Every writer struggles to tell the next great story

The other day a parent at our daughter’s school asked me what I did for a living.

When I answered “writer,” she said, “Oh, horses?”

It was obvious I needed to enunciate better. “A wri-ter,” I said. “Not a jockey.” And I mimicked the motion of scribbling across a page.

“Oh,” she said, seemingly not satisfied with the explanation. A suspicious look came over her.

“So where do you work?” she said.

“At home,” I said, which might have been apparent to her had she noticed that I was wearing jeans and a ratty T-shirt in the middle of the afternoon.

“Are you a reporter?” she said, delving further.

“Occasionally,” I said. “But not really.”

“Can you make a living at writing?” she wondered. (In fairness to her, my wardrobe may have prompted that question.)

“The life has its ups and downs,” I said. “But I’m sticking with it regardless.”

“Why?” she said.

I fessed up and told her that writing was about the only skill I could perform with even a minimal degree of competence.

“I’m pathetic at manual labor,” I said, “and I really suck at math and science.”

At that very moment, another acquaintance came by and said he’d recently purchased a book I’d written. His timing was both good and dreadfully bad. Good in that it validated my occupation for the last 35 years, but bad in that it totally altered the tone of the woman who had been interrogating me.

“Oh, so you write books,” she said, lighting up like a Roman candle. “Well, you’re exactly the person I’ve been looking for. I have the most amazing Las Vegas story you’ve ever heard, and I just need someone to write it for me.”

I hear solicitations like this often, sometimes at lunch or dinner, more often over the phone from a stranger.

The clear implication when folks say they have a great idea for a book or movie and just require a scribbler to put it on paper for them is that the person making the pitch is holding all the valuable goodies in this proposition and that the prospective writer is merely a necessary nuisance to be tolerated on the path to stardom.

This is akin to telling Herman Melville, “Hey, Hermie, I have this story about a big fish and a guy who’s mad at it. If you can just toss some verbiage around and put the commas in the right place for me, I can take credit for one of the great novels of American literature. … Oh yeah, the fish’s last name is Dick.”

The fact that the idea person’s work is nearly completed at this point, and that Melville is facing five tortured years of agony and barrels of whiskey to get it down on paper, is somehow lost on the former.

My point here is that any story on its face is insignificant in comparison to the art of telling it. Even the most compelling set of circumstances falls flat when told by an ineffective interpreter. And the most mundane behavior imaginable can come alive and reverberate with meaning in the hands of an eloquent wordsmith.

Think of how a great joke can be deflated by a bumbling joke teller, and conversely how relatively simple daily behaviors can come to life through the eloquence and style of a Garrison Keillor, or even a Jerry Seinfeld.

Or think of a story like “Driving Miss Daisy,” which in the hands of playwright Alfred Uhry became a great stage play and an Oscar-winning film. Should the accolades go to the person who said, “I have an idea for a movie. A black chauffeur drives an elderly white woman to town frequently and they become friends”?

Is that idea brilliant? Is it deserving of awards? Of course not. It’s downright boring on its face and sounds like a breaking-racial-barriers story we’ve heard countless times. But in the hands of a craftsman like Uhry, who understands how to create character, select the precise scenes which move the drama forward, and through action and dialogue bring the story to a moving conclusion, a simple storyline is transformed into art and brings laughter and tears to the play’s observers.

Ernest Hemingway put it beautifully: “A writer’s problem does not change. He himself changes and the world he lives in changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly, and having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it.”

It’s not hard to understand why people in my chosen profession occasionally feel like Rodney Dangerfield, getting no respect at all. There are reasons for this: There is no dress code, we do our work sitting down, and the casual observer at first glance doesn’t see what’s so tough about throwing some words on a page. We learn how to do that in the first grade, after all, but most of us grow out of it, right?

Through years of practice, I’ve come up with a response that usually ends the discussion when I’m told I might be useful in helping someone with a so-so yarn write a popular book or screenplay.

I’ll say something like, “No one cares more about your story than you do. Your tale in the hands of an outsider will not contain the passion you have in your voice as you tell it to me. If you really care that much about getting this story told, you must write it yourself.”

Of course, they don’t do that because they can’t. And the reason they can’t is that good writing is grueling work, requires tremendous discipline, a certain degree of talent, and years of experience to discover what is true, and then craft it in a pleasing way. And yes, the correct use of punctuation is as critical to the process of writing as using the right instruments is in brain surgery.

When I tackle an ambitious project, how do I know when I’m ready to compose the first line? On rare occasions, I have it in my head before I sit down.

More often, the preparation goes like this: hit the space bar nine times, realize I need to brush my teeth, get up, answer the phone even though caller ID says it’s a pollster, walk the dog, then walk the other dog, check out the fridge to see if something is in there that wasn’t there 10 minutes ago, change my shirt, sit down again and write the first thing that comes to mind.

It’s no more difficult than that.

Longtime Las Vegas resident and author Jack Sheehan’s column appears monthly. He says he loves the city, with all its wonder and weirdness, and thinks it offers the richest menu of writing material on the planet. Email him at or call him at (702) 277-0660.

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