Sunday, November 27, 2011
My Lunch With Larry
Every writer needs a mentor. Or at least someone to offer encouraging words during those dark, dismal days of doubt (like when you use too much alliteration and wonder if you'll ever get this writing thing right).
Many writers had an English teacher or creative writing instructor in school who gave them encouragement. I had the good fortune of taking creative writing from Mrs. Marjorie Bruce at good old Taft High. She saw something in me when all I saw was a jock who wanted to play college hoops. She really got me going and believing in myself as a writer, and I kept in touch with her for the rest of her life, until she passed into that great classroom in the sky at the age of 90.
I went to college where they undid some of Mrs. Bruce's good work. There I was told: Writers are born, not made. You can't really learn this stuff. You either have it or you don't. And I certainly didn't have it. I thought writers just sat down and plots and great characters burst out of their fingertips without any effort whatsoever. And I couldn't do that.
So life went on, I did other things, got married, went to law school. But one day I woke up and realized I still wanted to write, that the desire had never gone away. So I set out to try to learn what they said couldn't be learned.
And one of the first people I found who helped me along was Lawrence Block. I read his book, Writing the Novel, and knew at last I had found the encouraging mentor I was looking for. I subscribed to Writer's Digest and read Larry's fiction column every month. I still have big binders on my shelf full of old copies of the magazine, with his columns copiously underlined.
He seemed so able to communicate what it feels like to be a writer, and how a writer thinks. I never read any column of his where I didn't nod my head at least a couple of times, thinking here is a guy who really gets it. And he's generous enough to give it to others.
But it wasn't just his instruction, it was his fiction. The first novel of his I read was Eight Million Ways to Die. It blew me away. I consider it one of the classics of the crime genre. It motivated me. I wanted to be able to write a book someday that packed that kind of punch.
Years later, when I was offered the fiction column at Writer's Digest, I felt like some junior prophet who was taking over the sacred page from Moses. It was a privilege, and I tried my best every month to give readers what Larry had given me.
So it was great to catch up with Moses a week ago at the annual Men of Mystery gathering. Authors and fans of mystery and suspense fiction were there to have table talks and lunch, with Larry as the keynote speaker. His riffs on how he writes, how he stumbled into series, how he picked up one series after a quarter-of-a-century gap––these once again took us into the mind of a consummate pro.
Lawrence Block has won all the mystery awards, some several times, and has a publishing record that is among the top in the field. And he still takes time to go out and encourage writers and talk to fans.
So who has been your mentor, or encourager? What did that person give to you that you needed to hear?