Monday, November 17, 2014

Why I Write

My husband and I had had a good year and decided to go to Africa on a photographic safari. At the Mt. Kenya Safari Club we met an Englishman, who turned out to be the transport king of Uganda, running trucks between Kampala and Mombasa. The problem was there was a revolution in Uganda and the soldiers would kill you for your shoes. After telling us about his life he asked, "And what do you do?"

"We're writers," I said. 

He looked at us with horror. "But isn't that a chancy occupation?"

It is. But it's what I do. I wrote my first novel in 6th grade: 48 handwritten pages about pirates. The reviews were unanimous: "The child needs her head examined."

After graduating from Northwestern with a BS in theater (appropriate) I started writing radio plays for WBEZ, at that time it was the radio station of the Chicago Public Schools. From there I went into advertising in Chicago and then in Paris. I was doing well and making a "grande salaire," but my three-year-old was unhappy, so we moved back to New Orleans, where we "lived on air " as the French say and where I wrote an unpublishable novel. But it was there I met a screenwriter and decided to go to Hollywood and break into show business. 

We wrote two unproduceable screenplays together,before he returned to New Orleans. But I stayed, still "living on air" supporting myself and my son writing a little advertising, industrial films, and journalism. In those days, the late 70s, there were very few women working behind the camera, but I persisted and after a very few years earned enough to buy a house in Malibu. I wrote for many shows, but am best remembered for writing that icon of pop culture: "Who Done It?" the WHO SHOT J.R.? episode of Dallas.

I wrote pilots, movies of the week, feature films and even soap operas and was still getting assignments when I decided I had to stop to fulfill a life-long ambition. I wanted to write a novel imbued with my own cynical humor, a love story set in the South at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. I lived with my imaginary friends for three years until, The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc was born. 

It took a while to find a publisher, but when William Morrow/HarperCollins had the good sense to bring it out, it became a Literary Guild Selection, a Barnes and Noble Great New Writers Pick, and a National Best Seller. It engendered, "The Southern Belle's HandbookSissy LeBlanc's Rules to Live By." And after years of research, William Morrow published The Bad Behavior of Belle Cantrell set in 1920, the year prohibition came in, women got the vote, and the Ku Klux Klan sent salesmen to little towns all over America as a money making pyramid scheme.

The Englishman in Kenya was right. Writing is a chancy profession. But here's what I tell students: "Imagine you could scrape by as a writer - we all need to eat and pay rent. Now imagine you could make a million dollars selling real estate." If the million dollars is what you want, real estate is a good bet. But if you long to be an artist spending hours alone in a room with your imaginary friends and making a million dollars any other way seems meaningless. Then you are a writer. You must write.

Robert Graves said, "There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money."