Monthly Archives: March 2017

My Life as a “So-Called” Writer

I’m a writer. At least that’s what it says on the business cards I will get some day. Locum Tenens Physician. Writer. Curmudgeon.

I am a decent writer. I can put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and create cogent sentences and paragraphs. I’ve been writing since grade school; I’d won three essay contests by fifth grade. I can craft a well-reasoned argument. Sometimes I write a tale or two for my friends to read.

Am I a successful writer? That depends on one’s definition or criteria for success. I’ve a long history of writing letters to the editors of various newspapers, magazines and industry throwaways. I had an article, “Paving the Road to Hell,” published in a semi-prestigious journal for physicians who want to be administrators and get away from the daily grind. I would have had another piece published in that journal, but it called into question the very reason for the organization’s existence. They fired the editor after she’d accepted it and that was that!

I have a small following on a blog I’ve been writing for about 4 years. I started out writing political diatribes—which energize me—but my fan base wanted more introspective reflections of my past or heart-warming (and sometimes gut-wrenching) stories from my career. That’s where I’ve stayed. (I use Facebook for a political outlet but it’s not good for my blood pressure.)

Am I a commercially successful writer? Well, if I was going to make a living by writing, like my friend Wendy, I’d starve. The average writer makes enough to pay the bills. Very few hit the big time. I wrote one piece on rural practice for a recruiting magazine – gratis. It was OK but it felt more like a class assignment than something from my soul.

I long ago gave up the idea of being on the New York Times Best Seller list. I shot my wad getting through medical school and practice and I don’t have the stamina or creativity to write a best-seller every year.

I don’t have a classic writer’s persona. I don’t get up at 4 am and write for several hours. I’m not the bearded “writer” in that irritating Volvo commercial with the Walt Whitman voice-over (who is even more pretentious in the long version):

“Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.
Healthy, free, the world before me.
The long brown path before me leading me wherever I choose.
Henceforth, I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune.
Henceforth, I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing.”
(“Song of the Open Road”, from Leaves of Grass, 1856)

I lack his rugged good looks and your average writer doesn’t make enough to drive a high-end car. I have an eleven-year-old Nissan Altima and my inspirational passage would be more like:

“Lead-footed and quarrelsome, I drag my sorry ass
Down another highway to another job
Shackled to the demands of the material world
Lead me not into temptation for I can find it myself
I ask just to stay alive long enough to retire
And tell the rest of the world to go fuck itself.”

I’ve no desire to be one of those desperate writers carrying around their Moleskine books, writing furtively while waiting at the doctor’s office or in a restaurant. I don’t want to fret about being rejected like one of the writers I knew from a local writing group.  You like it? OK. You don’t like it? OK too. I can’t please everyone.

I went to a writer’s workshop in October, 2016, hoping to get a sense that people outside of my circle would find my stuff interesting, intriguing and, most of all, worth publishing. Why? Because I’ve been reading writing magazines for several years trying to figure out what attracts publishers. I read some of their recommendations and thought, “This stuff is crap. What the hell did they see in this?”  Weeks after I couldn’t give you a summary of any of those books if my life depended on it.

So, I ask, “What do readers and publishers/editors want to read and am I writing that kind of stuff?”

I may never get a satisfactory answer as writing is highly subjective. I write best when I have something to say. I don’t write when there’s nothing about which to write, but that isn’t good if I want to create a “platform,” a term than makes me cringe. If I want mental exercise (read: procrastinate), I’ll play my Kindle game, play the piano, shuffle the pile of paper on my desk, or take my faithful furry companion for a walk. Maybe some idea will rear its ugly head, like this narrative or why is my desk never cleared.

My greatest struggle is just writing sometimes for no reason at all.

Memorable Memoirs
Mary Karr: The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit. The Liars’ Club made my childhood seem positively idyllic. Despite a tumultuous life, Mary Karr is the Jesse Truesdell Peck Professor of Literature at Syracuse University.

Tom Robbins: Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. A highly amusing and engaging memoir.

Tobias Wolff: This Boy’s Life. Wolff’s memoir of his adolescence with an abusive stepfather. A young Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the film version.

They write like gods!
Jim Harrison: Legends of the Fall. The first story in this trilogy, “Revenge,” is an exquisite story of love, betrayal and revenge. After reading it I was reminded of Tom Lehrer’s quip: “It’s people like this who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.”

Hugh Howie: The Silo series (Wool, Shift, and Dust). A dystopian future in which humanity now lives in 100+ level underground silos but does not remember why. One woman is determined to find out.

Raymond Atkins: The Front Porch Prophet. A cast of quirky characters in small town Georgia augment the relationship between A. J. Longstreet and his childhood friend, Eugene Purdue, now dying of pancreatic cancer. One reviewer compared Atkins to Mark Twain.

Just damned good fun
Anything by Neil Gaiman: American Gods; Anansi Boys; Neverwhere; The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel, Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett).

Anything by John Sandford

Books on Writing
Stephen King: On Writing

Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd: Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction

Brenda Miller: Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

William Zinsser: Writing About Your Life: A Journey into the Past

Adair Lara: Naked, Drunk and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay