted to get the inside dope. They wanted something to brush off on them that would stir them into putting onto paper all the brilliant and magical things that ran around in their minds just before they went to sleep at night. They had, in short, paid their money, and they were taking their choice.

I do not know what they have learned. I have refused to read their dull and derivative manuscripts mostly because I just do not have the time but also because I cannot bear it. I have read my share of the complete works of neighbors and their college-boy sons, and it is enough to make me wonder how our nation can long survive. The average human being who hopes to be a writer in America has not learned to spell and believes the Gift of the Magi to be the greatest story ever written, so great that he rewrites it with a charmingly faithful consistency.

I have told them, as simply as possible, that writing is not a business to consider in the light of making profits and security and old-age benefits. It is a foolish gamble with the odds against you and nobody caring in the least how you agonize late into the night because you believe the world needs you. I have tried to impress on them that in our society an author has the prestige of midnight street waterer for the Department of Public Works unless he writes an enormously successful best seller, in which case he is placed in a class with debutantes, nightclub comedians, talking horses, and Jimmy Hoffa. In no instance is he celebrated as a man of wisdom, love, and dignity, which in many cases he is more likely to be than is a state senator, a television master of ceremonies, an honest butcher, or Miss America.

My final bombshell burst ineffectually. I informed them icily that my last book had sold eleven hundred and sixty-seven copies at the regular retail price. They considered this a tribute to my brilliance, since I obviously appealed to such an elite.

I suppose they may have gained sometning. They were not hanging around street corners or hot kitchen stoves. They were not watching drive-in movies or ghastly television comedies. Not, that is, while they were at school.

Somehow, too, they did seem to be stirred as I talked on and on about the needs of the human heart and the endless and never quieting urge many of us have to understand what life and love and death are all about.

And they did dutifully note down the changing markets in magazine fiction and articles; they took careful jottings of which markets afforded the most prestige and which paid the most; they recorded my personal comments on various editors, some of whom I believe to be men of courage, honor, and good taste who have a vast appreciation of the problems of writers, and some of whom I believe to be links; and they, the students, wrote down some technical advice, such as how to double-space and what kind of envelope (stamped) to enclose and the futility of informing an editor that you once were an usher at his cousin’s wedding at Bay Shore.

They absorbed all these as if they were the secrets of the CIA now revealed for the first time, instead of information that can be had in any dog-eared library edition of hundreds of books on writing.

If my students have learned nothing or will learn nothing (because they are all clamoring for more and longer classes, owing to reasons that escape me utterly), I have learned a great deal.

I have learned that nearly everyone in America thinks he could be a writer if he had the chance and that every human being has at least one good novel under his belt if he could only get it over his belt and down on paper.

I have learned that almost anyone — the butcher, the baker and the plastic-flowers maker can write a better story than the one he read in the Ladies Home journal or Redbook last month. What is preventing him is that he knows the editors will ignore him because his typing is bad and he isn’t sure of his semicolons. (Colons and semicolons seem to make one of the most formidable barriers to aspiring writers.)

I have further learned that most writers who have had no experience:

(a) Write like Hemingway when they are not writing like Faith Baldwin.

(b) Think that meeting an editor personally will make a big difference even though they have nothing whatever down on paper.

(c) Have a great, complicated, tricky plot they will not reveal to anyone, even Teacher. In fact, they are even thwarted from making a story from it because they are sure it will be stolen bv a first reader. The plot, I imagine, turned up in the old Collier’s about twenty times from 1919 to 1946.

(d) Believe that an agent will solve their difficulties, and absolutely will not believe an agent is as difficult to secure as is publication in a major magazine.

(e) Are fairly certain that if they did ever put something down on paper, an editor would not read it. Editors read only stories by John O’Hara and a few others.

(f) Are convinced an author leads a mysterious and orgiastic social life, especially if he writes for the men’s magazines.

To these could be added hundreds of other myths and misconceptions, all of which will not die no matter how hard I tread on them and how much wit and scorn I spray on them.

The worst, the most painful situation, however, that exists among people of till ages and sexes who are almost literally dying to write is that they simply cannot put anything down on paper. I cannot explain this. There is, true, a small minority who do not subscribe to the above credo. They merely want to write. They just want to put down their thoughts and dreams on paper. Members of even this group are blocked by the fact that when they take pen in hand or tap at a typewriter or even chat to a tape recorder they are lost. I do not mean that words, phrases, and sentences do not appear. I mean that the ideas, the hopes, the flavor, the taste, the spirit, the heart, and the emotion of these people do not appear on the paper. What appears is something else, something belonging to someone else, something heard or read something detached from their personalities.

I can only think they are conforming to some vague and shadowy standard of what one is supposed to put on paper, of what one is expected to believe, and of what one would be more safe in feeling.

It is all very sad. It is extremely sad for them because no matter who they are or where they come from there is in the eyes of each one of them (and, I presume, in the heart) an eagerness, a painful desire, a choking urge, a life-or-death need to organize the world of emotions, desires, and dreams into something coherent and true, true in the sense that it can be believed and honored.

It is even sadder for me because I can see no way to teach them.