Thursday, February 2, 2012

"Nobody Owes You A Reading" The Writing Life of Ralph McInerny

Scholarly journals often have to arrive at just the right time in one's life to be fully read, unless you keep them around for a long time.  But time can sometimes take us even further from our stack of intentions.  Currently living in a small cottage I decided to gather up a pile of various publications and send them off to the second hand store.  Not long into my task I found myself sitting on the floor amidst the possible candidates reading with great interest, in a March 2006 publication, an article called "The Writing Life."  When I finished my read, I gently tore the pages from the journal and mailed them off to a friend who has every intention of writing a novel in his newly achieved retirement.

A month later I received a grateful note from said friend who had in turn made  copies of the article and sent it out to six of his friends. Why hadn't I kept a copy for myself?  Fortunately I realized I could reread the article on line.  I found The Writing Life  by  Ralph McInerny and enjoyed it again.  Now you have a link to the article too. Here's how it starts:
It is the rare reader of fiction who does not at some time or other consider becoming a writer. It comes and goes over the years for many, and some carry it about forever as an unredeemed promissory note to themselves. In their heart of hearts, they regard themselves as writers. When my first novel appeared, I got a note from a senior colleague to the effect that it was sly of me not only to think of writing a novel but actually to do it. ...

  Not having read any of the man's work,  I set out to make myself acquainted with him and learned that in 2009 he  retired from 54 years of teaching at Notre Dame and that he died in January of 2010.  He was both a published scholar and a prolific writer of fiction and it is quite evident through a number of eulogies that he was a giving man deeply appreciated by many.

In  the 1960's, in addition to his teaching and philosophical work, he began to write fiction. It is the story of how he made the transition from wanting to be a writer to becoming one that he tells in "The Writing Life" essay. 

And so it began. In the basement was a workbench, unlikely to serve its original purpose for me. It became my desk. It was L shaped. I plunked my typewriter on the short leg of the L and, standing, began. Every night, after we had put the kids to bed, I would go downstairs and write from ten until about two in the morning. The markets I was chiefly interested in were Redbook, Ladies' Home Journal, and Good Housekeeping. Their initial price for a story was a thousand dollars. I sent stories out, but I was always ready with others when they came back. There was never a time when I wasn't awaiting editorial word on one or more stories. This gave room for hope. In April I began to get messages on the rejection slips and then a letter from an editor at Redbook, Sandra Earl, telling me “close but no cigar,” and urging me to keep trying.

Those early times at my converted workbench were, I came to see, my apprenticeship. For someone who aspired to write fiction I was almost totally ignorant of how a story is made. The slick magazines operated on the Edgar Alan Poe principle that a story aims at a single effect. No sideshows, nothing that does not contribute to the point of the story. I would sometimes be asked what paragraph three on page seven was meant to do, would read it, find it lovely writing but effectively idle in the story. Out it went. I was learning that one writes for a reader. Writing is too often described as self-expression. But writing is the art of making a story that will engage and hold and satisfy the interest of the reader. I typed a slogan and pinned it over my typewriter: Nobody Owes You A Reading.

This image is quite stuck in my head...he stood and he stuck to it.
I have never been a reader of mystery novels, though I have certainly heard of the Father Dowling series, and I am not sure that I am up for scholarly texts on Thomas Aquinas, but I might  give Mr. McInerny a bit more reading...intrigued as am by the  title of his  memoirs,  I Alone have Escaped to Tell You

I'll let you know if I do and maybe you'll let me know what you think...
P.S. Despite the perusing that led me to this article,  I did resolutely give away a stack of journals at least three feet tall but not before noticing a poem by Ralph McInerny that I just posted  on my Bread on the Water Blog.  

Sending off that stack of journals made quite a bit of room for more reading material of the "old fashioned" kind.


Rosannah said...

good stuff, as usual :)

Haddock said...

Reading this has put a germ of an idea in my head.
I think I should compile all my work in a book form :-)

debbie bailey said...

I look forward to reading this article when I can sit down long enough. I've wanted to write a book since I was a little girl. I wonder when I'll do it?

berekkah said...

oh, no. this is precisely the reason why i never get those periodicals completely thrown away... i just know that somewhere inside is some amazing quote or life-changing article that just needs to be discovered someday. :)