Casual Observer/Mark Levy
It was a dark and stormy night when he ran up against Writer’s Block. “I should have had fewer children,” he thought, as multiple lightning strikes outside his fogged-up window failed to spark his imagination…
Successful Writers’ Secrets
by Mark Levy
This year’s Best American Mystery Stories anthology just arrived in the mail. In addition to the 20 best stories themselves, this issue of Best American Mystery Stories includes short biographical notes about the authors. I decided to read the bios first, since my attention span is even shorter than a short story. My hope was that I could find something most published mystery writers have in common. This would give me a clue as to what makes a writer successful. Needless to say, I had an ulterior motive for learning and applying that secret.
Sure enough, the answer leapt out at me like a bloody dagger at a crime scene. A number of authors stated they are married and have a son or daughter. The writers who didn’t mention the number of children they had might have had more or less than one kid apiece. Whatever the case, they decided not to mention that fact in their bio. Of the writers who mentioned having a family, only the ones with a single child declared themselves.
The authors had different socioeconomic backgrounds and came from different locations in the U.S. and Canada. They were ethnically diverse and represented both genders. In fact, except for writing the best stories of the year, they seemed to have nothing in common, but for the fact that some of them are the parent of an only child. I decided to investigate other writers to see how prolific they were, progeny-wise.
While Googling the topic, I discovered that Lauren Sandler, who wrote a book about children without siblings titled, ONE AND ONLY, had also already written an essay for The Atlantic magazine, observing that many women writers, like Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and Mary McCarthy, have only one child. There you have it. Ms. Sandler preempted me. And here I thought I was the first to discover the secret of literary success.
What a surprising but simple characteristic successful writers have in common. The key to being a proficient writer is not necessarily one’s formal education, or books one reads on writing, or where or when one writes every day, or how quickly one writes, or whether one prepares an outline prior to writing, or what one drinks and how much.
Success is based not only on an extraordinary ability to create a plot, or develop characters, or produce conflict, or rewrite a piece over and over and over, as I used to suspect, but merely on parenting one and only one child.
Lauren Sandler seems to think it may be that fewer children provide a smaller distraction for their writer parent. Or maybe the money a person saves by raising only one child — as opposed to a bunch of them — can be used to hire a babysitter.
Of course not every famous writer followed this practice. Norman Mailer and his nine children come to mind. Now Mailer had six wives, but that still averages 1.5 children per wife. You know what they say: It’s the exception that proves the rule.
Interestingly, some very good writers were only children themselves. I’m thinking of E.M. Forster, Ezra Pound, Hans Christian Anderson, John Updike, Lillian Hellman, and Jean-Paul Sartre. I’m not sure what that shows, except Google is really an excellent vehicle for discovering trivia, useful or otherwise.
This brings me to my struggle to become a famous novelist whose books are made into blockbuster Hollywood movies before they’re even published. My major mistake was having too many children. I have two daughters when I should have had one.
I should have evaluated whether a fulfilling life with two or more beautiful, loving, talented, accomplished daughters outweighs a career, say, as a potential Nobel Prize-winning author. That’s like saying would I rather have a cut body with an incredible six pack or be President of the United States; or would I rather have a full head of hair or be the first astronaut on Mars? It’s one of my many regrets, as you can imagine, that I can’t have great abs and luxurious hair and be the first President to visit Mars.
Now I can’t guarantee that my life would have been different if I had limited my number of children, but at least I can fantasize where I’d be if I had only one beautiful, loving, talented, accomplished daughter instead of a backup for her.
Ah well, unless I want to jeopardize my chances for visiting Mars, it’s probably too late to do anything about that now.
About the author:
Mark Levy is Ragazine.CC’s “Casual Observer.” He is a lawyer, lives in Florida, and is an occasional contributor to National Public Radio where his columns can be heard some Saturdays around noon. You can read more about him in “About Us.”