The Writer Gene
November 24th, 2009

Is there such a thing as a writer gene? If so, I believe the government should start giving blood tests to prospective couples in order to determine whether one party to the union is genetically inclined toward writing, an affliction guaranteed to render him or her unfit for gainful employment.

Often, the crippling effects of literary ambition are manifest early. Let’s imagine there is a pupil in Miss Heinlein’s Tenth Grade English class who flushes with excitement when assigned to write a thousand-word book report. Let’s say that pupil was me, and let’s also confess that after the bell rang, Steven Lennberg cornered me in the hallway and threatened to do me bodily harm unless I agreed to write a thousand-word book report for HIM! Which I did—not so much because I feared Steven Lennberg, but because to my way of disordered thinking the only thing more fun than writing one book report would be writing TWO!

I was somewhat disappointed when Steven got a higher grade for “his” essay than I got for mine. Last thing I wanted was to be somebody’s ghost writer. No, I wanted a byline, and I’m here to tell you that the first time I opened a magazine and beheld my name in print I was ecstatic. I had arrived! When I showed the magazine to my bride, she asked how much the magazine was going to pay me for the article.

“Who knows? But let’s not worry about that. The editor said my check is in the mail.”

That was almost forty years ago. Since then I’ve sold hundreds of magazine articles and cashed dozens of checks. Other checks are still in the mail, most in the mid to high two-figure range. Meantime, my long suffering spouse has been forced to work two and three jobs in order to keep a roof over our heads and bread on the table. Well, too bad for her there was no blood test for the writer gene when we got married. Had there been, she might have opted for the orthodontist.

From time to time I’ve tried to straighten up and fly right, but evidently the urge to write can’t be cured; it can only be managed. I’m thinking of my late Uncle Farris, who to all outward appearances was a dutiful husband and provident parent—all the while struggling to keep his writing compulsion under wraps.

Here’s what little I know about him. He was born in 1900 and grew up in the rough and tumble mining camp of Eureka, Utah. The eldest of my mother’s three brothers, Farris somehow learned to read and write in spite an economic climate that mainly valued “a mind that’s weak and a back that’s strong.” In his senior year he served as editor of the Tintic High School Yearbook, in which he penned a moving tribute to the brave doughboys of World War I.

Following graduation, Farris journeyed to San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle, working variously as a printer’s devil and newspaper reporter before settling down in Salem, Oregon. Obliged to provide for a wife and two kids, he taught himself accounting and soon became a pillar of the business community.Farris_1938

From time to time we would get letters from Uncle Farris. Informative, immaculately typed missives—just the sort of thing you’d expect from an accountant. But I had begun to suspect there was more to it than that.

“Mom,” I asked one day. “Is Uncle Farris a…writer?”

Mother put a finger to her lips and pulled me aside. “He is, but don’t you ever tell a living soul. It’s a family secret. He’s even published some articles, one in Boy’s Life.”

BOY’S LIFE!? Holy cow, that was the holy grail of periodicals. Not only was it my favorite magazine, it was the only magazine I’d ever heard of. From that day on, I felt a special kinship with my so-called accountant uncle in Oregon. Alas, it wasn’t until 1970 that my Uncle Farris finally came out of the closet and self-published a memoir titled WOOING IS WOE. The dust jacket is pink and blue—the most annoying color combination imaginable, according to the noted photographer Al Weber.wooing_2

Lately I’ve been dipping into it, and here’s what I think. Uncle Farris could write as well as anyone, but he would have done much better had his book come out fifty years earlier. Not only is it set during the Jazz Age, but it’s also written in a jazzy, mannered style reminiscent of the era. I suspect Farris was laboring under the influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and also Doctor Joseph H. Peck, whose book ALL ABOUT MEN had made the New York Times Best Seller List in 1958. Dr. Peck, like my uncle, was from Juab County, and if Juab County could produce one literary lion, why not two?

Alas, it was not to be. WOOING IS WOE never caught on, and Uncle Farris soon faded into the obscurity out of which, frankly, he had never risen. As for Peck’s book, in this post-feminist movement era it seems hopelessly dated, if not downright misogynistic.

I suppose nothing is easier than to pick apart the scribblings of bygone scribes. But remember this: had my late uncle not written that book, what would I know of him? Nothing. No man would know his history. His legacy would loom no larger than the hole in the ground my grandfather helped dig in a rocky hillside above what little remains of the once booming Eureka.

So I suppose that’s one reason why I sit here at my keyboard—that and the sad fact it’s too late now for me to mend my writerly ways. Sadder still: I recently learned that a young nephew of mine has written a screenplay. Surely it isn’t money he’s after; as the co-founder of a thriving internet cosmetics firm, Andrew already pockets more in a day than his poor Uncle Richard does in a year. So why does he do it? I fear he has inherited the dreaded writer gene. In order to keep himself occupied as he awaits a call from his Hollywood agent, he composes blog entries for his company’s website—under a feminine pseudonym.

How does one write like a woman? I wondered.

“I don’t write like a woman,” he replied. “I write like a man and just include stuff like ‘I love it!!!’ and ‘So cute!!!’

“Take this sentence, for example, written by a man for the AP:

‘The Connecticut Huskies finally won one for their slain teammate, handing Notre Dame and Coach Charlie Weis a second straight bitter defeat on Senior Day.’

Translated into hot chick language:

‘Honoring their fallen friend, the team with the white furry dogs were victorious over the keenly clad Catholics from Indiana. Charlie Weis is like a cute little Teddy Bear!’”

I love it! So cute! But will it stand the test of time?

-Richard Menzies