Aspiring writer gains professional’s perspective

Columnist Dan Dorr strives to make it in the publishing world with help from some established authors. What is a writer? I am writing, so that makes me a writer, right? Nevertheless, it is a

Columnist Dan Dorr strives to make it in the publishing world with help from some established authors.

What is a writer? I am writing, so that makes me a writer, right?

Nevertheless, it is a strange label to apply to a person. People hum in the shower, but we don’t call them shower-hummers.
Dan Dorr

If you are not a published author, most of your time practicing your craft consists of hours on your couch with your head in your hands.

Often times, that’s me.

But as I start this column, I amcommitting myself now, in writing, that I am, in fact, a writer and more importantly, one who needs help. I have never been published in a literary magazine, which is a goal I’d like to soon accomplish. I have started three novels but have been struck with a paralysis of thought each time.

For English majors like myself, Temple has a great creative writing program, and workshop classes are a prime opportunity to share your work. But most people don’t have time to carefully read your first-draft novel, riddled with grammatical errors and an ending that is 20 pages too long.

Another program the creative writing department offers is the “Poets & Writers Series,” where authors come to read a piece of fiction. The reading is followed by a question-and-answer session. I’ve gone to many of these events before – all of them inspirational and each showed me new avenues of narrative styles I’d never imagined.

Last week, Joseph McElroy visited Main Campus to read from his collection of short stories, “Night Soul and Other Stories.”

He has been writing since he was 7 years old, he said, but has been producing books – a total of 10 – for the past 50 years. His reading was heartfelt, with enough wit to understand his dark sarcasm.

I waited until I thought everyone was about to leave to ask him for an interview, which took a while because there was cake at the reception. I was intimidated interviewing a published writer, but he agreed to speak over the phone with me after returning home from the reading.

“How can you be satisfied with a story?” I asked McElroy.

This is a good question for an author whose books are as long as a thousand pages, which he said he writes from start to finish.

“I don’t usually proceed from a point in a story if I feel uneasy going further, so by the time I reach the last scene in a novel, I feel that I’ve come to a conclusion,” McElroy said.

Personally, this is something I never do. I find myself jumping from one scene to the next, without thinking of the story as a whole. Usually when I do this, I end up abandoning the story without coming to any real conclusion and feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time.

A banal and common statement made by writers is to “write what you know.” This can be difficult if you’re unsure what it is you know.

There is a natural complex, barrier in the creative consciousness that needs to be broken through. This is confidence – to be able to keep at a piece of work that you are unsure of.

But the statement does not lack credibility, and is anchored in a question asked by a lot of literary scholars today.

That is what truth is. There is a fine line between writing about truths and writing nonfiction, so I asked McElroy what he thought the role of personal experience should be in fiction.

“I’m not interested in laying down the law for other writers,” McElroy said. “It doesn’t mean changing the names of the places or people. It means finding the best arrangement of materials with memory as the source. But the literal memory is often not going to be the best story. When I say best, I mean the truest.”

After I got off the phone, I looked down at my notes and felt I knew nothing, and the proof was in my hands.

How could a writer be so aware of what they want to convey? How long did it take? Would I ever be able to answer one of the questions I asked McElroy honestly and surely?

I was overloaded.

But later that day, as I sat down at my desk to work on a short story I’ve been writing, I was inspired by tidbits left floating in my brain from that morning. Suddenly, all of these moments of insight I heard from McElroy emerged – as concepts that needed to be teased and understood – the main one from him being, “I’m always aware that I can end up falling flat on my face.”  That gave me peace to know failure is sometimes in the mind of other, more accomplised writers.

A conversation can change your perception if you let it. I was confident in myself, in what I wanted to accomplish – that is how you can be satisfied.

Being a writer, as I’m just realizing, is a purpose, and one day there will be an end to this stretch of lonesome, desert highway and all of my brooding will be worth it. For now, I feel I can now slow down and take a look outside at the desolation going by and be thankful I’m trying.

Daniel Dorr can be reached at

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