Monday, February 05, 2007

The Year I Gave up on Writing

At eighteen I wrote my first novel, a western entitled "The Bear Paw Valley," which was pretty much a Louis L'Amour pastiche. One of the English profs at Arkansas Tech University where I went was a writer with a dozen published novels, and he was also the only writer I'd ever heard of who grew up in my tiny home town of Charleston, Arkansas. I took my book to him to read and he graciously did so. He came back and told me that it was unpublishable, which was true, but that I seemed to have a talent for writing and that he'd like me to write something else for him, and that he'd look it over for me and then send it to his agent. That was probably about as high as I'd ever been.

I went home that night and started a new novel, a much more contemporary and autobiographical work. Within a week I had over thirty pages, and I went to talk to him the next Monday morning about my progress only to find out that he'd choked on a chicken bone and died over the weekend. The man's name was Francis Gwaltney, and even though I'd known him only a little while I'd come to like him very much. Apparently he'd gone out to celebrate the publication of his new novel.

I took Gwaltney's death pretty hard, and part of that honestly was because it seemed to destroy a dream that I'd had for myself of writing. I remember taking it as a kind of sign and I didn't write another word of fiction until I was in graduate school in psychology, which was about six years or so later.

In retrospect, it was a childish thing for me to do, to give up on my writing because of something that happened to another writer of my acquaintence. But if I was so childish as to do so, then maybe it was a good thing. Because maybe it showed that at the time I didn't have a damn thing to say. Writing is not just the words and the style. It's about something. Maybe nothing profound. Maybe nothing more than "here's the way I see it." But even that can be important. Even that is needed.

8 comments:

Erik Donald France said...

That's horrible! No wonder you stopped writing for several years! Not childish at all, just sad. Francis Gwaltney's works look interesting, too -- I see he had a WW2 movie adapted from a novel, among other things. How cool. And before you wrote again, you picked up a lot more life experience, so. . . Onward! Cheers from Detroit Below Zero.

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks, Erik. Gwaltney's stuff was very good. Very much in the mode of Faulkner and Steinbeck.

Sidney said...

That is very sad and unfortunate and I can understand it being devastating. I will have to look up his stuff.

I got some early encouragement from a freshman English teacher. He wasn't a writer but was a fan of the detective story so he always like the papers I wrote analyzing detective literature. Those early influences are really important.

Michelle's Spell said...

I understand completely! Sometimes it's good to give up something for a little while -- it gives you a clarity about it. What's the Gore Vidal line -- if you're wondering whether you should write, try not writing. Glad you're back at it!

Susan Miller said...

I will definitely sample some of Gwaltney's work, and this is a very nice tribute to him. Like Michelle, I'm glad you're back at it.

H.E.Eigler said...

Wait a sec...

So I'm supposed to have something to say??

Damn

Danny Tagalog said...

Whoa. That truly is terrible news about the man who gave you that initial push. And so true about life experience - finding a distinct voice palatable to a public isn't easy...

JR's Thumbprints said...

Sound like the type of luck I would have. I remember wanting to meet Michael Moore at a writers conference to discuss an idea about Michigan's prisons. I entered a short story contest to see if I could win a trip to the conference. I did in fact win the contest, however, since had been out of town and didn't call to accept my prize, they gave it to someone else.