In addition to the voluminous amounts of fiction written over his forty year career, John D MacDonald was a frequent contributor to the various writers’ magazines of his time. As early as 1950 he began submitting articles to prozines such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Publishers’ Weekly, Author’s Guild Bulletin, and even to fanzines such as Masque and Bronze Shadows. And, of course, to the fanzine dedicated to his own writing, the JDM Bibliophile. He consistently harped on a few recurring themes that he found had formed the bedrock of his own late-in-life decision to be a writer, revealed here in two quotes reprinted by Walter Shine in his Bibliography:
“If you’re not an omnivorous reader, forget about being a writer.” -- 11 March 1959
“I will tell you what I tell everybody who wants to write -- I tell them -- forget it. There are a thousand easier ways to make a living. You have to have the nerves of a gambler, and an ego the size of Mt. Washington, and enough energy to take you through about 500 seventy and eighty hour weeks in a row without a break, without getting sick or beat down. Forget it, you won’t make it.
“And this is my paradox. The ones who take that advice wouldn’t make it anyway.” -- Letter, 11 December 1965
Not included in the above are what he felt were the skills necessary for a writer to write well, to be able to communicate something more than just the words on the page. Above all he cited the need for an innate sense of awareness on the part of the person writing the words. This sentiment was the subject of this early article for Writer’s Digest, published in the magazine’s October 1953 issue under the title “What IS Talent?” It is written in the form of a letter to an imaginary would-be writer from a seasoned author who, after a mere eight years in the trade, had already spent over 20,000 hours in the trenches.
What IS Talent?
In your letter you asked me if I think you can write, if you should keep on writing. I must answer this basic question as honestly as I can, and not choose the far easier course of commenting on technical imperfections.
Your work does, of course, show many imperfections. As the author, you stride across your own sets, pointing to the characters and telling the reader what your characters are and what they are thinking. You intrude in your own stories. You show a tendency to use badly shopworn phrases: "hopelessly drunk," "dingy hotel room," "studied casualness." Those are a few I selected at random. They are usually the result of pairing words in a relationship so familiar that it has lost meaning, no matter how bright and new it was when first coined. You show a tendency to state your theme in your stories--to state the theme early in the story, and unmistakably, as though explaining to the reader what you are writing about. Theme should be implicit in the story, Ben. Not nailed down like a plank in a porch.
But these are technical flaws. When you ask, “Should I keep on writing?" I cannot answer on the basis of these technical flaws because continued writing is the one thing that will eliminate them. And you have not been writing long.
Ben, I am filling the air with all this talk because it has helped me delay saying what I must say to you. Give it up, Ben. You can painfully and eventually acquire a certain competence. But you will never be a fiction writer. Never.
I say no to you, Ben, because you have not written much or long. The loss is not great. There are many I could not tell this to because they have gone too far. They have contributed too much to a barren cause. So much that it is emotionally more therapeutic for them to continue than to stop.
Now, having said you should stop, I must tell you why.
What do I know about you? You are highly competitive, reasonably well educated, articulate, socially adjusted, happily married.
Why can't you write?
Because you do not have the one basic tool of the writer, the painter, the creative musician, the sculptor. I call that tool interrogative awareness. As a novice writer without that, you are as handicapped as a color-blind artist.
Perhaps I can best explain it to you by telling you about the work of a young painter I met in Sarasota over a year ago. When I first looked at his work it was almost completely meaningless to me. Yet I knew he was sincere, that each painting he did expressed an interaction between him and his environment and was, in effect, a portion of his continuing comment on his known world.
I borrowed one painting. One day I began to find a few reference points between his known world and my own, and those reference points served as clues, much in the way archeologists untangle an unknown language starting with a few known symbols. Then it began to come clear to me what he was attempting, and what he saw, and I had that familiar and exciting sensation of having my mind twisted, and stretched, and wrenched into an outlook I had not previously had. It was an emotional experience for me. Sharing his eyes for a time, I was able to see my own known world in a slightly different light. He had, through his vision, added a new dimension to my vision.
To oversimplify a bit, what he had done, in the iconoclasm of all good creative art, was disregard everything he had been told to believe. And he had started from the bedrock of his own senses and builded a world that, for a time, was beyond my interpretive ability. But once I could see what he was doing, then something was done to and for me.
Now let us take something different in degree, not in kind. Take a single phrase from Raymond Chandler. “Old men with faces like lost battles.” Do you see how, for a space of a few seconds, that phrase seems to stretch your mind? It is pleasure-giving.
We say it is apt. We say it is original. Yes, but beyond that it is something that can be produced only through a continual questioning awareness of environment.
You, Ben, by a completely cold and artificial process, can manufacture a striking phrase merely by juxtaposing two words in a grotesque relationship. But it would be a process. It would not be the result of your own awareness, because you are not truly aware.
When I read your stories, I am given a view of a very trite and ordinary and pedestrian world. That is the world you accept. You do not question it. Your mind does not put things into relationships that are unique to you. You automatically select the very relationships between things and persons and ideas that would be selected by fifty million other Americans. And when I read, I get no pleasure out of averages. I want a new view of the world.
Your words do not make me feel good. They make me feel tired. Because they are invariably predictable. And that, perhaps, is why we talk of the element of surprise in art. There is no individual stamp on your work because of this basic lack of interrogative awareness. There is no sentence there which could not have come out of any freshman English course. You are grammatical. You spell correctly. But there are no images to please me.
You are not aware.
I will tell you what my own awareness means to me throughout every day. It is something continually going on in my head. And I am certain it is not going on in yours. I am not "better” than you are. This is not "better" or "worse" or "smarter” or "dumber.” I'm just different. Because I function this way, I can write. And because you don't, I don't think you can. I wish what goes on in my head were more wild and wonderful. I would be a better writer for it, a better artist. The limitation in the art is generally a limitation in awareness.
It is getting cool these evenings. I chop down a birch stub. The base is solid. The top is so far gone I can crumble it in my hands. Woodpeckers have made many holes. It stood high. I hold the piece they were on. Their country, now down on my level. And then there is a kind of undefined excitement in my mind. I call it awareness. An excitement this time with an undertone of regret. As if in bringing the stub down I also brought them down, the sharp-billed ones with ice-tong feet and clown topknots. I am sorting out sensual relationships in an illogical way, as though I brought down all the afternoon hours when the bills hammered deep after moist grubs in the rotten wood. A shifting of relationships and then that excitement is gone, and, somehow, somewhere, I have hoarded that moment and those excitements, and one day when I am unsuspecting, some portion of them will come out of my mind, go onto paper, and fit what I am saying in a way that is satisfying to me.
I finish chopping fireplace lengths. I put the ax in the pump house. A small regret. It is more satisfying to leave it in the block, canted, the blade deep. There is a look about used tools. They have the look of hands. And then new relationships begin. The way the rotten stub had the feel of birds. Tools the look of hands. And something in all of this is ominous. I cannot isolate it. It has a smell of death. I look at the dark pines for a moment. There is no wind. Everything for a few seconds has a death-stink. Then it is gone. Stored away. Usable, though never consciously.
These relationships, these games that are often childish, often frightening, frequently painful, frequently gay and ludicrous, are not things that I cause to happen. That I will should happen. They have always been going on with me. The sense of excitement that comes with them seems to pin them on the back wall of memory, ready for total recall when some creative sense says they are needed here and now, at this precise point.
I am in a room with people and at some time in the evening I become, in turn, each one of them, trying to look out of their eyes. Sometimes it is muddy. Sometimes it comes wonderfully clear, and suddenly I know more about them.
This may sound to you as though I am a bit mad.
What I want to impress on you is that it goes on all the time. There is no rest from it. I cannot halt this continual drench of impressions. I would not want to. It makes me feel alive, but I wish I could slow it down because it seems to be making life go by too fast.
Now what does all this do for my writing? I have just stopped and made a computation. I have spent at least twenty thousand hours at my trade. I have achieved freedom from conscious thought about "how" I am achieving an effect in my writing and am able to concentrate instead upon the effect achieved. And, as I think of effect, out of this hidden warehouse of awareness come all the unexpected phrasings that seem right to me, that feel right in the moment of putting them down, that read right when I read them later.
And because they have come from this private warehouse, they are definitely and indisputably mine and reflect my own relationship to my environment - not an average relationship. When everything is going right, the words will dance.
Believe me, it can go very wrong. There are days when I am dulled. When nothing comes but tritenesses. A full week and at the end of it I must tear up everything because it is dull and awful. But I know that through awareness I am constantly replenishing myself, and soon things will flow again, the arrangements will be felicitous, the well will be full.
Ben, this is the thing you do not have. And without it, I am afraid that you will hurl yourself too often and too desperately against an unyielding wall. You are sober and logical and intelligent. But there are no fantasies and excitements in your mind. You accept the somber relationships you see. You look out of your eyes at a grey and blurred world. I cannot tell you how to create awareness of all the flooding torrent of life around you. There is no logic or pattern to awareness. It is the logic of the self-mutilation of a Van Gogh.
Can you truthfully say there is in you a compulsion to express yourself in a creative field, Ben? I think, rather, you have sold yourself on the image of Ben as a successful and famous author. And, in your competitiveness, you think you can attain this end through application and determination. I tell you regretfully, and with all humility, that you cannot.
John D. MacDonald.