Professional Writing: A Personal View

Many people have asked me "What's it like to be a professional writer?" And many have answered for me: "How the hell would he know?" Let me answer the first question with a parable:

Once upon a time, there were two brothers. One brother was smart and strong and handsome, and everyone in his village liked and respected him. He was as quick with a joke as he was with a helping hand. The other brother was dumb and weak and homely. He kept to himself and liked it that way. The few in the village who were even aware of him mocked him and made him the butt of their cruel village jokes. Then one day, the dumb homely brother killed his smart handsome brother by staking him to the ground and planting an oak tree beneath him. He may have been dumb, weak, and ugly, but he was patient.

The point of this parable? Boy, you got me. But the important thing is that it takes up space on this page; that is the essence of professional writing.

Although it may seem easy, writing is not all beer and skittles; frequently it is not even skittles. Writing requires of a person two elusive, hard-to-define entities that, if I were forced to put them into words, I guess I would call "pencil" and "paper". Gee, that wasn't so hard after all. Excuse me while I get a beer.

The other thing most writers have in common, besides a wee drinking problem, is a gifted writing teacher who inspired them to reach deep into themselves and bring out the greatness that lies within, or to copy that greatness from the student next to them. I'll never forget my college writing teacher, Mr. Gerund. He was every inch the collegiate literary academic, right down to the leather patches on his elbows, which I noticed the first time he wore short sleeves. He was quite absent-minded, occasionally lighting a fresh pipe when one was already burning. Embarrassed, he would pretend it was intentional, and many was the time his mouth contained two pipes at once, surrounding his head in smoke. Through this haze, his pearls of wisdom descended, lodging in our eager brains: "My little scribblers, I cannot overemphasize the importance of trusting your ear when writing, but never ever lend it money." Perhaps while lighting a third pipe he might opine: "Type in all capital letters if you fear the reader might be nodding off during a dull passage." I often hearken back to his advice; he once said "Use obscure words, such as 'hearken', and use many semicolons; these simple devices let your readers know you are smarter than they are."

His first assignment to our class was to write an essay about a deeply personal emotional experience, using only words that start with vowels. He wanted nothing more than for us to stretch our limits and succeed. Perhaps that was why it was so painful for him when our work did not meet his lofty expectations, which he would hint at by igniting the offending piece on the desk of its author, and promising an 'A' to any student who extinguished the flames with spit or urine.

Have I always been a writer? Your question is timely for it leads into this paragraph. The answer is no. I used to be a mentalist: mind reading, telepathy, and such. (Now, as a writer, I'm sort of an environ-mentalist; I recycle other people's thoughts as my own.) Unfortunately, my three-meal-a-day habit soon drove me to find a real job. My goal was to sleep my way to the top. I don't mean casting-couch style; I mean Ronald Reagan style. That strategy failed, so I tried sucking up, but I overdid it. My boss told me he thought he had a hemorrhoid, but his doctor said it was just my nose.

IN MY NEXT JOB, I HAD A CHANCE TO TRY A LITTLE CREATIVE WRITING. I LANDED A POSITION IN MARKETING AT A PAPER PLANT. Convinced that environmentally conscious consumers could be persuaded to buy less-refined papers that would also save the company thousands in processing costs, I proposed a new chunk-style toilet tissue: Try new Bumpy-- the convenience of a tissue with the effectiveness of a scouring pad, bristling with the coarse, lumpy goodness of nature's own trees. My boss was blown away by my concept, but retained enough composure to fill out a pink slip and escort me to the lobby.

It was there in the lobby that I experienced one of those moments that changes a person's life forever. Darlene, the receptionist, slipped on the remnants of a jelly donut she had dropped that morning. She irreparably damaged her knee and to this day cannot mambo without great pain. OK, so it wasn't my life that was changed forever, but I wrote about the incident and sent it to Reader's Digest's Humor in Uniform (Darlene wears a little receptionist's smock). They published it, and I have been a professional writer ever since.

But writing is hard work. (Even reading can be a chore, as you doubtless know having trudged this far.) And the avoidance of hard work has made me what I am today. It was in this spirit that I acted on the old saying that if a million monkeys typed on a million typewriters, they will eventually write a great novel, and that's easier than me writing it. So in 1994, I bought me a million monkeys, cheap; thanks to the Ebola scare, the bottom had fallen right out of the monkey market. The million typewriters were even cheaper because everyone used computers by then. I threw them all in an old warehouse and waited. Six months later, I still didn't have a great novel, but I did have a couple scripts for Pauly Shore movies. They helped pay the bills. And the bills were high, mostly for white-out; those little guys couldn't type for crap.

My latest idea for milking money from the written word is poetry. Specifically, I think the world is ready for variations on haiku, that internationally known poetry form of three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. For example:

I gave her the eye
But she gave me the finger
Hardly a fair trade

Well, I want a piece of the lucrative international poetry pie, so I have invented several new poetry forms, one of which is bound to catch on and earn me thousands in royalties. The first I call "haiho." It is three lines of 5, 8, and 5 syllables, which should be successful due to brand-name confusion alone. An example haiho poem:

Leaves fall from the tree
The tree is, like, mega-bummed out
"Tough sap," think the leaves

The next I call "Polk," in honor of our eleventh President. (Polk has gotten pretty short shrift, honorwise; I'm doing my part to change that.) It is three lines of 2, 0, and 1 syllables, which should be very popular with both the novice poet and the creatively stifled. A sample of Polk:

The leaves


My third new lucrative poetry form I call "polysaccharide". It is four lines of 5, 1, 2, and 21 syllables, which should challenge even the most limber locutionist. Here's one I whipped togeth--um, I mean, sweated through the pores of my soul:

Somnambulant dwarves
me un-
easy, but just add water and they make their own sauce: Mild? You're soaking in it. Mommy.

My last new soon-to-be-beloved verse vessel is a take-off on the Mad Libs from the old Steve Allen show, in which Steve would ask the audience for parts of speech, such as invectives and conjugations, which he would insert into a routine prose paragraph resulting in much humor (things were slow back in the Golden Age of Television). This form, which I call simply "Ernesto," consists of five lines of 8, 8, 8, 8, and 8 syllables. A sample:

Behold the noble     noun     
See how     adverb        its     noun            verb        
Majestically, the     noun             preposition             expletive      
    really long noun      
But friends don't let friends lick parrots

By the way, all these poems are copyrighted, so forget about ripping me off.