“It’s the most important thing to remember if you want to be a writer: writing is something you do alone in a room.”
|That night tigers stalked my dreams—dreams unlike any before or since.|
Those words first appeared in L.A. Weekly in 1993, penned by Michael Ventura, one of the wisest and most underrated writers working in the US today.
(His Letters at 3AM appears bimonthly in the Austin Chronicle http://www.austinchronicle.com/)
A quick Google will bring up his essay, The Talent Of The Room, reprinted all over the Web (with and without permission.) Read it. It may be the most important advice ever offered to aspiring writers:
"The only thing you really need… is the talent of the room. Unless you have that, your other talents are worthless.”
It voices the great paradox of our profession: we are in the business of communicating, yet we cannot do so unless we are alone.
Since I was 12, Ventura—“Speedy” we called him—has been my writing guru. He was 14 when we met—a tough little refugee from Brooklyn, sent to the frozen sanctuary of our Maine prep school after losing his family to tragedies my young mind could barely comprehend. What I did comprehend was that I adored Speedy. Wanted to be around him. Wanted him to like me. Wanted to BE him.
He represented freedom to me—the world outside smalltown New England and the confines of what was expected of a privileged girl-child in the mid-20th Century.
Speedy was a poet. So I became a poet too, terrifying my teachers with revenge-fantasy rants and pretentious, nihilistic whinges. My teachers hated them of course—but Speedy, who edited the school literary magazine, didn’t. He published my first poem. Told me I could write. This wasn’t because Speedy adored me back. My existence barely flickered across his radar.
But longing to be worthy of him fuelled my fantasies. Probably most of the misadventures of my young life were born of that longing: from dating the son of a Mafia don at 16, to joining SDS at 18, to vagabonding around Europe too long after college, then joining a California guerrilla street theater—so much of what made me who I am—came from that initial desire to be worthy of an orphaned red-diaper Sicilian kid.
And all during those wild years, I kept writing. And getting rejections. (Except for a few didactic street plays rewarded with a pass-the-hat donation or two). But I always made time to be alone in whatever “room” I could carve out of the back of a boyfriend’s van or a noisy café, scribbling in notebooks or pounding on my tiny Olivetti.
But about 12 years ago, I gave up. I had finally finished a novel, signed with a prestigious New York agency, and nearly landed a contract with Bantam, when the deal fell through—I never knew why—and my agent dropped me. I spent two years not writing a word.
My sunlit study—the nicest writing room I’d ever had—felt like a cage I couldn’t enter, where a former pet, turned wild beast, waited to tear out my heart.
Then, through a series of coincidences too weird to make rational sense even now, I re-connected with Ventura, at that point a star at L.A. Weekly, author of three books, one a best-seller.
During one amazing evening, 30 years and a continent away from our first meeting, we caught up on lifetimes of personal history, revealed long-buried secrets, and drank a staggering amount of scotch. He talked of tigers—their fearsome, predatory beauty; their imminent extinction: ideas gestating for his 1994 novel, The Zoo Where You’re Fed To God.
That night tigers stalked my dreams—dreams unlike any I’ve had before or since. I woke feeling that some part of Ventura had entered my soul—that I had dreamed his dream.
In the morning, I made the mistake of telling him, revealing my life-long crush. He was polite but distant as he drove off in his ancient Chevy Malibu. I never saw him again.
But the next day, I went back to my room. Met my own tiger. And wrote. Didn’t stop until I’d finished five novels. Am I a writer because of my adolescent crush on Speedy Ventura? Or did I have the crush because I was a writer?
Did I want someone I couldn’t have because my real need was to be alone? Do we simply fall in love with who we want to become? I have no answers.
But my new novel came out this month; I’ve just been given bona fide “columnist” status here at IN; and my fourth novel is in final edit.
I’m not exactly a poster-person for writing success, but I’m on the road. And in the room. Alone. It feels like where I belong.
Thank you, Speedy.
Anne R. Allen is a California novelist and book editor who has been living part time in the UK. Her latest comic novel, The Best Revenge, an historical novel of the nineteen-eighties, (Babash-Ryan) debuted in the UK on Sept. 1, 2005. Her first novel, Food Of Love is now available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com as well as amazon.co.uk. Her latest non-fiction piece, Letting my Bitch-Light Shine, appears in the September issue of the litzine Chick Flicks. firstname.lastname@example.org