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How to Become a Writer: The Long Though Not Particularly Hard Way

Arvid Ingan writes:

How in god's name did you become a pro screenwriter and start writing for The Simpsons??

I hate this question. Not the question itself, despite it containing a sin, but the answer, which is tedious and only helpful as a contrary example. But here it is, with all of the boring parts included, because I think they're probably more instructive than the exciting parts.

I decided I wanted to write when I was about 12, rummaging through my father's closet for the Playboys he slipped between copies of Golf magazine. I came across two yellowing clips from the Irish Independent newspaper. They were short stories. The byline read, "By Larry Doyle."

I remember writing my first humorous story for eighth grade English for Mrs. Bone. She was a skeletal, bluish lady, who had some sort of fungus on her elbow she was always scratching. If she talked to you for more than a minute, she always left a fine sprinkling of dust on your desk. The story I wrote had something to do with me dying and my mom wrapping me in tin foil because she didn't want to waste money on a coffin. People laughed.

At Buffalo Grove High School, I submitted a short story to the BG Charger newspaper contest, about a guy who is talking to his buddies about breaking up with his girlfriend, and then he walks over to her, and she breaks up with him. Very O. Henry. I won second prize, and got a check for five dollars. I have a thermofax of that check in my office.

On a visit to my future Alma Mater, the University of Illinois, I stopped at a Little Professor Bookstore and bought copies of Woody Allen's Without Feathers and Getting Even. Shortly thereafter, I wrote a story called "The Professor and the Case of the Unaccompanied Parakeet." (I'm glad I am out of town, or I would masochistically scan pages and post them.) My girlfriend typed up this 20-page masterpiece (on onionskin to save on postage) and I sent it to Playboy. They rejected it. Seeing that many of Woody's pieces had been published in The New Yorker (which I had never read), I sent it there. Politely rejected. I then sent it to every magazine at the library, as well as Hustler magazine (which said the story "does not meet our needs at this time").

WRITING LESSON: If at first you don't succeed, give up.

Instead of sending that terrible piece all over the place, I should have been writing my next terrible piece.

My freshman year at the U of I, I spent a huge amount of time in the undergraduate library, not studying but excavating ancient bound copies of the New Yorker, discovering the work of Benchley, Thurber, Parker and Salinger. On a bus trip to visit my high school girlfriend in Canada, I bought a copy of Donald Barthleme's Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts and read the whole thing straight through. When I got back, I checked out every one of his books.

[I'm writing this at a Starbucks on 6th Avenue and 20th street in New York and John Locke just walked in! SPOILER: He's not dead! He's waiting in line to use the bathroom. Why would he do that? Alert lostpedia.]

Anyway, I took a couple of fiction writing courses with Mark Costello, who told great stories, usually more than once. I wrote many Woody Allen and Donald Barthleme stories there. After the final course, Mark Costello told me that I was good with words and should pursue a career in writing, but that I obviously wasn't a fiction writer.

[UPDATE: John Locke buys his own coffee!]

I also worked at the Daily Illini, where I did the Campus Scout humor column and wrote three different comic strips with three different artists. I read nearly every "Pogo" comic strip in the back issues.

I dropped out of clinical psychology graduate school, and got a masters in journalism, mostly because it gave me the opportunity to edit the Daily Illini's weekly magazine.

I graduated, and was unemployed for about a year.

Finally, a friend of mine, Beth Austin, told her boss at United Press International that my parents were going to throw me out of the house if I didn't find a job. So I became a unipresser. There I learned to write whether I felt like it or not.

WRITING LESSON: Just write.

UPI was going under at the time and bouncing paychecks; anybody who could find another job found one, which left a lot of room for advancement. I became UPI's chief medical reporter and filed more than 1,200 stories in one year. Meanwhile, some college friends and I formed a writing group in order to make us actually write. I wrote several Barthleme pieces, which I sent to the New Yorker, which politely and pro forma declined. Then one day, a personal note for Julia Just (now Children's Book Editor at the New York Times) was added to the rejection, encouraging me to submit more. I probably submitted a dozen pieces, which received longer and more polite rejections.

Simultaneously, I had been trying to get "Escaped from the Zoo," a college comic strip I did with Neal Sternecky, syndicated. No one bought it, but the Los Angeles Times Syndicate remembered us when Walt Kelly's family decided to bring back "Pogo". After about two years of try-outs, negotiations and delays, we were hired.

The strip was a failure. It started in more than 300 papers, and we were on The Today Show, but every time a newspaper did a poll, we came in last and were dropped. This was primarily because the writing wasn't very good.

WRITING LESSON: Do Your Own Thing

One of the pieces I had sent to the New Yorker, an non-Barthleme manqué inspired by the years I had spent pining for an old girlfriend, was not outright rejected. They asked me to make some changes. I was terrified. A year later, with "Pogo" going down the tubes, I decided that my non-rejected New Yorker piece was preventing me from a complete wallow, and I revised it. They accepted it.

It ran on January 15, 1990.

I was 31. My life had changed, I thought.

To Be Continued...

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Without Feathers Used Mass Market $3.50
  2. Getting Even
    Used Mass Market $3.50

  3. I Love You, Beth Cooper
    Used Hardcover $3.50


Larry Doyle is the author of I Love You, Beth Cooper

3 Responses to "How to Become a Writer: The Long Though Not Particularly Hard Way"

  1.  
    Miss Gretchen May 16th, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    I know that Starbucks well (the WFMU record fair has been held at the nearby Metropolitan Pavilion for the past few years and you need a lot of lattes to get thru a weekend amongst vinyl afficianados.) Maybe John Locke was taking a break from a mammoth shopping expedition at the Men's Wearhouse. He got tired of the same sweaty tee shirt.
    (enjoying your writing bio BTW)
    (and missing Housing Works whilst residing out of state)

  2.  
    April Younglove May 16th, 2007 at 6:27 pm

    I think I heard the Leanne piece of the radio a while ago and didn't know what I was listening to. I tried to figure it out, but didn't have success. I really loved it!

  3.  
    J Wood May 20th, 2007 at 8:03 am

    I was half-expecting Locke to crawl out of the pit with a double-latte in his hand. No luck.

    I'm dissertating now and am trying to learn to writer whether I feel like it or not. I think all writers would be a lot better off with a Zen master standing behind us and whacking us with a stick when we stray.

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