I was asked by an administrator of a middle school in my county (grades seven and eight) if I would speak at their Career Day. Adults from about 50 careers from soldiering to farming would speak that day about their careers for twenty minutes each to five classes of students thirteen and fourteen years old. I would be the writer. I was told by a very sincere and enthusiastic woman that it would be fun and rewarding. My first thought, as would be the first thought of any conscientious writer, was, “It would mean giving up an entire day of writing,” so I said I’d have to think it over. My wife is a writing teacher/tutor of some reputation, so she said what I knew she would: “You should really do it, you know,” and of course I knew I should—it’s important to nurture the young—I know that. (I have two adult sons who write and I nurtured them, didn’t I?)–and if your wife’s tone says, “How can you not think of doing it; what kind of man are you?”–the issue is more or less settled. So I did research and wrote notes (sacrificing another half day), and rehearsed my talk (another two hours), and a few weeks later appeared at Career Day.
I opened by asking if they knew what the author of a book means by royalties, and they knew. I talked about “The opportunities available for a person who wants to make a living writing” and gave them figures on writer’s incomes and the demand for writers, telling them that opportunities are good and that there are writers who own private jets and others who have a hard time making a living, and that the quality of the actual writing sometimes (but not always) has an inverse relationship to the income—writers of trash who own the jets and authors of masterpieces who have the tough times. (At the same time Nobel Prize novelist William Faulkner’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, he couldn’t afford to pay his electric bill, while every atrociously written (but exciting) thing Mickey Spillane wrote about his rugged gumshoe Mike Hammer topped the best seller lists). But that statistically, on average, professional writers, including freelancers, can make a decent living. They didn’t have much faith in statistics and wanted to know how much dough I made.
Even the students who were not especially interested in becoming writers were kind of curious because the life of a writer is romantic to most people, including the young. When I was a boy planning on being a writer, I thought all male novelists—the only kind of writer I thought at the time a man should be—wore cool green corduroy sport coats with leather patches on the elbows, were automatically remarkably handsome, and beautiful women with long legs and dangling earrings that glittered thought them uncommonly sensual, and couldn’t help themselves, and fell in love with them right and left. Popular novelist of the fifties John O’Hara wrote, “How nice, people say, to be a writer and be your own boss, work when you please and don’t have to punch a time clock, knock off whenever you feel like it, and go to Sun Valley or Hobe Sound or Placid or Bermuda” and later said, “I’m afraid that one illusion is responsible for more brief writing careers than any other single factor.” But I told them Flaubert, who sweated and moaned over every word and comma, said “It is a delicious thing to write.”
They found it appealing that if you write at home, as many writers do, you have tremendous freedom, can break for lunch whenever you want,( but, I cautioned, need equally tremendous discipline so as not to slough off and miss deadlines and get editors furious with you), and can work in your underwear if you’re in an underwear sort of mood. And if you’re a man, since you’re not planning to see anyone, you don’t have to shave every day if you’re not inclined to, which the average nine-to-five man would give an arm and a leg not to have to do.
They asked was I famous, and that gave me a chance to tell my famous story. Someone in a Canada was trying to get hold of me and didn’t have my phone number, but knew I lived in Chicago, a city of three and a half million. So they called Chicago Directory Assistance and asked for the number of David J. Rogers. Now there are scores of David J, Rogers in Chicago. Rogers is the seventeenth most common name in the U.S. But without a moment’s hesitation the operator said casually, “You must mean the author” and put them right through to me. The Canadian said to me, “Wow, you must really be famous” and I thought, “Somewhere here in this city is at least one operator who read my book.”
Then we got into:
What the life of a professional writer is like; what a professional writer is like
What a professional writer does
The skills and abilities a writer needs
How a writer prepares for a writing career
I told them that “all writers take pride in their writing and are always trying to get better. It’s important to them to improve and that happens the more you write and the more you study how to write. Making it a point to improve your writing all the time is important. Ask yourself today, “Am I improving,” and tomorrow and the next day ask, “Am I improving?” You are learning how to write here and will in high school and college, if you choose to go there. There are many books and magazines and web sites about how to get better. Just try to get better and better and learn as much as you can about writing. Many famous writers were more or less self-made and pretty much self-taught. Good writers are reading and learning all the time because who knows what they might have to write about? Writers are craftsman. Words and language are their tools—the sounds of language, the rhythms of language, the meanings. Words are at the center of a writer’s existence. Writers have the strongest appreciation of words, the largest vocabularies, and a highly sensitive ear for speech. Build up your vocabulary every day. not to impress people—who cares about that–but because the more words you know, the more you can express, and a goal of a good writer is to be able to express anything he/she has ever experienced or can imagine.”
When I was in business I hired only English majors not business majors because English majors can express themselves and they can also think clearly. If you can’t think clearly, you can’t write clearly. To me, clarity is the most important thing. And I believe it is to the reader too.”
“Also, you’d better like working alone in solitude at least a few hours every day. If you like working with other people go into sales or acting.”
The day ended. I was exhausted. I thought, “How do teachers do it?”
A Writer’s Cork Board of Inspiration
A girl named Hannah in one of the classes whose ambition was to be a writer sent me some quotes by writers about writing (she could tell I loved writer’s quotes), and I sent her a letter thanking her. She wrote me another letter thanking me for what I had said in my letter. I had merely asked her what kind of writer she would be: “Will you be writing novels?” She wrote: “I really enjoyed writing those quotes and I’m glad you like them. It’s really inspiring to hear them and think how true they are. The quotes, along with the letter I have received from you are going on my cork board of inspiration. I’ll have it in front of my desk to motivate me and spark my imagination.”
What had happened I could see was that I had taken her seriously–possibly in a way no one else had yet–and given her a vote of confidence. I just assumed that what she wanted to have happen would in fact happen: sure as I’d followed the writer’s path, one day she would follow it—and in fact was already following it. I was acknowledging that, and that acknowledgement in that one sentence of my letter—“Will you be writing novels?”—would be on her cork board of inspiration and would be there for her to see and gain encouragement from every day. How glorious that made me feel.
Who knows what treasures one day Hannah will write?
© 2015 David J. Rogers
For my interview from the international teleconference with Ben Dean about Fighting to Win, click on the following link:
Order Fighting to Win: Samurai Techniques for Your Work and Life eBook by David J. Rogers
Order Waging Business Warfare: Lessons From the Military Masters in Achieving Competitive Superiority