Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writers' Manual by Rita Mae Brown (Bantam: $16.95; 254 pages)
"Life is a conversation between the dead, the living and the unborn--between all that was and all that can be. . . . Every time a person puts pen to paper s/he bids for immortality. Or at the very least she makes a bold try to reach out to those she will never see or hear. Writing is a communal art. It brings us together over centuries and natural boundaries. . . ." Those sentences are about the only ones in this writers' manual that have to do with abstractions and high-sounding thoughts. The rest of this grumpy, contentious, informative, very useful book has to do with how you make that "bold try to reach out," how you learn to live the life of a writer. And "Starting From Scratch" is written from such a grounded position that in a sense, it could become a manual for almost anything else in life that is a "calling," and not just a job.
Which is not to say that some of the thoughts here aren't "wrongheaded" and the prose examples downright clunky. But after a while it dawns on the reader--Brown must be one of those born teachers who says something outrageous simply to get a rise out of her students. Or, again, maybe not. Maybe she's just wrongheaded sometimes, and sometimes writes clunky prose. . . .
Tommy Thompson, when he was teaching would-be writers, often advised them to "come down off the mountain of art," and certainly that is what Brown does here. (You know this writing manual was not written by a member of academia, though it would be wonderful to see it show up, in its later, paperback form, in hundreds of creative writing classes across America.) What the author does here is address the real concerns of real writers--how to write, when, where and why; how to make a living, and how to remain sane while doing it.
The author starts from the ground up--talking a little about herself, so that you can, in a sense, choose to believe her or not. She tells you she was illegitimate, and then adopted. That after her stormy first years she lived an idyllic life in Fort Lauderdale when it was still a rural seaside paradise. That her father bought her first typewriter. That she went to the University of Florida, got in trouble for her civil rights views and ended up in "New York City at age 19 in the summer of 1964. No money. No nothing."
Brown published her first book when she was 22. Her second, "Ruby Fruit Jungle," put her on the literary map: "Eat your hearts out," she remarks to all the major publishers in New York . . . the book has sold millions of copies. . . ." Writers have long, long memories.
So, here she is. A self-made, self-consciously working-class Southern woman who loves to ride horses, insult the Establishment, tease the IRS. But at the same time, she's a Southern elitist who insists that without a fluent knowledge of Latin, an American writer can't write a word. She's also a writer who knows that when the love of your life leaves and then tells about it in the newspapers, when your cat dies and your mom dies and your roommate gets AIDS, there is still one thing that keeps you centered, still on the Earth, living and working. That "thing" is writing. And so Brown begins, in an aristocratic/vulgar/bossy fashion, to tell us how to do it.
Be sure to get enough sleep and exercise! Stay away from drugs and booze! (Male writers only drink, she says, to prove they're heterosexual.) But plenty of sex is swell! "The great advantage of being a woman writer is that no one will accuse you of sleeping your way to the top. In our business that's impossible." Get enough exercise every day! When you're writing, stay five pounds under your ideal weight! Be sure you have enough light!
You can see already that this sets arguments: There are things to be said for alcohol (as you strive to get to what you haven't even thought yet), and against sex (think of all the male writers, especially, who have spent their talents and their time in motel rooms in the afternoon, trying to get away from writing. . . .).
Try for stable relationships with both "peace and passion!" No problem. Go to school as an undergraduate, but Brown (as a Ph.D.) suggests that the newsroom of your city's second best newspaper is the best place for your writing education.