In high school I remember watching an instructional film that portrayed a typical day in the life of a professional writer. His day begins with a cup of coffee and a smoke, in a study lined with bookshelves, at a desk with a lamp, behind a typewriter with a blank sheet of paper loaded in the carriage. He is clean-shaven and not in his underwear.
After two or three hours of sporadic pecking he has completed his daily quota of five hundred words. Time to grab the umbrella and tweedy cap and go for a leisurely, meditative stroll, followed by an afternoon nap.
Now, there were some in Miss Heinlein’s English class for whom an assigned 500-word essay would ruin an entire weekend, but I wasn’t one of them. Hell, I loved to write! And after watching that film, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.
In college, I majored in English and quickly became a standout in Mrs. Allred’s creative writing class. “You have a talent that will lead to a career that will be both remunerative and fun,” she wrote across the title page of one of my short stories.
Well, Mrs. Allred, you were half right.
Here’s what they don’t teach you in college. Unless you are independently wealthy, or married to a provident spouse, your chances of living a writer’s life are very slim. If you aren’t born rich or can’t find someone support your writing habit, you’ll have to do like Eric Hoffer and find a day job on the docks. Or you may turn to crime, as in the case of William Sydney Porter. Or, worse still, you may have to take up teaching.
Many of our best writers have succumbed to the siren call of academia, and not because they wanted to teach, but just because they wanted to eat. I have studied at the feet of some of those writers, and I’m here to tell you it’s a sad thing to witness. Teaching takes up so much time that could be better spent walking or napping. Or even writing!
As the years wear on, the gainfully-employed creative writing instructor gradually loses touch with the dog-eat-dog world that lies beyond the ivied walls of academia. Rejection slips? Who needs rejection slips when you can count on automatic acceptance by the university press? Book sales? Simply ordain your opus required reading, and your poor students will be forced to buy it. Positive reviews? You can always count on your fellow creative writing instructors, whose books you also assign to your unfortunate students. Thus I emerged from college thinking that Hemingway and Kerouac were a tad overrated, whereas the real literary giants of our times were Vardis Fisher, Wallace Stegner, and Bernard DeVoto.
Then one day I met William “Chilly” Childress, and got a glimpse into what the life of a professional writer is really like.
I’d read dozens of his magazine articles but still had no idea what to expect as I stood holding a sign with his name on it at the Austin airport. What can you say about a writer whose byline appears simultaneously in STAG and FAMILY CIRCLE? Let’s just say Chilly is versatile. When it comes to selling words, slanting stories, charming editors, twisting arms, or just plain kicking down doors, he is without peer. Many writers are more famous, but no writer in America has sold more stuff than has William Childress.
On this particular “assignment” I had been hired to drive Chilly to San Antonio, where he aimed to interview famed oil fire fighter Red Adair. I was to take pictures while he took notes.
Supposedly, Adair would be attending a convention of oilmen in one of San Antonio’s fancier hotels, but once we got there, we were informed otherwise. No matter—Childress pressed on, bulled his way past security guards, sweet-talked secretaries. Eventually we found a semi-important oilman who consented to be interviewed, an interview that lasted all of five minutes. I shot pictures as Chilly scribbled notes—approximately half a page of notes which Chilly would later flesh out to three thousand words and sell to the bimonthly Houston house organ BIGSHOT TEXAS OILMAN TIMES. Ka-ching!
“So, do you see how it’s done?” he asked me afterwards as we downed one beer after another in a riverwalk bar. “Quick. You need to work quick. In this business, you’re either quick, or you’re dead.”
“Gosh, that sounds vaguely like a Normal Mailer title.”
“Mailer?” Chilly made a face.
At the time, I wasn’t long out of college, where I had majored in English—same as Childress. Difference is, by the time Chilly got to college he’d already served time in Korea as a paratrooper and demolition expert. But the Army was a picnic compared to his hardscrabble boyhood as the eldest son in a family of migrant sharecroppers.
After being discharged, Childress entered Fresno State College on the GI Bill, even though he hadn’t yet earned a high school diploma. Very soon he became a standout in his creative writing class, selling stories to national publications even as his classmates struggled to meet the editorial demands of Fresno State’s literary magazine BACKWASH.
Chilly pounded the bar with his fist and ordered another round. I had a hard time picturing him in an academic setting. Sam Kinison’s role as Professor Turguson in the film BACK TO SCHOOL springs to mind.
The more he drank, the more Chilly reminded me of the volatile Professor Turguson. It didn’t help that it was raining and I was down in the dumps and nearly broke in a strange town. Is this what is known as the writing life? I whined.
Pow! Chilly slammed a closed fist into his palm. “You know what you are, Menzies? You’re a prima donna! I HATE prima donnas!”
I didn’t think that was fair, even though I suppose there may be a grain of truth in it. I’m not the abused stepson of an impoverished sharecropper; I never picked cotton, I never went barefoot or hungry as a boy and as a man I’ve never jumped out of an airplane, nor have I ever blown up anything or seen anybody blown up. So compared to Chilly, I guess you could say I’m a softie. A softie who occasionally writes poetry, although not as well as William Childress writes poetry.
“Dammit, Menzies!” Chilly punched his palm again. “There’s no money in poetry! Don’t go wasting your time writing poetry, you prima donna, you!”
Our temperamental differences established, William Childress and I parted company, although we have continued to correspond from time to time. I’ve saved all his letters, because that’s what writers do. We save letters in hopes that someday down the road, most likely after we’re dead and gone, they will become part of our literary legacy. Take, for instance, this missive from Lord Byron to Lady Francis Hodgson, dated November 3, 1808:
“We dined the other day with a neighboring Esquire…. I was seated near a woman, to whom, when a boy, I was as much attached as boys generally are, and more than a man should be. I knew this before I went, and was determined to be valiant, and converse with sang froid; but instead I forgot my valour and my nonchalance, and never opened my lips even to laugh, far less to speak, and the lady was almost as absurd as myself, which made both the object of more observation than if we had conducted ourselves with easy indifference. You will think all this great nonsense; if you had seen it, you would have thought it still more ridiculous. What fools we are!”
Compare that to this, by William Childress, from his trailer in the Ozarks, addressed to “Ricardo Menzies, Prima Donna to the Court of Spain,” dated August 2, 1976:
“I see I must set you straight re my personal fortunes. I place about 45 to 60 articles a year, but four or five are places like ACCENT, in Ogden, Utah, which pays peanuts albeit on acceptance. I refuse to write for pay on pub mags—the dirty mother bastards reduce a writer to the level of beggar by such tactics. I had to wade fire to get a lousy $400 check from HOLIDAY four years ago; now they want me to do Padre Island for them (which I’m also doing for the mag ADVENTURE ROAD at $200 a day for my bod and camera plus expenses) and I wrote Klassen I wouldn’t for anything less than HALF on acceptance. I am not going to write a fucking piece and have it accepted then hear from those cheapasses that they will stick to their POP policy. There oughta be a law, but there ain’t. A class action suit by writers might help—maybe there IS some law about paying a man within a reasonable time but they can get so many jerks to write POP policy the issue has never been joined.”
On second thought, Mrs. Allred, I’m not sure you were even half right.