Scratching the Itch

A few days ago I was talking with a woman who would like to be writing fiction. She has written a few stories and would like to sit down and edit them, but it’s hard for her to find time to write, because for one thing she has two small children.

I whipped out my standard advice for aspiring writers. What I told her was this:

As a writer, you’ll need to solve literally thousands of problems — what to name a character, whether to split a long sentence into two short sentences, where to start the action in a new scene, whether a character’s actions make sense or need to be changed, what kind of furniture is in the character’s bedroom, whether your story idea is fresh, hackneyed, or perhaps a copyright violation, and so on. It’s endless. And the very first problem that you have to solve is how to find a time and place to write. (Preferably every day.) That’s not the only problem you’ll face, it’s just the first of many. But until you solve that one, you won’t be in a position to tackle any of the others.

When I was about 19 years old, I went to a friend of my father’s to ask for advice. I think I had some vague idea of becoming a famous writer or musician — I know I didn’t have anything very definite in mind, and probably what I wanted was advice about how to become focused and inspired enough to do something that thousands of people would admire. That wasn’t exactly what I asked, and that wasn’t what I learned, but I did get a couple of tips.

My father’s friend was a painter named Elmer Bischoff. They had met in the late 1930s, in Sacramento, when they were both struggling young painters. Elmer went on to become rather famous, with one-man shows in New York galleries and so on. My father never achieved anything like that level of success, which is why I was going to Elmer for advice. They remained friends, though. About once a year, Elmer and his wife and his brother Bert would drive out to Livermore and have dinner with my parents They would sit around the dining room table, get drunk, and gang up on poor Bert, because he was a conservative and all the rest of them were liberals.

But I digress. I went up to Elmer’s office at UC Berkeley, where he was teaching at the time — this would have been the late ’60s — and asked him, “How did you do it?” (I’m pretty sure those were my exact words.)

He mentioned that in the early days, when he was living in Roseville, he used to get up two hours early every morning, while his family was still asleep, so he would have time to paint. (He had two young children at the time. I’m sure his wife had more responsibility for taking care of them than Elmer did, but the principle is the same.) The other thing he said was, “Your wife will just have to understand that sometimes the car is not going to get washed.”

Today we would call that setting priorities. It’s about having a set of values that are your own, values that you guard jealously. If you let other people dictate your values to you, or if you care more about their feelings than about your work, you’ll probably find it very difficult to get where you want to go.

Speaking of priorities reminds me of another bit of wisdom, which I picked up some years later from an ex-Air Force pilot named J.D. Smith, down in Cupertino. J.D. said, “In life you can have anything you want — but you can’t have everything you want.”

So you want to be a writer? How much do you want it? What are you willing to sacrifice? Not to take a potshot at my friend, but if your kids’ soccer games are more important to you than your writing, you’ve made your decision. And it may be the right decision! Not everybody is meant to be a writer. But if you want to scratch the itch, maybe you’ll find Elmer’s advice worth pondering.

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One Response to Scratching the Itch

  1. Lovely story here and great advice! Elmer sounds like a total dude!

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