Saturday, July 22, 2017

Dear Reader

My all-time favorite author is an obscure woman from the Scottish Highlands who used the penname Jane Duncan. She wrote three series of semi-autobiographical novels before her death in 1974. Jane Duncan had an extraordinary story-telling gift, evoking memorable characters while subtly tackling profound themes. Over the years I managed to assemble a complete set of first editions, now carefully arranged in the place of highest honor in my favorite bookcase. I’ve re-read especially beloved volumes countless times. I expect to discuss her writings in detail eventually, so no spoilers.

I introduce Jane Duncan now because she is the one person who edges out William Shakespeare for the role of “Roger’s Greatest Inspiration As A Writer.”  [Ed. note: Not even if Shakespeare is played by the hot dude with emo hair from the no-doubt-soon-to-be-canceled new series Will on TNT?]  Not even then.

Here are three examples of her inspiration as a Writer:

1. Jane Duncan was a late bloomer. 

Jane Duncan (or rather the real person Elizabeth Cameron) had a long career serving with distinction in World War II, holding office jobs, and being a 1950s housewife. Meanwhile she compulsively wrote in secret. She never tried publishing anything until she was fifty-ish widow returning to her childhood home after many years abroad. The venerable Macmillan publishing house accepted her first six novel manuscripts at once.

I don’t expect to conquer the publishing world, or to become Grandma Moses. But I know how it feels to finally accept a vocation late in life. After my traumatic experiences in Utah, I had near-complete writer’s block for over two decades. During those years, I was nevertheless recognized as one of the very best writers everywhere I worked, most recently at a top Seattle law firm. Writing was always excruciating. My family and colleagues can describe the vortex of drama and anxiety I had to overcome before each deadline. Writing anything other than the legal briefs supporting my family was out of the question.  

After two decades of debilitating writer’s block, suddenly I can’t stop writing. Literally. A terribly abused word I am using for only the second time this year, because it happens to be the mot juste. [Ed. Note: No, Eleanor, Papa is not saying you are allowed to say “literally” in {Redacted} every sentence. Enough with the Valley Girl Upspeak, it’s 2017.]

For the first time in my life, including the year I was the editor of a weekly newspaper, I sit down at my fancy new computer and just write. Words are piling up much faster than I can edit and publish them, file them in some lawsuit, or incorporate them into my book project. Then I can’t resist going back and tweaking sentences. Even in the legal filings. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by the frenetic pace – once the dam finally burst, I needed to process more than twenty years of repressed material. As well as publicly noodling about all the scary and exciting things in my life lately.

For example, I’ve started compiling a list of things I’ve given up in favor of writing lately. As with most of my writing projects, despite my best efforts the list is getting rather long. Item: I forget to eat and drink and pray. Or read, bathe, and parent. I am currently ignoring a painfully bruised toe my daughter Eleanor would insist is broken. [Ed. Note: She’s an obvious hypochondriac.] My favorite sacrifice so far: I deleted a text from a porn star saying he happened to be in town this week and wanted to have sex with me again. (Hush, I didn’t find out he was a porn star until later.)

I feel like a miserable alcoholic transformed by AA into a happy chain smoker. Or something.

Presumably at this point you are horrified by your own voyeurism, but still can’t look away. You, Dear Reader, are watching up close and live, as twenty-five years of excruciating writer’s block transmogrifies into hypergraphia. Please organize an intervention if I degenerate into graphorrhea.

2. Like me, Jane Duncan absorbed an old-fashioned literary style in her youth that can take a while to overcome.

Coming of age in the Downton Abbey era, Jane Duncan picked up a lot of flowery mannerism. In the actual autobiography she wrote late in life, she confesses that her early flurry of novels employed the Victorian authorial device of directly addressing her “Dear Reader” on nearly every page. Editors at Macmillan tried to take them all out, but three remain in the published version of My Friend Muriel.

When combined with a law degree and hypergraphia, discursive prose can be overwhelming. I know how exhausting it can be for you to read my posts – imagine how it wears me out to tame one of these paragraphs. Here is Writing Tip No. 1 from Roger’s Deconstructed 21st Century Strunk & White:
(1) Aim the firehose of words at your computer, where it sublimates on the screen into an endless scroll of cryptic Zen koans alternating with Bulwer-Lyttony rambling sentences; (2) ruthlessly chop everything into Hemingway-compliant segments of assorted short and shorter lengths; (3) randomly rearrange the fragments into a sequence of lyrical cadences evocative of the musical genre best suited to your topic; (4) hammer each sentence into the ideal syntax Michael Chabon would suggest if he were here at the forge with you; (5) patrol to be sure Flaubert’s exacte mot juste replaces every word more than one letter in length; (6) rinse and repeat several times. Only then are you allowed to float some clever allusions and self-deprecating quips past your iMac shit-detector. If you’re really lucky, once in a while the detector will let you staple a long string of sentences back together, gingerly connecting them with a diversified portfolio of dashes, semi-colons, parentheses, numbers, bullets, ellipses, and colons.  (You may have noticed my own long-sentence portfolio is heavy on lists and parentheses, and light on colons:  but you go ahead and stick with that colon dear, polka dots work on you.)
I digress.

3.   Jane Duncan’s greatest talent was her engaging authorial voice.  

Forty-three years after her death, I am hardly the only person who identifies Jane Duncan as his or her favorite author. She was that good. Praise for her writing inevitable culminates in some version of “It feels like she’s writing directly to you.”

I write all day and night right now because I cannot stop myself. I realize it’s 2017. My kids already pointed out no one else actually writes on blogs any more. Instead, we get to spoil my meals with their favorite filmed “YouTubers” and “Vlogers.” (Sadly, I was born with a face for podcasts.) 

Among other things, I publish materials on this blog and in other venues for my own pleasure. And to hone my craft. As part of that writing process, I try to address each article or letter or lawsuit filing to a diverse array of potential audiences, including of course the many lawyers participating in or watching some lawsuit, as well as my family and friends. It’s like solving a complex puzzle.

However, right now I am writing just to You, Dear Reader. To thank you. And to let you off the hook:

You don’t have to read everything I write, or anything. Pick and choose. Of course, it's not always clear what my writing is about until you get to the end of something. Sometimes not even then. [Ed. Note: go with the blog's "Topics" function, it's much more reliable than he is.]

No rush to finish anything in particular, it'll still be there. Unless I get so carried away with post-publishing edits it turns into something completely different.

Most importantly, you don’t have to tell me I’m funny or smart. Or not. It turns out I’ve made amazing progress with codependency. My happiness doesn’t depend on y’all’s real or imagined approval any more. No need to yell "you-who" just for my sake.

Baby steps, of course, Horton. We’re not talking cold turkey here. I really appreciate the folks who have reached out from their lurking shadows to tell me they’re listening.  Others have posted encouraging comments on FaceBook or elsewhere. (I’ve quizzed some of you, I could tell you actually read the post.) Real audiences are more interesting to write for than imaginary ones, as well as more affirming.

Besides, I can’t catastrophize myself into believing I'm alone in a vacuum talking to myself. I can tell you’re real. One of my healthy new hobbies is analyzing blogger traffic information. Don’t worry, they don’t give me enough data to stalk you individually, Dear Reader, just broad demographic stuff. (Shout out to our first visitor from Nepal yesterday! I wonder if he works in a Comcast call center.)  I’ll be writing about some intriguing stats eventually.

On the other hand, you don’t have to sit there silently like a flakey millennial. You’re welcome to comment or ask questions. Apparently, you can even do it here on the blog in front of my daughter, God, and the world. (I thought the comment function was turned off until I had to delete a couple of spam submissions this week.) Or you can post something on FaceBook in front of my mother and everyone else. You can even text or email me privately. 

I promise I’ll only I’ll only delete spam, and phishing from lawyers. And porn stars. 

Other essays from "Roger On Writing":

"Watch for Quiet Explosions"  (10/15/19)
Blaming the Children”  (9/21/18)
Lilies That Fester”  (3/25/18)
Steam Heat”  (3/19/18)
Letting off Steam”   (12/21/17)
Super Fuzzy Things”  (9/8/17)


  1. I thought of Nan Shepherd, represented through Robert McFarlane's book about words and land, Landmarks.

  2. I very much appreciate the long sentence patenthetical. (Capital Y, period.)