Monday, April 11, 2011


"I am more or less happy when being praised; not very comfortable when being abused; but I have moments of uneasiness when being explained." Arthur Balfour

Two days ago, and after about three weeks of writing and revision, I completed a 2,924 word introduction for James Weldon Johnson's classic novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) for a new edition that Library of America is doing. My wife just read it. For 41 years she's always been my first reader. I can always trust that she will give me a "general reader's" reaction, and point out any typing errors I might have made.

The next readers are my agents of 38 years, Anne and Georges Borchardt, who will either send the manuscript along to whatever editor commissioned it or find a home for it if it is a new work of fiction, and sometimes others in their office will read it, too. Between 1972 and 1982, I often passed my stories and novels by the late John Gardner for any helpful comments he might make (and knowing full well that our visions of life and literature differed in important ways). These days when I've finished a story, I often send it along to the literary scholars who have published articles and books about my work as well as the work of others. All are officers in the Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association, and learned on matters pertaining to literature and culture so I greatly value whatever they might have to say. I often share a spanking brand-new work with friends who I think might find its subject of interest. Sometimes I'll send a new work to editors I know, ones I have a hunch might feel it is appropriate for their publication and, if so, they can then contact my literary agents to work out a contract and payment.

I always take seriously any comments and suggestions I receive from all the aforementioned folks, and I think about them for a long time because I want every work I create to be a gift for others. But I should mention that I'm never ready to show anything I write to others until I've worked it over thoroughly and through many drafts in which I've revised each line until I can't revise it anymore, and not until I've considered every word choice dozens of times, and brought 46 years of publishing experience to it. The work is ready to show only after I convince myself that it reflects my best feelings, best thought, and best technique.

Writing screen-and-teleplays is, of course, a different matter. For the most part, this is committee work (or collaborative work, if you prefer), and a writer is professionally obligated to respond to all the notes he receives from the producers of a particular show. He (or she) is part of a team, a "hired gun," so to speak. In one of his interviews, playwright August Wilson talked about how when his first play was staged he had to get over a sense of ownership of the work since the process of moving a play from the page to the stage involves contributions from many people. (Nevertheless, his 10 plays clearly embody his own vision of black American life since August had final approval on all changes.)

But for original, literary art, it should be obvious that too many "cooks" can muddle, dilute or damage a story's coherence, clarity, and consistency, and sometimes move it too far away from a writer's intention. Seasoned, veteran artists know---and feel secure with---their own voices and visions of life and literature. What they believe and don't believe. What they want to say and how they think it is best to say it. Therefore, listening to "criticism" is not a problem, and is even quite interesting sometimes because a person's reactions to a creative work reveal as much about that person as they do about the work in question.

I believe James Baldwin addressed all these matters well in his essay "The New Lost Generation," published in the July, 1961 issue of Esquire. This quote has been in my writer's workbooks for decades, patiently waiting to be deployed, so I'm happy for the opportunity to share it now. There, in that essay, Baldwin said, "A man is not a man until he's able and willing to accept his own vision of the world, no matter how radically this vision departs from that of others."

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