Sunday, October 03, 2010

Guest Blogger: Reed Farrel Coleman

John here. It’s my Sunday to introduce the guest blogger, and it’s a pleasure to do so.

I met Reed Farrel Coleman before he was a three-time winner of the Shamus Award for Best Detective Novel of the Year, before he earned the Barry and Anthony Awards, and before he was twice nominated for the Edgar. It was years ago, at a Malice Domestic panel speakers’ book signing. If you’ve never attended, it’s awkward: they line authors up, following their panel discussions, in alphabetical order. So Reed and I sat side by side. Several heavyweights were there, too (I think Michael Connelly and Jan Burke), so we had few customers. We started chatting. Not about writing. About raising daughters.

I have followed Reed’s career—and enjoyed his books—ever since. He has gone on to serve as executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. He has authored 12 books in three series and one stand-alone co-written with Ken Bruen. His books have been translated into seven languages. Reed is an adjunct professor at Hofstra University, teaching writing classes in mystery fiction and the novel, which is fitting, given his topic this morning.

Teachers Matter

I’ve been doing a lot of posts lately as part of a blog tour I’m doing in support of my latest novel, Innocent Monster (Oct 5, 2010, Tyrus Books). Inevitably, my mind drifts into puzzling over just how I wound up being a writer. Only now, at the ripe old age of 54, have I figured some of it out. First things first: I was born with a brain for it, the talent, if you will. Talent is sometimes a dirty word in publishing. Many people out in the world believe writing is like model building. If you just give them an instruction booklet and all the pieces, they’re sure they can do it. Most of the time, they can’t. They lack the talent, the glue that holds the metaphorical model together. Second, I come from an angry family, a family that communicated by screaming at one another. It’s how we expressed everything, even love. So by the time I was 12 or 13, I was desperate to find a way to express myself so I could be heard above the shouting. My seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Isaacs, is largely responsible for giving me the push in the right direction. He focused on poetry, not the sing-song rhyming stuff we were force fed in elementary school, but song lyrics, ee cummings, TS Eliot, Wallace Stevens. That was my way into poetry. I loved the power and economy of it, that I could say so much with so little. I quit playing high school football to devote my energies to writing.

It was in college, however, where I studied writing poetry with David Lehman, that I truly began to find my voice. One of the first things Professor Lehman did was to make us take a pledge—right hands up, left hands on the Norton Anthology—that we would think of ourselves as writers from that moment forward. I can’t speak for anyone else in that class, but I have never stopped thinking of myself that way, and that was 36 years ago. You are what you think you are. Professor Lehman was giving us permission to believe that, unshackling us from the expectations the rest of the world had for us. He also liked to tell us apocryphal stories. One was about WH Auden. As Lehman told it, a woman approached Auden asking the great man about what her son needed to be a great writer. Allegedly, Auden told her that if her son loved playing with words, he had what it took. In another, Lehman talked about a lunch between a poet and a painter. Across the lunch table, the painter tells the poet he believes he can be a great poet as well as a great painter. The poet asks the painter how he arrived at that conclusion, and the painter says he can be a great poet because he has such wonderful ideas. The poet laughs and says, Poems are written with words, my friend, not with ideas.

In fact, the path to my writing career is easy to follow. The road markers are the names of all of my teachers. I was blessed to have had very good English teachers and to have gone to a college with a wonderful English department. If I owe anyone credit for my twelve published novels, dozens of published poems, essays, and short stories, it is my teachers. But please, don’t tell them. There’s not enough in my royalty checks to go around.


Vicki Delany said...

It all comes back to teachers. And librarians. I think if we didn't have those two professions there wouldn't be much good writing being done today. Or being read. Thanks very much Reed.

hannah Dennison said...

I always like to hear about the defining moment when a writer realizes he or she is "A Writer." Reed, you were fortunate in having wonderful teachers and that you knew very early on. I went to one of the first co-educational experiments in the mid-seventes in the UK. Our English teachers were awful and my classes so boring. Reading your post I realized that I owe my writing career to my late father. He had a passion for reading, a true talent for storytelling and took me to the library every Saturday up until I left home. If it hadn't been for him, perhaps I wouldn't have written anything at all - I certainly never painted after a particular art teacher told me I had no talent. You are so right in saying that Teachers Matter.

Rick Blechta said...

Oddly, I don't have any teachers who I can specifically point at for their encouragement of my writing ability (such as it is) or even for any that tried to point me in some vague direction, but I did have two who made the art of "playing with words" an incredibly intoxicating idea.

I've been intoxicated ever since.

Thanks very much for stopping by, Reed.