Larry Brody and I are pals. We enjoy each other’s conversation and company. We also enjoy each other’s writing, though we have little in common there except that we get each other’s jokes. Maybe that’s not such a little thing. Larry asked me to write about my “process”, to share with his readers, which is both flattering and amusing. I thought of the Mother Theresa joke. Forgive me if you’ve heard it.
A reporter who was interviewing Mother Theresa asked her if she could have a personal wish fulfilled, what it would be.
“Oh, I would like to see the world at peace.”
“No, I mean something for your personal benefit.”
“Oh, I would like to know that no one anywhere was hungry.”
“No, no, I mean something JUST for you. For you, yourself.”
The revered lady thought silently for a moment…
“Well… I’ve always wanted to direct.”
I think everyone is the author of his or her own life story. Some are heroes and others blunder through it. But there’s a self-protective safety barrier in place whenever you set out to write about your own life. No one’s really able to view themselves, warts and all. The core jest of calling myself Invisible Mikey on the blog is that I’m only invisible to myself. Anyone reading can see things about me that I can’t. Since I can’t cross the barrier into objective self-awareness, the next best thing is to try different ways to tell an entertaining story.
When I was a boy I loved reading a humor columnist in the Des Moines Register named Donald Kaul. He could write on topics he knew nothing about, and make it fun to read. I thought this was a neat trick that he had invented. One of my elementary school teachers informed me there was a whole genre of this kind of writing. She pointed me to Mark Twain and Robert Benchley, both of whom had been humor columnists for newspapers. Later I learned Charles Dickens and Jonathan Swift, whose more “serious” works we had been taught in school, had also worked as satirical newspaper pundits. So I’ve got lofty role models for blog writing. I take comfort in knowing they all improved considerably with practice.
One of the differences between how Larry and I write is the discipline of habit. When he gets hold of an interesting idea (or vice versa), he drops everything to write about it. He says he can’t stop, that it’s a kind of obsessive-compulsive behavior, or perhaps autistic. I just think he was always a born writer, like Mozart was a born savant composer. I use the Beethoven method myself. I’ll get hold of a motif idea, and write variations for years, hoping it will end up as good as “Da-da-da-DUMM!” I am temporarily distracted by everything of interest in the world. I have little focus, until suddenly I have extraordinary focus. I have a good memory, but I have a hard time predicting what will capture my attention for long enough to commit to text.
Back in the late 1970s, I went to Community College. I liked the advisor of the student newspaper and thought he was funny. When I met him he said, “You want to write for the paper? You can write about anything you want. The entire staff just graduated.” So for two years I wrote page after page, about ten longhand pages a day. I wrote gossip, cartooning, investigative news, arts critique, and made tentative attempts to emulate the pantheon of satirical writers mentioned above. I got better with practice. I learned how to get to the point.
For the next 30 years, I had careers that were creative, but did not involve creative writing. I was a salesman of many kinds of goods and services, a portrait photographer, an actor on stage and screen, and a post-production editor, before switching to medical imaging at age 50. While waiting for a state license to be issued in Washington, I decided to try blogging to alleviate my anxiety. The license took four %$^&* months! By that time I had gotten to enjoy a hybrid of habit between what I had been doing at Community College, and confessional invention.
When I’m not writing op-ed, I tell stories about a character based on me. They are always improved compared to my actual history, with the boring bits removed. Sometimes it’s entirely made up. I learned to be a good liar when I was a salesman. What matters is entertaining my readers.
I’ve had an interesting life, done many different kinds of work, and loved a variety of different sorts of people. Because I’m writing later in life, I have tons of experiences I can draw upon for story material. I’m not saying you can’t make up great stories when you are young. I just think it must be harder to do well. I certainly could not have predicted the kinds of wonders and catastrophes that have happened to me, and I have an excellent, vivid, adventurous imagination. When I retire in 2016, I’m going to start publishing some longer-form work. I’m working the themes and variations now.
I have an advantage over some of you. I have no need to make a living from writing. I don’t ever have to write anything “because it will sell”. That’s a craft I admire very much when it is done well. I know little about how to do it, even though I know quite a bit about editing, making things up, and how to tell the difference between good and bad writing. You’ll have to ask Larry how to write what will sell. I write for practice, to get better at doing it, and on subjects of my own choosing. I’m a hobbyist.
If I can write something as readable and entertaining as the professionals whose work I prefer, I’m satisfied. Quite often I don’t get there, which I find funny. I have wonderful moments after reading when I think, “How did they do that?” and laugh like an idiot. Sometimes I applaud, as if the author will hear it. No matter how much I learn about the craft and process of good writing, I hope I can always experience reading it with undimmed, unsophisticated pleasure, the kind a five year-old gets watching a magic trick.