Where were we now? Oh yes, back on the job in California, shortly after my trip to Ireland. Dealing with writers.
I hope not to disappoint after yesterday’s cliffhanger. But this really is about writers and not about defiance and resistance — though it is possible that my old friend Maurice could make another appearance before this story is done.
Not long after returning, I was making my way down the pile of short-story manuscripts when I ran across another from one of those “two percent” writers — the almost-wonderful ones.
This manuscript told a charming tale, perfect for the kind of magazine we were working on.
It was about the first radio in a small town in the late 1930s, and the shy young doctor who owned it. On the day the story took place, the doctor was juggling a medical emergency and a budding romance with his nurse (of which he was oblivious as the story opened) while the town’s only mechanic tried frantically to get the radio working in time for a big Christmas Eve concert. Everybody was running hither and thither, with the whole town counting on the doctor and his radio. Because of course everybody was expected to gather ’round that all-important radio on that all-important holiday evening. If the mechanic failed, if the doctor didn’t cure his patient and get home in time to open his doors to his neighbors, it would be a town tragedy to be mourned for the next year, if not the next decade.
And the story was set in Ireland, which of course made it great for an airline magazine and intrigued the heck out of me.
But as I say, it was a two-percenter. The plot couldn’t have been livelier or lovelier. The writing was competent. The big — big — flaw was that the writer hadn’t created any real sense of time or place or character. Everything was generic. Generic Irish people. Generic town. Generic era. Generic.
So promising, though.
I looked at the return envelope. The address was only about 20 miles from our office. I took a deep breath, called the writer, and said, “I really like your story, but I think it needs more work. We’d be willing to buy it if you’d be willing to revise it. Would you come down and meet with me?”
A few days later I was sitting across the desk from a friendly older lady named Betty. She had taken up writing only recently, after the death of her husband. She was delighted somebody was considering her story and eager to do anything she could to get it published.
Unfortunately, either I wasn’t explaining myself well or she just couldn’t get it. “It needs to be more specific,” I said. “Right now it doesn’t feel as if these people are genuine individuals living at a particular time. Or in a specific place.”
“But it is a specific time,” she protested. “And some of them are real people. I knew them. I spent time with them as a girl and as a young woman.”
I was trying to think how to explain that no matter how real everything was in her head, she hadn’t gotten that “realness” onto the page. Before I got the chance, she continued. “And I assure you it’s a very real place! In fact, it’s a village called ________.”
You know what’s coming, don’t you?
She spoke the real name of my Glocca Morra. That tiny, obscure spot in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world, that place no outsider would go if not for pranksters turning road signs.
I went white. When I explained why, Betty also went white. Minutes later, we were both shaking as we shared recollections. Yes, she knew that monument with the trumpeting angel. Of course she remembered the fallen-down stone house. And did she know Maurice Daneher? Good heavens, naturally she did! And the pub in the story, a place where all her characters kept leaving messages for each other? That was none other than Daneher’s — although Maurice’s father was still running it when the great wooden radio came to town.
Betty went home, still in a daze, to revise her story. She and I eventually became friends (or at least as much as my snotty young self would allow an old lady to be friends with me). We had lunches together and she shared memories from her very adventurous life with her husband, whom she missed terribly.
But she never did get that story right. She tried and tried. Betty willingly revised her heart out. But while she improved many details, she never got past the original sense of everything being generic.
We bought the story because I’d promised to. But we’d never have run it, even if the poor magazine hadn’t quickly disappeared from the CEO’s interests and the airline’s budget.
That’s the heartbreaking thing about “two-percent” writers. It’s absolutely possible that some will find their way — via hard work, good observation, practice, constructive criticism, more practice, time, and a heavy measure of luck — into being one-percent writers. Truly dazzling writers.
But most won’t. All my experience tells me this.
Betty may have been too old and set in her ways. Or too literal in her thinking to get that she had to put Glocca Morra on the page, not just see it in her mind. I don’t know why. But she couldn’t do it.
Ms. Lynn Shepherd, who inspired this long recollection, will never rise out of the two percent because she doesn’t have the wisdom and humility to understand that she needs to try.
And I confess that one reason the two-percenters break my heart is that … I’m one of them. When I was young I moped about waiting for “inspiration,” never realizing that what I needed much more was “backside planted in chair” to write and write and write some more. Then and later, I stayed in the two percent because of self-doubt or lack of confidence or because I had no natural talent for fiction and wasn’t strong or patient or brave enough to push past my own barriers.
Oh, sometimes — with non-fiction, with rants — I get up there in one-percent territory. I think I do, anyhow.
But mostly, I live with the frustration of knowing I’ll never be more than merely good. Never great.
For writers, and all artists, there is that … call it a trumpeting angel atop a grand obelisk. It’s the height worth reaching. And we two-percenters, for whatever reason, don’t soar that high.
And, Ms. Shepherd, whatever our particular faults may be, we’ll never soar, even if every greater artist in the world were to step aside, get behind us, and push us upward with all their amazing power.
One more thing you might like to hear from Betty before our story ends.
At that first meeting I asked her, “Did somebody in the town really burn a Black and Tans’ barrack?”
I had half a suspicion that my old friend Maurice had only made up that tale because I so obviously wanted a little drama.
She hesitated. “That was before my time. But yes. It happened. Everybody talked about it, even years later.”
“Who did it?”
“Oh, that was never said, you know. Not aloud. At first, it would have been too dangerous and might have gotten many people killed — and not just the ones who set the fire. Later people never said because they’d just developed the habit of silence. Officially, no one knows. Not to this day.”
“But really … who did it? People in small towns always know. Who had the guts to burn the barracks, knowing what those evil thugs would do to them if they were caught?”
Betty gave me a sly little smile. “Well, you know that as well as anybody, don’t you? After all, you met one of them.”