In the late 1960s, Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to a fellow novelist, a friend who was about to teach at the legendary Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Vonnegut, who had done so earlier, had some tips about living and working in Iowa City. He provided some practical suggestions. For example, he told his friend to use the Cedar Rapids airport, not the one in Iowa City. He commented on the workshop’s staff — who to beware of and who might be of help. He also told the novelist turned professor not to worry about credentials. “The University is perfectly used to barbarians in the work shop.” (Vonnegut wasn’t a college graduate either.) But my favorite line in the letter was that if the new guy wanted to enjoy his stay, he should…”run with the painters.” This seemed odd to say at a place known for its famous writers.
|Nightscape by Iowa City Artist |
Mark Stevenson (2010)
Years ago, when I first found out it existed, I joined the Private Eye Writers of America and have attended a couple of annual dinners, one at the famous Slippery Noodle in Indianapolis. It was a combination of awards ceremony and roast. A lot of the writers knew each other. They had been coming to these dinners for years and it was a chance to catch up, talk about old times. I also joined the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and have taken advantage of a few of their incredible annual conferences (Bouchercons). They have kindly put me on a panel whenever I could attend. I was in the midst of all sorts of writers, some of them legends, but they seemed to gather together in groups, calling each other by their first names, again sharing stories and probably pretty often taking a new, young writer under their collective wings. From all that I could tell, writers are a generous lot and, while seemingly highly competitive — awards, sales, etc. — in many cases very supportive.
I’ve never been hail fellow well met. I’m pretty sure that at these convergences of writers, my stand-offishness was interpreted as aloof or even snobbish by some. I’ve attended a number of meetings of MWA’s northern California chapter. These were lunches usually and often with a speaker who provided valuable, expert information to crime writers — criminal attorneys, homicide cops, medical examiners. These meetings have been worthwhile, but here again there seemed to be established groups who hung out together, veterans in the cause. I don’t fault it. It’s natural. I gravitated to those wanting to write more than those who have already written. I think it is because they seemed a little lost as well.
|Poster from the "red scare" |
McCarthy Era of the 1950s
Friendships, I think, are bonds formed by participation in common struggles. Among writers, especially crime novelists around my age, many came up the same way even if they didn’t know each other. They knew the publishers and editors and other characters in the game.
This is probably happening now, with younger writers, though perhaps in a slightly different way. Pardon the cliché, but publishing is in the process of creating its “new normal”. It has to do with ebooks and social media, tweets, facebook pages and shared blogs and all sorts of stuff yet to be conceived. As an aside, I was never really part of the older group (though I am certainly enough) and I am stumbling and fumbling in this new publishing world as well. Another aside, there was a young man on Charlie Rose who invented a new and popular “app.” The kid is now worth millions. He was fifteen when he developed it. He predicted that future applications will be developed by 12-year-olds. And the conservatives want to raise the retirement age?
But back to the point — painters and writers. I find it difficult to relate to other writers, perhaps for the reasons I mentioned above. I didn’t come up, to the extent that I have, the same way. We don’t share the dimly lit past. And the truth is, as I observe it, that being with other writers prompts a kind of constant evaluation, an ongoing comparison of each other’s work in one way or another. I’m not sure we can help it. It is a kind of constant reminder of the business of writing, of getting published. I prefer to think and talk about other things. For me, writing is not something one does in a group setting.
My guess is that Vonnegut’s advice to “run with the painters” had something to do with that. If you are going to spend all day with upcoming writers for months on end. And your cohorts are also writers, isn’t that a bit much? Painters are creative folks. Most of the ones I have known have great minds, provide stimulating conversation and are often inspiring without posing any sense of competition, at least to writers. If I could still run, I’d probably be running with the painters.