On writing – Oct. 29, 2017

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 That I was unpublished in any way at the time was irrelevant to him.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.



This year the classics

Reading is a sanctuary for me. I suspect this is so for most book lovers. In addition to being a sanctuary, reading offers endless amounts of knowledge; endless amounts of emotional, spiritual, and physical experiences. The latter point might strike some as odd but read a book like Hampton Side’s Ghost Soldiers and you may notice yourself feeling physically drained at times.

I guess that is the wonder of reading, the all of the reader’s person is involved. And given that the world, thankfully, has an endless supply of books, one is wise not to miss the classics. It would be rather disingenuous of me to say I’ve read many classics, though I have gobbled up quite a bit of Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. I am immensely glad I did not let the length of War and Peace peace deter me. When I read it (it is one of the greatest reads of my life) my only complaint, one I have with all the books I love, is it ended.

My instinct this year is to read more of the classics. I’m not sure why this is, though I have my suspicions. I am getting older and am well aware that the clock runs out, so, if not now, when?  And then there is this. I wrote my first play in the 1970s when I was living in Brooklyn near Brooklyn Heights. I reached out to the writer Louis Sheaffer. He’d written a Pulitzer Prize winning two-volume biography of playwright Eugene O’Neill; a wonderful read. I asked him if he’d read my play and he said yes. I week or so later I went to visit him. He was a writer’s writer. Hard working, fully committed to the often exhausting craft that is the act of writing. While there were parts of my play he liked, it needed a lot of work. I asked him what advise he had for me as a writer. His answer remains emblazoned in my mind. “Whatever you want to write, read a lot of it. If you want to write plays, read a lot of plays. Novels, read a lot of novels.” He was right, I’ve learned more about writing from my reading than anywhere else.

And so, why the classics? Because, it is clear to me that writers like Dickens, Tolstoy, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Shakespeare, Defoe, Melville, the Bronte sisters, Twain, Goethe and more, are the greatest teachers.  While anything but easy, I love writing, and I want to learn.

And then, of course, there is the sanctuary of books. A place to go that, for the time I am there, I am away from daily life. When you are a human rights advocate, which demands that you hold people, companies, agencies, governments, government officials, publically accountable, you will be targeted. Usually, I have learned, not to your face. This is probably so because those who target you know they can’t win on the facts of the matter. And so they take runs at you behind your back. And while these behaviors a predictable, pointless, and will do anything but silence me, managing them can be exhausting. And so, what better sanctuary than reading a classic?