Following Mr. Leonard to the Starting Line

I have fun writing. I don’t make it a chore. I don’t have to struggle with it.

I haven’t been writing much lately.  It’s not a block, so much as a pervasive lassitude verging on WIP-triggered narcolepsy.

I’ve managed a paragraph here, an edited description there, but even my awareness of my own mortality hasn’t been enough to achieve escape velocity.

But the other day, a book appeared on the New Shelves at my library: Charlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished Stories by Elmore Leonard.

Leonard UnpublishedThere’s something comforting about reading the early work of one of your favorite authors, especially the stuff  that didn’t quite make the grade.

Mostly because it exists.

For some of us, it’s a revelation to remember that Mr. Leonard, for all his talent and genius, didn’t follow his Ten Rules* from the beginning. In his early stories, he may have forced a description or two. He used a variety of dialogue tags. He got in his own way with clever bits. He (gasp) adverbed.

In other words, he didn’t write pure gold from the get-go.

But he did eventually become the kind of revered writer whose early stories are collected and published and studied as comfort and encouragement to the rest of us.

So, how did he go from a writer of not-quite-right-for-prime-time stories to the Elmore Leonard we know?  Part of the answer is offered by his son, Peter Leonard, in the introduction of this collection.

His kids remember him writing all the time when he was at home.  Writing came in a close second to his family and he’d sit in the living room working away with pen and paper, while the kids watched TV or played, grabbing every spare minute he could.  He got up at five every morning and wrote at least two pages, before leaving for his full-time advertising job.  He didn’t even make coffee until the end of the first page, which sounded like powerful motivation to me.

And as I read along, fascinated, it occurred to me that all this sounded oddly familiar—or could, anyway, if I wanted it enough.

I used to write on my laptop in the dining room, where I was within eye- and earshot of the family.  There were interruptions, but these were infrequent and generally involve hugs or the occasional squabble over the remote—they could see I was typing away at something important.  These days, I write in the back bedroom . . . if by writing, one means playing time management games and reading and browsing through the spectrum of buzzfeed channels . . . while the family frequently checks on me to make sure I’m still alive and hangs around asking if they can watch videos with me—for some reason, they don’t believe me when I tell them I’m working.

And I get up at five every morning, too, ostensibly to write . . .  but lately, my routine has devolved into immediate coffee, e-mail, reading other people’s work, and carefully ignoring my project files until I have to wake the kids.

This is all far less productive than I’d originally intended.

So this morning, I tried something different.  I still got up at five and fired up the coffeemaker, but I ignored my phone and laptop in favor of a legal pad and a working pen.  I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a page before pouring my first cup of caffeine.  Then I continued writing, until I noticed the time, and reluctantly finished a sentence.  Okay—a paragraph. Or two.  I was on a roll.

Felt pretty good.

I didn’t pass the two page mark by much and there were a lot of scribbled out words that narrowed the margin, but now I can legitimately call my WIP a WIP again.

Maybe I’ll take my pen and pad to the couch after dinner tonight and see if I can get the wordflow going around my kids’ favorite shows.  If that doesn’t work the way I hoped, I can always jot down some notes and go back to the  computer after bedtime.

Either way, I’ll find some comfort in knowing that even Elmore Leonard didn’t start out knowing exactly what worked for him.

But he knew how to find out—and he did.

I don’t believe in writer’s block or waiting for inspiration. If you’re a writer, you sit down and write.

Worth a try, wouldn’t you say?

*I think he makes it clear that his rules were created by him for him and not as the One True Way.  As he said, “Everyone has his own sound.  I’m not going to presume to tell anybody how to write.”