Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Mystery Writers' Mantra

If you’re a writer whose day job is someway associated with the field of education, graduation ceremonies are aptly named commencement exercises, because what follows is indeed a beginning—the summer solace, a time when writing moves up the priority ladder.

This year, actor Brian Dennehy gave the commencement address at my school. I have sat through many. Few are memorable. This one was. His message was direct, brief, rich with metaphor, and clear. He told the class of 2011 to do three things: think; get off your duff and do something; and then give what you’ve learned away.

The speech reminded me an awful lot of the writing community. In fact, based on the crime writers I have known, Dennahy’s suggestions could serve as a mantra.

In graduate school, I had a professor once tell me you could take one of his mainstream novels and put the chapters in just about any order you want and come out with nearly the same result. A crime novel is not like that. “That’s why most crime writers are pretty manic,” he told me. Would my wife agree? Surely she would, but that’s an aside. Mystery novels force writers and readers alike to think. Never has the statement “I write 24 hours a day. I spend two at my desk” been more true than in the crime-fiction realm.

Dennehy spoke about men and women who chose to “do something, for free, anything” during the depression. He praised those people like my grandfather who “got off their duffs and did something when no jobs were available.” I have far too much respect for my late grandfather (one of 17 children who came to Maine from Quebec in search of mill work; worked in a mill from age 12 to 65; volunteered for WWII because “of all this country gave me”) to compare his plights to anything we writers suffer. Most of us have day jobs we enjoy and find writing rewarding in a plethora of ways, but in fact few of us do it for the money, of which Dennehy and my late grandfather would certainly approve.

And finally, when Dennehy mentioned one should feel obligated to give away what one has learned, to offer it for free, I couldn’t help but think of my mystery-writing brethren. How often have I reached out to fellow writers for advice, answers to research questions, or just discussion of books (or sports teams)?

This is a tight-knit community, and I think I heard its mantra from an unexpected source last Sunday.


Hannah Dennison said...

I love this post. Thank you. In a world of "me-me-me" it's important to think back to a different time. Thanks for inspiring me this morning as I head off for a day job that is just busy, not unbearable.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

I'm inclined to pass this post's great message to anyone who will listen. (And keep it in mind for myself.) Thanks some much!

Donis Casey said...

I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who spends five hours a day trying to figure out what to write and three hours a day writing it. I've often thought that any other kind of plotting would be easier for me than plotting a crime novel.