Former Pocket Books editor John Ordover glanced fondly at me and said, “Chris, of course you’re a writer. You just haven’t suffered enough yet.”
I frowned and looked away. Was that the problem? Was I trying to write without having experienced enough for my work to be anything more than an imitation of what I thought life was?
John said that to me in 1993 in Lawrence, Kansas at the conclusion of a two-week writers workshop that had convinced me I was a fraud and a fool and it was time to go back to Michigan and start asking people if they wanted their orders supersized. The previous two weeks had been an Earthbound hell of judgment and ridicule, surrounded by 19 other would-be writers, most of whom seemed much farther along in their craft than I.
Naturally, I’d heard the “Write what you know” adage repeated several times during my creative writing classes. God knows it was mentioned often in the various writer magazines on the shelves back then. But what did I know? And more important, who the hell cared?
I went home with all of this floating around in my head and resolved to either once and for all develop a voice in my writing, or take up needlepoint. Fortunately, a couple things happened when I got back home. First, I thought I fell in love with a religious fanatic. The end result of that little excursion into romantic insipidity surely fast-tracked me towards the requisite suffering John had so wisely advised me I needed. Her rejection of me caused me to dig into parts of me I had always ignored before.
Due to my abject stupidity in the love arena, I also wound up broke and had to take a job at a local retail giant. Suddenly I realized my problem. I’d been imitating my literary heroes and trying to create the types of stories they wrote without any direct experience of my own. A failed relationship and a lousy job populated with lunatics, losers and aspiring escapees provided a fertile ground for my creativity.
Three years later I returned to the workshop with a host of stories, two of which were dark fantasies that had been inspired by my experiences at work. My writing had changed. I’d discovered a desire to portray my characters from the inside out, indulging in philosophical musings in the midst of chaos and disorder. It worked. Professor James Gunn, noted science fiction writer and head of the workshop, said I had improved the most in a short period of time he’d ever seen. The autopgrahed copy of his novel he gave me praised me for just that reason.
Sadly, John Ordover didn’t get to see that story as he had to leave during our second week of revisions. Perhaps that was another way to make me suffer. The bastard.