The very first story I ever wrote was about a bar of soap. It was a school essay task. The teacher asked us to write about cleanliness, which, for me, a 13 year old adolescent exploding into puberty, was like asking me to count the sugar granules on my cereal, tedious and boring.
So I wrote a story about a bar of soap, where it came from, what it dreamed about, its fears and expectations and its career ambitions. Of course, this bar of soap got around. But first, it was conceived and packaged and then sent out in the world.
Plucked at random from a store shelf, it had no part in determining its own destination. It gets bought and then, unpacked and so begins a whole new phase in its life. I won’t tell you the rest of the story because, for one thing, I can’t remember it and, for another, I’m sure it’s story would be different if I told it again.
I bought a collection of short stories last night by the American writer, James Lee Burke. It was the last of Mr Burke’s books, to complete my collection. It’s called The Convict and Other Stories. In his Introduction: Jailhouses, English Departments and the Electric Chair, he writes about his own experience as a writer; the rejections, the defiance, the drinking, the teaching and then his inability to learn.
James Lee Burke is not only one of the most successful detective crime writers alive today, he’s also one of the best living American writers. His powers of description are breathtaking and he can stop you breathing with the emotion of a moment. He stands with John Steinbeck and Kurt Vonnegut Jr as my all time, favourite American authors. Alright, I love Dashiell Hammett, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Flannery O’Connor, John Barth, Harlen Coben, Michael Connelly and Sam Shepard, too.
I’ve learned from all three of these writers and many more. One of the first lesson any writer learns, is to become a reader, then, an observer. Sometimes, after reading someone like Burke, I’d begin to think there was nothing I could write about to match someone like him. Louisiana, Texas and Montana – his favoured locations – just seemed to have that much more going for them.
John Steinbeck wrote about hobos and the dust trail from the Texas panhandle to the Californian fruit fields, migrant workers and underground agitators. Kurt Vonnegut wrote about soldiers and aliens. Desperation set in if I thought about my own paltry settings.
Then I realized I wasn’t looking at things from the right angle. I could say James Joyce taught me that, but I won’t. I’ve read big chunks of Ulysses and the short story collection, Dubliners. But it took me four weeks to get through 15 pages of Ulysses on my first attempt. Brendan Behan and Sean O’Casey taught me a valuable lesson.
Stories are not just on your doorstep; they’re in your head. You have to get them out. I’ve got more pleasure out of reading John McGahern, William Trevor, Sebastien Barry and Joe O’Connor. These are writers who understand scene and setting. Roddy Doyle has the same talent.
Reading can satisfy writers, but it also makes them restless. Restless, to get their own words and thoughts down in print. And that makes the difference between a reader and a writer. Every reader will entertain the thought of being better and more able than a writer, to capture the moment of their lives that encapsulates their thought processes and sums up their existence. It is the writer who writes it.