When I was a graduate student in the Stanford University Creative Writing Program in the early seventies, the only tool you needed to "send out your stuff" was a pile of manila envelopes. You made one copy at the copy store (no home fax/copiers/lingerie washer), slipped the crisply typed manuscript into a brown envelope, licked the stamps, and sent it into the unknown. We worked on portable typewriters and made corrections with tiny annoying strips of adhesive you had to paste precisely over the error. Or there was White Out, a pasty fluid that stained your fingertips and if you didn't have the chemistry right, left a puddle of gunk on the offending word and flakes inside the machine. No wonder we drank a lot.
Raymond Carver and Robert Stone did stints at Stanford when the program was run by Wallace Stegner. I was lucky to be part of another group of extraordinary talents including Scott Turow, Chuck Kinder, Michael Rogers, andThomas Zigal. (Mystery lovers alert! If you haven't read Zigal's Kurt Muller Trilogy, order now. You are in for a treat). Our teacher was the incomparable and now sadly mourned Tillie Olsen, who encouraged ? no, demanded ? that I send a short story called "Sailing" (in a manila envelope) to the Atlantic Monthly, where it was published as an Atlantic First and my break into publishing.
We were training to be writers. Or as Chuck put it with the self-conscious irony of the times ? "writors" ? which meant that despite our hipster ways, we took ourselves, our work, and literary traditions seriously. Being a writer meant you knew how to behave in a writerly way in a bar as well as a faculty party, and of course, at lunch with your mythical editor in New York.
There was certain decorum to being a writer, part of which meant you sent out your stuff and waited humbly to be noticed by important persons. The work itself had to stand. It was only about those typewritten pages. There were no alternative universes in which to fool people by promoting your clever personality. There was no blogging, sending email blasts, attempting to demolish others on your panel at book fairs, getting into people's faces asking for blurbs, writing fluff pieces about yourself, trading integrity in order to publish quickly. Showing off and selling out were lowly behaviors, not considered "literary."
Although bad behavior was permitted, even extolled, if you were drunk. As I said, we did respect tradition, in which literary competition was certainly a time-honored component. Once, deeply into a San Francisco night and San Francisco hash, a member of our graduate seminar challenged a room of people to a race around the block, climaxing with a leap at the finish line over an antique chair. This was considered admirably "freaky." The chair didn't survive.
But here we are, and being a writer now seems to be all about leaping over chairs. Judas Horse is my fourth novel, published by Alfred A. Knopf, the best house in the world, and I'm still doing it. People say "you have to" or your serious work will disappear beneath a sea of ink dedicated to the high jinx of movie stars and self-serving politicians. Writers or dental hygienists, we're told we all need websites to validate our existence; we each have to make a 'big noise' in this noisy world, adding up to the cacophony of the Internet. But here I am and here you are, and if you're reading this, you're reading books. You know why? Because good books are still the real thing. They're crafted by individuals over time. They resonate with other minds. They transcend the noise with music.
I wrote a novel I feel is important. It took four years to achieve publication, which is officially next week. It's about loyalty and the way the FBI treats its wounded, which says a lot about any military organization. But in case you're not convinced, tomorrow I will post a little video production I did involving herds of wild horses, the talent of a Hollywood film composer, the London Symphony Orchestra, and a very smart webmaster. Race you around the block?