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How to be a Great Writer

By tomsoterwriting - Posted on 24 February 2013


My mother’s cousin, “Baby” Jim Davis, was a character. He gave me my first job, as his assistant at Firehouse magazine. Founded by ex-firefighter-turned writer Dennis Smith (Report from Engine Company 82), the magazine was aimed at firefighters and, despite its staff, it was very successful.

I say “despite its staff” because no one who worked on it knew a thing about the fire service. Dennis was supposedly the guiding light, but in my first year there, I saw him maybe twice (one time I came across him sitting in a darkened office with the lights off).

Baby Jim – he was called that because he had three cousins, all named Jim; so they were differentiated as Baby Jim, Big Jim, Little Jim, and Doctor Him – was eccentric, to say the least. He was the master of the big bluff. When we had our weekly editorial meetings, Jim would describe stories we were “working” on which I had never heard of. I remember him once describing a feature underway that he called “Anatomy of an Ambulance.”

“It will go in depth into the life and death experiences of an ambulance crew,” Jim told Bartle Bull, the money man who ran Firehouse but who liked to spend his days at the gym, at lunches, and at Democratic Party fund-raising events (Bartle had worked on Bobby Kennedy’s ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign and had a framed campaign poster in his office). When I asked Jim about the story, he admitted to me: "Tom, the best lies are those which you yourself believe."

Baby Jim liked to visit vintage magazine stores (do they even exist anymore?) in search of vintage magazine movie ads (he collected them). Knowing of my interest in Tarzan of the Apes, he once returned from an excursion and gave me some articles he had literally ripped out of old magazines he had bought there. They were about Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan. One of the pieces, by Alva Johnston from the Saturday Evening Post, is called “How to be a Great Writer,” and is quite amusing. Here’s an excerpt:

No other literary creation of this century has a following like Tarzan. Another character with a world-wide public is Mickey Mouse, but he belongs to a different art. The only other recent works of imagination in this class are Charlie McCarthy and The Lone Ranger, but their vogue is confined to the English-speaking peoples and they are still novelties rather than assured immortals.  

Twenty-five million copies of the Tarzan books have been sold. Tarzan has established his durability; the first book on the ape boy came out a quarter of a century ago, and he is today more popular than ever. A writer's foreign following has been described as a contemporary posterity; Tarzan books have been translated into fifty-six languages and dialects. Hundreds of baseball players, football players, wrestlers, fighters, and other athletes are nicknamed Tarzan. Extra-large schoolboys are called Tarzan in admiration. and undersized ones are called Tarzan in derision.Tarzan is a household word on every continent.

Burroughs is clearly the man to tell [would-be] American writers how to write. His life story ought to be the supreme textbook. The main rules for literary training that can be gathered the experiences of Burroughs are:

(1) Be a disappointed man. (2) Achieve no success at anything you touch. (3) Lead an unbearably drab and uninteresting life. (4)  Hate civilization. (5)  Learn no grammar. (6) Read little. (7) Write nothing. (8) Have an ordinary mind and commonplace tastes, approximating those of the great reading public.  (9) Avoid subjects that you know about.

Burroughs had been an ill-paid employee and an unsuccessful small businessman for fifteen years before he wrote a word of fiction. The great difficulty in basing a college training on his rules is t of compressing into four years all the dullness, wretchedness and futility which it took Burroughs fifteen years to assimilate.

February 24, 2013