The best writing advice I ever received was given to me by Louis Sheaffer, a staggeringly wonderful writer in my view. Mr. Sheaffer received a Pulitzer Prize for the second of his two-volume biography of playwright, Eugene O’Neill. Another remarkable writer and person, to put it mildly.
I met Mr. Sheaffer at his home in Brooklyn Heights around 1980. I’d been bold enough to mail him a script for a play I’d written with a letter written by my nervous hand asking him to read it. And he did! He called me, and invited me to his home, an apartment that was a writer’s workplace. I remember a large and long wood writing table and index card files, everything was wood; it was a beautiful sight.
It is only now I realize Mr. Sheaffer made me feel less alone as a writer. That I was unpublished in any way at the time was irrelevant to him. He knew I was a writer. That this might not sound like much to some is yet another irrelevance.
The task of writing is one of those things that requires, not just being alone, but being alone as completely as you possibly can in the moment you are in. When writers know they are safe with each other, the camaraderie is intimate and glorious, and humbling.
So here is the advice Mr. Sheaffer gave me. “Whatever it is you want to write, read a lot of it. If you want write plays, read a lot of plays, novels, read a lot of novels, poetry, read poetry,” and so on.
Let me tell you, for me, he was spot on. I’m right currently reading a novel called The Hamlet by William Faulkner. His writing is Picasso in English. He takes sentences where most others don’t tread. It’s not a matter of fearing to tread, in the least. It’s usually a matter of not seeing the trailhead, as it were.
Charles Dickens’ writing displays an understanding of people, of children (bless him) and life’s environments so thoroughly I just wish I could have met him and thanked him and hugged him. I will re-read a sentence or paragraph or section because I want the experience again! Do not people listen to a song more than once! I’d avoided Dickens for some knuckle-headed reason, no doubt rooted in the poison soil of judgment, and then, around 1990, thinking about Mr. Sheaffer’s advice, began reading him. Started with his first book, Pickwick Papers.
Going to my grave without experiencing Dickens’ writing would be hell all on its own.
Mr Sheaffer in August 1993 in the Long Island Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, the same hospital that saved my life after I was held up and shot in 1984.
An amazing experience, life.