Writing Excuses 9.44: Getting in the Writer’s Mindset with Peter Beagle
Key points: Aspiring? No, just a writer. Writing is creation, publishing is business, and they are separate. “If the muse is late, start without her.” You are a worker. Do your job. As an adult, choose supportive friends who recognize that you are a writer. Show up for work. Persevere.
[Mary] Season Nine, Episode 44.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Getting into the Writer’s Mindset with Peter Beagle.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest Peter S. Beagle who is one of the greatest writers of science fiction and fantasy in our community. You probably know him from the Last Unicorn, but he has written many, many wonderful stories and books. He has a master of the craft and we are super excited to have him on the podcast. Thank you, Peter.
[Peter] I’m delighted to be here, because I got lost getting here.
[Peter] Which is also a challenge I have.
[Brandon] So when I was preparing this podcast a few minutes ago, I walked up to Mr. Beagle and I said, “This is the podcast for aspiring writers.” He stopped me and said, “Well, they need to drop the aspiring.” I probably need to drop the aspiring, because a writer is a writer. So we’re going to talk about as a writer who may not yet be making a living at your writing, thinking of yourself as a writer and how to get in the right mindset, and a professional mindset.
[Peter] It’s crucially important, because people get writing mixed up with publishing. They’re not the same thing at all. One is business. The other is creation. And sometimes they get together. Sometimes they don’t. I’ve told people because your book got rejected doesn’t mean it’s bad anymore than because this or that book got published doesn’t mean it’s any good.
[Peter] [inaudible – believe in yourselves?] In the same way, Hemingway didn’t say a lot of wise things, all things considered, but he did say something once advising young writers to pay no attention either to good reviews or bad reviews. He said, “Because if you believe them when they tell you you’re good, you’ll believe them when they tell you you’re bad.”
[Peter] Okay. Give Ernest that one, he’s quite right.
[Brandon] Peter, how did you… Like, starting out… Was this… Did you get in this sort of mindset very early on or was this something you had to learn?
[Peter] I was lucky… I was luckier than a great many people. There was a great pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1930s, Lefty Gomez, who said, when the question came up, “If they ever give you a choice between being lucky and being good, take lucky.”
[Peter] Gomez was good enough as a pitcher that he could get away with it, but he was quite… I see his point. I, to begin with, came from a family where… Well, art was worshiped. My mother had four brothers. Three of them became painters. I’ve got a cousin who choreographed musicals like Hair. I’ve got a co… Had, he’s dead now, a cousin who is a cellist with the [Guarneri?] String Quartet. Another cousin who is an art critic, but you can’t help that.
[Peter] And the thing is simply that these people are my role models. Their particular mindset… My uncle Moses, my favorite I think of the uncles, used to say, “If the muse is late, start without her.” You’ve got up, you’ve had your breakfast, and you went to work like everybody else. You didn’t give yourself airs because you were an artist. You’re a worker. I remember… Rather, I cannot remember hearing the word inspiration ever used around the house, and artist’s very rarely, as these things go. But my cousin David, for example, the cellist did everything you can do with a cello from the age of 17. He did jingles, he did radio commercials, he did… He played the kind of stuff they play when you’re on hold. He was a studio musician. I admire him, because he knew every jazz musician in New York, and I’m an old jazz buff. For the last 30 years of his life or thereabouts, he got to make a very good living playing with the [Guarneri?]. But like my uncles, he was my role model for doing your job. This is… You can make a life and a living at this if you take it seriously. So I just… I started writing before I could write. I love stories and I would make up a story, then get my mother to write it down. I cannot remember whether I fell in love with words first or story first. Either way, I think it was pretty close. My mother remembered me coming up to her when she was at the stove and asking… By the way, both my parents worked full-time. They were both teachers. But she remembered me asking her about the meaning of two words, gentle and regular. She told me what they meant and I went away, saying the words to myself to get used to them. Gentle and regular. It only occurred to me many years later that I was probably listening to a laxative commercial on the radio.
[Peter] They were just words. But story… Story probably came first. It was a close thing. Although my mother’s family were the artists, for the most part. My father’s… My father was the storyteller. That’s what I am. I know that. When I pitched a screenplay… A gig… An episode to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the professional in me did it because my God, we need the money. If I don’t get this gig, I’m not sure what we’ll do. It’s going to be a bad winter. But the storyteller in me bloody well seduced… As the story editor I became friends with, Melinda Snodgrass, the story editor… She said, “You bloody well seduced the four of us sitting there listening to you.” I knew that they stopped taking notes. I knew I had something, because they sort of put their pencils down and they were just listening to me tell them a story. I can do that. I got it from the old man. I bought dinner for my son-in-law and my daughter that night before they drove me to the airport to go on home to Seattle. Because that’s all I know how to do. I was in a writing class at Stanford many, many years ago. Over 50 years ago. Which included people like Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey and the writer… Australian writer Chris Koch who wrote The Year of Living Dangerously in that class. I remember Kesey asking me, “If you couldn’t be a writer, if you had to be anything else, what would you be?” I didn’t need much thought. I said, “Given my ancestry, other than one of those old guys in some marketplace in the middle east sitting crosslegged under a tree telling stories and stopping at some point to say to the audience, ‘If you really want to know what happened to the Princess, a little silver at this point wouldn’t hurt.'”
[Howard] My answer to that question has always been… If you couldn’t be a cartoonist, if you couldn’t be a writer, what would you be? The answer is I’d be a cartoonist and a writer who has a day job doing something else at which he’s unhappy.
[Peter] It never occurred… I think about that often, because no matter how much my parents worried about me trying to make a living as a writer… I was 24 years old and married a woman with three children… No matter how much they worried, they never said. They encouraged me every step of the way. In many ways, it’s very much a sore point with my younger brother… In many ways, I was spoiled growing up. Because I was doing… I had some gift that had to be sheltered and taken care of.
[Mary] Something that you’re… I’m thinking about, that I know we all have in common, is that we have very supportive families. I was also… I came from, my mom was an arts administrator, my dad was an enthusiastic amateur musician, so I came through theater into writing. It occurs to me that not everyone is lucky enough to have that, but that as adults, you have the choice of picking people to be around you, and that finding supportive people and surrounding yourself with them is one of the important ways of moving from… Taking that aspiring off, because you’ll surround yourself with people who recognize that you are a writer.
[Peter] I have a friend whose childhood was exactly the opposite of mine. He’s a big guy from West Virginia. When you’re a big guy from West Virginia, you play football. Chuck hated football. He hates it to this day. He watched tennis rather than watch football. He’ll watch… I’ve seen him watching golf on television. Never football. In the same way, he lived in horror that his parents might find out that he wrote poetry. In West Virginia, hates football, writes poetry, there’s only one possible conclusion. Today he runs the writing department at the University of Pittsburgh. Where, oddly enough, I went. But basically [he was, in a sense] like being in the closet. He had to keep it hidden from his family what he loved most and wanted to do.
[Brandon] We’re going to stop here and talk briefly about one of Peter’s stories. We actually picked one of his short pieces… Fiction pieces. Peter is a master of the short fiction form. They have Four Years, Five Seasons up on Audible. Will you tell us, just a brief pitch, on this story?
[Peter] I’m… There is a wonderful online magazine called the Green Man Review which covers folklore, popular music, literature, singer song… A very wide range of interests. They’ve been very kind to me over the years. They devoted a whole issue to me once, and pretty much just took down anything I said in an interview for good or ill. But they asked me… This was the first time, I’d never done podcasts. They asked me if I would write a series of podcasts and record them, one for each season. The first story I wrote was called The Stickball Witch which takes place, like all the stories, in the 1950s in my New York… My Bronx childhood. This has to do with kids playing stickball in the streets. It’s the 1940… 50s, the Korean War was still on. Girls still pushed down carriages and play hopscotch, only we called it potsy. This is the Bronx. Boys… With the spring coming, it starts in the spring. Boys play catch and stickball and get into fights for the pure hell of fighting. This centers around the fact that every neighborhood had a designated witch. It was usually foreign-born, certainly some old lady living alone. We knew without a doubt that our witch was a real witch. She hated children. When we hit balls… Rubber balls, Spalding rubber balls, we called them Spaldeens. A Spaldeen hit into her yard was there forever. Because you didn’t want to go into her yard. A, you might never come back out and B, you might come back as something else.
[Peter] But we knew, Mrs. Poliakov was a witch. No question. Finally, on a double dare, I go into… I’m the narrator, I go into her yard. Terrified. But there is no way out. Because either you become a witch’s afternoon snack or you’re known forever, for the rest of your life, as somebody who would turn down a double dare. You can survive, you won’t get eaten, but your life won’t be worth living forever.
[Peter] Everybody knows that. Mrs. Poliakov does not give back the ball. She insists on playing. That’s what the story’s about. The next season has to do in the summer with what summer was like in New York for old people. Old people get through the winter, those apartments were constructed in the 20s and the walls were very thick. It’s possible to just go to bed and get through. But in the summer, there’s very little air-conditioning. People soak sheets and wrap themselves, or they go to those movies that actually have air-conditioning. But old people die in the summer. This has to do with a man… My friends Phil and Jake and I know, he lives in Jake’s building and he knows he’s going to die. He’s Irish. We were all three Jewish. He’s Irish, retired, a subway engineer, worked on the IND. He’s hack… Clearly has a lung problem, he’s hacking and wheezing all the time. He drinks too much. He lives alone. He buttonholes the three of us to say, “For little shits, you’re not bad little guys.” He has a favor that we have to do. We’ve never been in an apartment of somebody we know is going to die. I’m just staring around, distracted by everything, but Phil was already looking for things to paint and draw. He was always the painter. Still is. Mr. McCaslin explains that he’s got something to do before he dies. He has to write a letter to his daughter, because there’s a whole lot was never said or forgiven or agreed to between them. It’s going to take him a while. It’s going to take him three days. Because he’s not much of a letter writer. He’s written very few in his life. Meanwhile, we have to keep the black tavier away from him. It took a while to realize he meant a terrier, a dog. It’s the dog that comes to the McCaslins when one’s going to die. The dog always knows. You have to keep that dog away from me for just three days. And…
[Brandon] I’m actually going to cut right here because I do want to do one more question and we’re running a little bit out of time. That sounds wonderful. Howard is going to tell…
[Peter] Sure… But that’s… The main…
[Brandon] [you how to get yours?]
[Howard] Hang on just a second. If you’ve enjoyed listening to Peter Beagle talk about these stories, you should go out to Audible and get a copy of Four Years, Five Seasons in which Peter Beagle narrated these stories. They’re delightful and I’m really excited about them. But Brandon, you’ve got a question?
[Brandon] I was just going to say, to wrap us up… I get a lot of people who seem like they’re writers, they’re having trouble making this jump in their head. Getting rid of the aspiring and going forward. They’ll come to me and say, “I just can’t quite get started,” or “I get like 30 pages in and I hit this block and I can’t stop…” Like, what’s your best piece of advice for people to jump that wall and take the aspiring off their name and go pro.
[Peter] The other phrase that I run into a lot is writer’s block. I have never been able to afford writer’s block.
[Peter] I’ve got kids to feed. I did whatever was necessary. I did a lot of nonfiction writing. Never got to do ghostwriting, although I would have. Did one as-told-to book, but that was fun. But mostly I find that people saying you should show up for work. I don’t care if it’s an hour, I don’t care if it’s two hours, whatever it is, that’s the time you give yourself. A great sportswriter, Red Smith, once said, “Writing’s easy. All you have to do is roll a sheet of paper into the typewriter – that’s how long ago that was – and you sit and stare at it. Just sit and look at it until little drops of blood start to appear on your forehead…”
[Peter] “Then you’re writing.” The point I make is when the story’s coming, flowing easily, as in those first 30 pages or whatever, that’s the easy part. You may edit it later on, but that’s the delight. The tricky part is staying there when nothing is happening, and you still have to sit there for those two hours or whatever time you gave yourself. Because that’s really as much a part of the mindset as anything else. Write a letter. Write a dirty limerick. But it’s like going to the gym. It’s working out. The imagination is a muscle like anything else, and it needs to be taken to the gym. That’s most of it. Showing up for work. I know people who I felt had as much talent as I or more. But there were so many other things that they wanted to do, so many other talents I felt they had, so many distractions. Maybe it helps to grow up knowing, as I did, there’s only one thing in this world you’re good for. You’d better do it.
[Brandon] Awesome. That was wonderful. Thank you. I’m sorry we’re out of time. I could sit here for two hours listening to you talk about these things, but we do have to wrap up. Mary has a writing prompt for us.
[Mary] Yes. I want you to write about someone who is an aspiring something. It can be a writer, it can be a sword swallower, cellist, dragonslayer, magician, whatever. Write the scene when your POV character transitions from being aspiring to doing.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses.
[Peter] That’s perfect.
[Brandon] Big hand for Peter Beagle.
[Peter] Thank you.
[Brandon] And you’re out of excuses, now go write.