Write As If It Were Impossible To Fail

@jamesscottbell


Here is another entry from the unpublished journal of that great pulp writer, William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. The first entry can be found here. The second is here.

I was killing a dame when Benny walked in.
The dame was Gilda Hathaway and she was an icy blonde in the story I was pounding out for Black Mask. The killer was her husband, an action Jackson named Mickey Hathaway. He was about to use an ice pick on his wife when Benny said, “Hello, Mr. Armbrewster.”
“What? Huh?” I looked up from my Underwood, which was sitting on my usual table at Musso’s in Hollywood. “Don’t you know better than to interrupt a writer when he’s typing?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I thought we had—”
“I don’t care what we had! Go get yourself a Coke and let me finish my murder!”
Benny put his head down, but he did what I told him. I liked that about the kid.
Mickey dispatched Gilda, then wiped his fingerprints off the ice pick. He was out of the apartment by the time Benny got back to the table.
“Say, kid,” I said, “you’ve got the hangdog look of a mortician without a stiff. What gives?”
“I do have a stiff,” Benny said. “It’s that story you told me to write. I just couldn’t. I don’t know, I froze. I just sat there staring at the paper.”
“Welcome to the world of the professional writer, son.”
“This is what it’s like?”
“A blank page is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”
He stared at me like I was the blank page.
    “Before you try to write anything,” I said, “you’ve got to get your head right. You’ve got to get your mind running like Seabiscuit at Pimlico.”
Benny took a sip of his Coke, looking more concerned than ever.
I took out a White Owl, bit off the end, fired it up. A matronly woman at the adjoining table gave me a hard look. I made a mental note to put her in my story as another victim of the ice pick killer.
“You’ve got a will to fail,” I said.
“I do not!” Benny said. Good. He had a fighting spirit. He was going to need that if he wanted to make it in this game.
“Cool your radiator, Benny. We all have a will to fail. It’s subconscious. It’s deep in the memory banks. All of the things we tried to do in our past, and failed at, collect there. All the embarrassments we’ve suffered, all the people who made fun of us, those experiences pepper our brains. It’s human nature. We almost always act in order to avoid pain. So rather than try something and possibly fail, we freeze up. Or we choose something easy because we know there’s no risk of failure. We don’t act boldly.”
Benny was silent, but I could tell I was getting through.
“Our job is to fight that will to fail, to give it the boot. You were afraid I’d rip apart your story, so you didn’t write it.”
Benny paused, frowned, then said, “You’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. This is Armbrewster you’re talking to.”
“So what do I do?”
“You really want to know?”
“More than anything!”
“More than a new Packard?”
“Yes!”
“More than a sweet gal to smother you with kisses?”
“I kind of want that,” he said. “But only after I’m a successful writer!”
“Just what I wanted to hear, kid. So here’s what you must do from now on––write as if it were impossible to fail.”
“That’s it?”
“It? Why, boy, I’m giving you the Promethean fire here! If the gods find out I’ve told you, I could get lashed to a rock and have my liver pecked out by a predatory bird! Which, by the way, isn’t all that different from working with an editor.”
“But I can’t just write that way, can I?”
“You’re not a Presbyterian, are you?”
“Methodist.”
“Then you’re a free-will being! And as such you are in control of your thoughts. And if you don’t control them, they will certainly control you. It takes effort, sure, but so does anything worthwhile. Now, have you ever done anything successfully?”
“Sure.”
“Like what?”
“I ran the anchor leg on our state championship relay team in high school.”
“Aces! Think about that moment.”
“Now?”
“No, in the late Spring of 1954. Of course now! Close your eyes and keep ’em closed.”
He did as I asked.
“You remember taking the baton?” I said.
“I sure do.”
“Remember your adrenal glands firing on all cylinders?”
“Uh-huh.”
“How about the roar of the crowd, the feel of the track, the exhilaration of crossing the finish line?”
“Yes!”
“Drink it in!”
“I’m drinking!”
“Keep those eyes closed. Your teammates are around you, slapping you on the back.”
“Yes.”
“And your best girl is in the stands, watching.”
“Judy Parrish! How did you know?”
“This is Armbrewster. Now, you’re feeling good, right?”
“Yes.”
“You see? You’re in control of your thoughts and your thoughts feed your feelings. Now, I want you to see yourself standing in Stanley Rose’s bookstore, holding your novel from Scribner’s in your hands, as a crowd starts to gather for your reading.”
Behind those closed lids, Benny’s brain was starting to run. When he smiled, I knew he was ready.
            “Open your eyes! Next time you freeze up, remember those good feelings and imagine yourself with the book. Then write as if it were impossible to fail.”
“Does it really work?”
“A sweet kid named Dorothea Brande wrote a book called Wake Up And Live! and it sold a million copies. It’s the only way to stomp that will to fail and write your best stuff.”
“Gee. I feel better already.”

“Swell! Now get back to your room and start typing.”
Springing up, he almost knocked over the table. He did a 50-yard dash out the door.
I sat back, remembering when I felt the way Benny did right now––ready to write like the wind. To write as if I couldn’t fail. That got me through a lot of cold nights and dismal days. And now here I was, making a living with the written word, but also realizing I’d been skating on the story I was working on. The encounter with Benny left me with the uneasy feeling I was playing it safe, mailing it in, avoiding risks. That old will to fail can sneak up on you like a jungle viper.
“Phooey!” I said.
I tore out the page I’d just typed, crumpled it, tossed it on the small pile at my feet. Then rolled in a fresh piece of paper.
This time, Gilda had an ice pick of her own.

Do you have fear when you write? Do you find yourself afraid to take risks? 

            
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Write As If It Were Impossible To Fail

@jamesscottbell


Here is another entry from the unpublished journal of that great pulp writer, William “Wild Bill” Armbrewster. The first entry can be found here. The second is here.

I was killing a dame when Benny walked in.
The dame was Gilda Hathaway and she was an icy blonde in the story I was pounding out for Black Mask. The killer was her husband, an action Jackson named Mickey Hathaway. He was about to use an ice pick on his wife when Benny said, “Hello, Mr. Armbrewster.”
“What? Huh?” I looked up from my Underwood, which was sitting on my usual table at Musso’s in Hollywood. “Don’t you know better than to interrupt a writer when he’s typing?”
“I’m sorry, sir, I thought we had—”
“I don’t care what we had! Go get yourself a Coke and let me finish my murder!”
Benny put his head down, but he did what I told him. I liked that about the kid.
Mickey dispatched Gilda, then wiped his fingerprints off the ice pick. He was out of the apartment by the time Benny got back to the table.
“Say, kid,” I said, “you’ve got the hangdog look of a mortician without a stiff. What gives?”
“I do have a stiff,” Benny said. “It’s that story you told me to write. I just couldn’t. I don’t know, I froze. I just sat there staring at the paper.”
“Welcome to the world of the professional writer, son.”
“This is what it’s like?”
“A blank page is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”
He stared at me like I was the blank page.
    “Before you try to write anything,” I said, “you’ve got to get your head right. You’ve got to get your mind running like Seabiscuit at Pimlico.”
Benny took a sip of his Coke, looking more concerned than ever.
I took out a White Owl, bit off the end, fired it up. A matronly woman at the adjoining table gave me a hard look. I made a mental note to put her in my story as another victim of the ice pick killer.
“You’ve got a will to fail,” I said.
“I do not!” Benny said. Good. He had a fighting spirit. He was going to need that if he wanted to make it in this game.
“Cool your radiator, Benny. We all have a will to fail. It’s subconscious. It’s deep in the memory banks. All of the things we tried to do in our past, and failed at, collect there. All the embarrassments we’ve suffered, all the people who made fun of us, those experiences pepper our brains. It’s human nature. We almost always act in order to avoid pain. So rather than try something and possibly fail, we freeze up. Or we choose something easy because we know there’s no risk of failure. We don’t act boldly.”
Benny was silent, but I could tell I was getting through.
“Our job is to fight that will to fail, to give it the boot. You were afraid I’d rip apart your story, so you didn’t write it.”
Benny paused, frowned, then said, “You’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. This is Armbrewster you’re talking to.”
“So what do I do?”
“You really want to know?”
“More than anything!”
“More than a new Packard?”
“Yes!”
“More than a sweet gal to smother you with kisses?”
“I kind of want that,” he said. “But only after I’m a successful writer!”
“Just what I wanted to hear, kid. So here’s what you must do from now on––write as if it were impossible to fail.”
“That’s it?”
“It? Why, boy, I’m giving you the Promethean fire here! If the gods find out I’ve told you, I could get lashed to a rock and have my liver pecked out by a predatory bird! Which, by the way, isn’t all that different from working with an editor.”
“But I can’t just write that way, can I?”
“You’re not a Presbyterian, are you?”
“Methodist.”
“Then you’re a free-will being! And as such you are in control of your thoughts. And if you don’t control them, they will certainly control you. It takes effort, sure, but so does anything worthwhile. Now, have you ever done anything successfully?”
“Sure.”
“Like what?”
“I ran the anchor leg on our state championship relay team in high school.”
“Aces! Think about that moment.”
“Now?”
“No, in the late Spring of 1954. Of course now! Close your eyes and keep ’em closed.”
He did as I asked.
“You remember taking the baton?” I said.
“I sure do.”
“Remember your adrenal glands firing on all cylinders?”
“Uh-huh.”
“How about the roar of the crowd, the feel of the track, the exhilaration of crossing the finish line?”
“Yes!”
“Drink it in!”
“I’m drinking!”
“Keep those eyes closed. Your teammates are around you, slapping you on the back.”
“Yes.”
“And your best girl is in the stands, watching.”
“Judy Parrish! How did you know?”
“This is Armbrewster. Now, you’re feeling good, right?”
“Yes.”
“You see? You’re in control of your thoughts and your thoughts feed your feelings. Now, I want you to see yourself standing in Stanley Rose’s bookstore, holding your novel from Scribner’s in your hands, as a crowd starts to gather for your reading.”
Behind those closed lids, Benny’s brain was starting to run. When he smiled, I knew he was ready.
            “Open your eyes! Next time you freeze up, remember those good feelings and imagine yourself with the book. Then write as if it were impossible to fail.”
“Does it really work?”
“A sweet kid named Dorothea Brande wrote a book called Wake Up And Live! and it sold a million copies. It’s the only way to stomp that will to fail and write your best stuff.”
“Gee. I feel better already.”

“Swell! Now get back to your room and start typing.”
Springing up, he almost knocked over the table. He did a 50-yard dash out the door.
I sat back, remembering when I felt the way Benny did right now––ready to write like the wind. To write as if I couldn’t fail. That got me through a lot of cold nights and dismal days. And now here I was, making a living with the written word, but also realizing I’d been skating on the story I was working on. The encounter with Benny left me with the uneasy feeling I was playing it safe, mailing it in, avoiding risks. That old will to fail can sneak up on you like a jungle viper.
“Phooey!” I said.
I tore out the page I’d just typed, crumpled it, tossed it on the small pile at my feet. Then rolled in a fresh piece of paper.
This time, Gilda had an ice pick of her own.

Do you have fear when you write? Do you find yourself afraid to take risks? 

            
0

Listen to the Book

James Scott Bell
Twitter.com/jamesscottbell



TCM, may favorite channel, showed a clip the other day of the great actor Eli Wallach talking about Method acting. This was the movement that took off in the 1940s, inspiring a new generation of actors like Brando, Newman and Dean.
Wallach reflected that as a young actor it was exhilarating to work things out with the Method. It was a like a big gymnasium and the actors were all playing off each other, trying things, letting scenes happen naturally.
But as he grew older, he said, he got more cautious. He would sometimes forget those lessons of youth, that sense of play. To break out of his torpor he would reflect back on his early days.
“The Method tends to put you back on the track to enjoy what you’re doing, to listen,” he said. “The big secret to acting is listening. A thought on the screen is amazing. And if you really listen, it comes to life.”
This hit me as something that applies to writing as well. We don’t put our best words on paper unless, in some form or fashion, we listen to the story as it unfolds. Madeleine L’Engle put it this way: “A writer grimly controls his work to his peril.  Slowly, slowly, I am learning to listen to the book, in the same way I listen to prayer.  If the book tells me to do something completely unexpected, I heed it; the book is usually right.”
So how do we listen to the book? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Listen in the morning
A valuable literary practice is to write quickly, first thing after you wake up (I will allow you a minute to start the coffee brewing, of course, but sit down ASAP and write, with pen and paper even, in stream of consciousness mode.)
Dorothea Brande recommends this practice in her wonderful little book, Becoming a Writer. It’s a way to capture that netherworld we inhabit between sleeping and waking, and therein lies treasure. Also, a lot you’ll throw away. But that’s the nature of creativity. The idea is to record as much of the mind stuff as possible, and then use whatever you find that’s valuable. Like panning for gold, you get a whole bunch of the riverbed in your pan then coax out the gold a bit at a time.
2. Use a novel journal
Sue Grafton does this, and that’s good enough for me. She begins each writing stint with her journal (she creates one for each novel). She starts with a diary entry, something about her life at the moment. Then she starts asking herself questions about her WIP. She may want to work on a scene, or a character, or some plot twist, or whatever else is popping up in her mind. Writing freestyle, is a way to open up her mind to hear what the story might be saying. It’s a conversation with the book.
3. Go to the place you fear
Going to places we fear is often where the deepest and most vital material is waiting. I never thought I’d write paranormal (abnormal, maybe). But when I came up with an idea that just wouldn’t go away, a zombie legal thriller, I went with it. It sold. Then, during the writing, I had to listen to what this new genre was telling me. I had choices, to go horrific or dark humorous or serious, throughout the writing of the first book in the series, Pay Me in Flesh. I listened intently, feeling my way along so the book had its own rhythms.
My agent, colleague and friend, Donald Maass, is a master at helping writers press beyond safe pastures. A question Don likes to ask in his workshops is, “What is something your character would never ever do or say?” Then, find a place for the character do or say that thing. Or at least think it, showing a ferocious inner conflict. Wow. Try that some time and then pick up the pieces of your head.
If you ever get stuck on a project, or the inspiration for it has given way to drudgery, remember what Eli Wallach said. Maybe it’s time to listen. Give the book your attention. Allow it to play. It wants to help!
Are you attentive to what your story is trying to tell you?

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So She Comes Out Laughing



There’s a man in London, an advertising exec, who talks in his sleep. His wife got a voice activated digital recorder so she could record what he says. Then she started putting those words on a blog that has well over a million hits now. You can read the story here.
He says things like, “Elephants in thongs are not something you see every day. Enjoy it.” Much of what he says is laced with profanity. He admits to being “pent up.” I’d say so.
There’s also a “sleep talkin’ theologian,” Dr. Fred Sanders of Biola University, who talks in his sleep. His wife jotted down many things he said during graduate school, mostly as he was in that phase of just waking up. Sometimes she would prod him with questions and, half asleep, he’d answer. Here are some of the transcripts:
Scissors
Coming after me
Walking on their hindquarters.
*
Taking a picture
Of those two foreigners,
And two others.
And mostly it’s us loading our camping equipment into the car
*
Sanctification
It’s like walking through the woods.
He tossed a coin, and I have to get the rest of the stick
*
I was in Esau’s soup.
He was going to eat me up.
[WIFE: how did you get out?]
You got me out.
[how?]
Cut up into little pieces.
*
More of the same.
A bunch of dull people.
There was a roller coaster right in the middle.
So what does any of this have to do with writing? A lot, if you’re attentive to it.

Dorothea Brande, in her well known book Becoming a Writer, advocates getting up in the morning and, first thing, jotting down what’s in the mind. It is here that rough gems are buried. The trick is to get them out, then choose the ones that are worth polishing.

Stephen King calls this phenomenon “the boys in the basement,” the writer’s mind and imagination working in the background.

It’s something to be nurtured.

Often when I’m in the middle of a novel, working out scenes to come, I’ll go to bed with a pad and pen on the table nearby and drift to sleep asking myself questions. Or I’ll create a scene in my mind and try to “fade out” with it playing.


Then, first thing in the morning, I’ll either jot something on the pad, or get my coffee and start typing the things that come to me.

Not everything is great. In fact, most of it isn’t. But quite often, stuck somewhere in the middle or down at the bottom, there’s gold. I try to find it and refine it and see what it’s telling me about my story.

There’s a great line in the classic movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The old prospector, played by Walter Huston, is schooling two fortune hunters (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) on the fine art of panning for gold. He puts some sand in a pan and pours water over it, then lazily manipulates the pan. Slowly, some flecks start to shine in the sun. He says that finding the gold takes patience. “You got to know how to tickle it so she comes out laughing.”


So here’s what to do, writer:

1. Tickle it. Be purposeful in the use of “the boys in the basement.” Ask yourself questions at night, or watch a scene as you drift off to sleep. Be ready to get to your keyboard or pad as early as possible the next day.

2. So she comes out laughing. Write for at least ten minutes, without stopping, letting the words and thoughts flow. Don’t try to be coherent. Go fast, putting down whatever comes to mind. If you get on an interesting tangent, follow it. See where it leads.

3. Refine it. Later in the day, go back to your notes and start culling for the good stuff. Highlight what you like. Keep these pages in a journal or e-file. At the very least you’re going to end up with an interesting diary of your imagination.

So what tricks or techniques do you use to tickle the gold, come up with ideas and get inspired by the muse?

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