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SAYING IT …ON PAPER (17)

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Sue Grafton was embroiled in a court battle for custody of her children, and she fantasized about murdering her husband. "I knew I couldn't pull it off," she said, "so I decided to put it in a book and get paid for it." She was then Sue Grafton, novelist.

I've always wondered how writers first start. The Writer's Almanac often comments on what first stimulated writers. You might find it interesting, perhaps inspiring. Consider the notion that Grafton was afraid she might really murder her husband – "Write about what you're afraid of," advised Don Barthelme. And "get paid for it"? Samuel Johnson quipped: "No man, but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Ulysses S. Grant, however, needed money. Ten years after serving as President of the U.S. he learned that his investments had been embezzled, and he was completely broke and mired in debt. He was also diagnosed with throat cancer; his health was failing rapidly, and he knew he didn't have long to live. He started to write to provide for his family, despite being in pain and dazed by medication. In less than a year, he wrote 250 000 words. During the last weeks, he could not speak, but continued writing until he finished his Personal Memoirs (1885) four days before he died. It deserves its reputation as great literature.

Sometimes people start to write for apparently trifling reasons, or goaded by impulses or whims. August Wilson for one; he was 20 years old when he spent 20 dollars to buy his first typewriter. "He typed his name, just to see how it would look, and from that point on he knew he wanted to be a writer." Robert Penn Warren, a Pulitzer Prize winner, intended to be a chemist when he went to college. He took a literature class from a popular professor, John Crowe Ransom, and that did it – he left the laboratory and strolled into the library. Frank Baum was telling a story to neighborhood children, making it up as he went along, when suddenly he stopped in mid-story, and went inside to write it down. That was beginning of The Wizard of Oz, an instant success when published.

Katherine Anne Porter was far away from her hometown in Texas, and years after the event that became the seed of her masterpiece. The time and distance from the event must have provided the clarity and interest she needed. She was in Europe, and recalled a story she had been told as a child in Texas about a man in her hometown who was accused of murder, and who went door to door attempting to persuade folks that he was innocent. That story became her famous Noon Wine (1937).

Kierkegaard called off his wedding to Regine because, as he reported in his diary, "I was a thousand years too old for her." Later in life, he admitted that the loss of Regine had turned him into a writer.

Dean Koontz's wife challenged him with a gift. "If you want to be a writer," she told him, "quit your job; I'll support you for five years." In those five years, he published 18 novels.

I'm not sure how to label the stimulus J. K. Rowling experienced. She was on a train journey when the train stopped in the countryside. She looked out the window at a field of cows, and whammy, "Harry Potter just strolled into my head fully formed." By the time the four-hour trip was over, she had the major characters in mind and knew what major steps the characters would take.

I imagine reasons and stories abound about why people became writers. It could happen to any of us. Beware. James Baldwin claims there's nothing you can do about it anyway: "If you're going to be a writer, there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you're not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you."

These examples have dealt with life experiences – what lies within the would-be writer. I guess it's like Louis Armstrong said: "If ya ain't got it in ya, ya can't blow it out."

RICHARD HAAS,
Oddělení studia jazyků ÚJČ AV ČR