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J U L Y  1 9 9 8

The Writing Life
The rigors of high-yield creativity

by Ian Frazier

I AM A WRITER, of course, but I also have writers. What with all the writing I do, I am often forced to hire writers to handle some of the lesser chores. When it comes to the actual writing writing, however, I always do that myself, with no further input from my writers. At the moment I have a staff of forty-two, up from thirty-six last year. Don't ask me where I get them. Some are lifers, some are pink-cheeked college kids fresh out of schools that cost more per year than my first ten cars. I pay them plenty, and sign the checks myself so that they don't forget: I'm the capital-W Writer, singular; they're the writers. That's erzzz, as in writers, plural. Basically they're a bunch of white guys with mortgages and Barneys suits and Lhasa apsos they carry around with them in hotel garment bags, or some such. I try never to meet them face to face unless I have to. They're always distracted, slightly confused, lost in another marvelous fiction they're spinning in their heads -- and on my dime, too.

Some are strays, friends of friends. Some of them get all huffy if you don't remember their names. They get over that pretty quick, usually. If I remembered the name of every writer that came through here, I'd go insane. Why would I even want to? I always remember the name of the head writer, the guy who reports to me, because it's always Stefano. I wake up in the morning, I reach across my trademark enormous stomach, I pick up the phone, and I say, "Stefano." Just the one word, and he's there at the other end, down in the writers' warren, wherever the hell that is. I say, "Stefano, I feel like writing today. Hop to." Writing is all a matter of discipline. From this point on I'm writing, in the sense that my writing is being done. Nothing else will exhaust you as much as turning yourself inside out in that way. It's something you can't understand until you've tried it -- this emptying of the soul, this leap onto the next ice floe in the unknown. And all without the petty consolation of the actual physical nuts and bolts of it, the words, periods, commas, parentheses, and -- what're those other things? The thing that's a period on top of a comma? It makes me almost envy the writers sometimes.
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Previous articles by Ian Frazier:

  • "The Positive Negative," (June, 1997)
    Saying no with a smile.

  • "Laws Concerning Food and Drink; Household Principles; Lamentations of the Father," (February, 1997)
    "Of the beasts of the field, and of the fishes of the sea, and of all foods that are acceptable in my sight you may eat, but not in the living room."

  • "Accompanying Franz," (June, 1996)
    A book tour is hard enough on an author without competition from a genius out of the past.

  • "No Phone, No Pool, No Pets," (March, 1996)
    Living in a van.

  • The object of what I write is to move the gods to tears, and for that you've got to be loaded. I recommend debenture bonds. The returns from them, plus the tax advantage, let me capitalize my operation up to where I want it to be. But you can't just leave the money lying around; you've got to know how to apply it. That's where poetics comes into play and real writing begins. First you need a recognition factor, which, thanks to all the media uproar, I already had. Then you need a good headhunter; fortunately, I can do that job on my own. I've been hiring staff since I was in the third grade. I had to, for all the projects and book reports. So if there's one thing I know, it's handling writers. Originally they were all DPs (displaced persons), so happy to be working that they'd write for jacks. A dozen jacks and a rubber ball, and I'm in the writing business. I was nine.

    Back then I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do. I was just writing along day to day, meeting a payroll and making a comfortable living. I could've gone on like that forever, I suppose. But one day a great and breathtaking ambition came over me. I said to my then-wife, "I want to forge within the foundry of my self the yet-unrealized dreams of humankind, and make eight million dollars a year." Eight million dollars was a lot of money in those days. The next step was to take a hard look at my staff. Did I have writers of the caliber that was capable of taking my writing to where I wanted it to be? Regrettably, the answer was no. My writers had become soft and complacent, so naturally my writing had suffered. I fired everybody and began to rebuild from the ground up.

    First off, I hired Faulkner. People always ask, "You mean the Faulkner?" Truth is, it was so long ago I don't remember for sure. It could have been -- it was definitely a Faulkner, that much I do know, because I made out the time sheets. And he had a southern accent, I recall. Well, that was what I was looking for, that southern deep-dish gothic whatever, and I knew he'd provide it. But what's really important in great writing isn't just the one note; it's the mix. Let me say that again: It's the mix. So I shopped around. I got a bunch of South American surrealist-symbolist what-do-you-call-its from someplace I can't pronounce who definitely did not come cheap, and Jackie Susann, and Bill Coffin from Yale, and a half dozen guys who used to write for Jack and Johnny. It sounds unbelievable that I could go from zero to a staff like that virtually overnight. All I can say is, they're out there if you know where to look.

    LIKE most creative and wealthy people, I can be a bit of a monster sometimes. All my writers know this, and take it into account. The ones that last develop a sense of when to keep their heads down. I have access to people and situations they can't begin to understand, and I'm dealing on a daily basis with writing problems at a global level involving amounts of words and money of which the average person could have no grasp. Let me give you an example.

    No, I can't even do that. I shouldn't even have brought it up. There is no example, there is only the thing itself, as Spillane said. Besides, that stuff is privileged information that I don't have to give out, because I'm privately held. Most of it has become a matter of public record now, and I would have nothing to add to what was said at the hearings. And if you think you're going to get any more from my writers than you would from me, you're not. They are under orders not to divulge information under any circumstances, or to write any books or sign anything or allow any impression, deliberate or otherwise, that they have any knowledge having to do with me. This is something I insisted on up front. So don't come to me now claiming you were never told. Why are we even arguing about this? We all have a common goal, which is that my writers write only what is appropriate for the writing I want to do -- no more and no less. After all, that's what I'm paying them for.

    Writing like mine requires great management. In the past most writing was done in a piecemeal, one-at-a-time fashion, using inefficient hand-powered technologies, without knowledge of modern methods of cooperative organization. Today we understand how wasteful that was. Large numbers of writers out on their own and scattered all over the place, working on a mass of books that would take a long time to read -- well, naturally that system had to change. Marshaling all these voices into a coherent whole is the job of a writer of broader vision, like me. I think of myself as a synthesizer-slash-poet. Not to get too shoptalky here, but it's at this poetic-marketing interface that my most significant writing is done. Of course, in the end what's really important isn't the success that I achieve -- it's the writing itself. The writing I do is not only bigger than the many people on my staff, it's also bigger than I am. It goes out into the world and has its own life. I firmly believe that if something I write touches the heart of just one other person, and the person is Michael Eisner, then I will not have wholly failed.

    As for my writers, they live the life of Riley. I give them competitive wages, overtime, negotiable benefits, and an illustrated pamphlet explaining how they can join an HMO. They get steady employment, plus the satisfaction of picking up an epic-poetry song cycle or a roman à clef about the movie industry by me and pointing to a line in it and telling their attorneys, "Hey! I wrote that!" And yet when pub date comes, it's my glebkas on the line, not theirs. Why else do you think I've got a stack of applications a foot high on my dressing table? It's a dream job, especially for a part-timer. Five of the last six Chief Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court have written for me part-time. To a man, they said it was the best job they'd ever had.

    Nowadays I don't have to go looking for writers. They come to me -- which is good, because I prefer not to leave the compound. Tahoe, or what I can see of it from the deck, is the most beautiful place in the world. Even when I have to go someplace to meet with other people in the writing business, I like to take the Gulfstream and fly back the same day. That just works better for me. Everything I need is here. When the writing is going smoothly, the air seems to hum. Via my writers, I sometimes produce tens of thousands of words a day, and I still have time for an active home life and career. The writing I don't use myself I can sell to various markets, so I ship it to buyers and agents, and it's out of my hands. After a lifetime of writing, I have entered my own personal belle époque. Thanks to a highly developed ability to delegate, I've reached a point where I'm expressing stuff I didn't know I had in me and wouldn't recognize if I did. I often tell the media that I owe it all to my writers. But of course that isn't true.

    Ian Frazier is the author of
    Family (1994) and Coyote v. Acme (1996). Last year he won the first Thurber Prize for American Humor.

    Illustration by Kee Rash

    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; July 1998; The Writing Life; Volume 282, No. 1; pages 87 - 88.

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