You discover strange and unusual things when you start to research a writer’s life.
Sometimes the facts are as innocuous as “Octavia Butler had a beautiful singing voice,” and sometimes the facts are beautiful like, “Mercedes Barcha sold her furniture to support Gabriel Garcia Marquez while he was writing One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Published writers, especially those I see as my literary mentors, are like magicians to me. They create things that I often can’t even imagine. When I learn the facts of their lives, that magic feels more attainable to me. I feel like Dorothy pulling back the curtain to see Oz at his most normal, most human.
When I’m writing a paper for a conference or even a blog post, I always research before I begin. I can't know everything, but I like to develop a working knowledge of whatever subject I’m writing about.
Recently, I decided to write about Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan of the Apes. Considering Tarzan is over 100 years old, I’m going to assume that he needs no introduction. We all know Tarzan in some form, whether he’s Elmo Lincoln swinging from the trees of a black and white film or doing some fancy tree surfing footwork in a Disney film.
Tarzan’s jungle cry is iconic, and most children attempt to mimic it at some point in their lives. Tarzan first appeared in Burroughs’s novel in 1914, and as his character has changed and persisted over the course of a century, I decided to write about the ape man.
Consequently, I started researching Burroughs’s life.
Despite the overwhelming success Burroughs had later in life, his early career and endeavors left much to be desired. Nearly broke at thirty-five and with a growing family to support, Burroughs turned to writing as a last ditch effort.
He was an avid reader of pulp magazines, so he looked to them for inspiration, which, as it turns out was a brilliant idea. Burroughs would later write, “It was at that time that I made up my mind that if people were paid for writing rot such as I read in some of those magazines that I could write stories just as rotten.”
Depending on the way you approach your writing, you may find Burroughs’s statement to be extremely judgmental and offensively condescending.
As a writer that is hilariously frustrated and laughably annoyed by my own writing, I found Burroughs’s statement refreshing.
It’s cantankerous honesty made me laugh.
Without meaning to, I sometimes find myself romanticizing the writer’s life.
When I talk about writing, I like to emphasize the moments of cataclysmic inspiration that produce a perfectly polished end piece. I tend to gloss over the “rotten” parts of my writing: the hours I spend looking at the computer screen, the day I spend cleaning my house in order to put off writing, and the pages upon pages of rough writing that I erased because it was trite, confusing, or banal.
I like to think that writers, including myself, are searching for magic, when they write, that they pursue the right word or phrase in order to create an effect, to perhaps inspire some reader that they will never meet in their lifetime. For me, Burroughs’s statement sent me crashing into the occasional reality of writing: sometimes you have bills to pay.
Burroughs didn’t start writing because a divine muse reached down from the heavens and touched him. He started writing to feed his children. It doesn’t seem that he was searching for magic when he composed his first short stories, but rather a way to make sure his wife had a house to call her own.
As a pulp writer being paid a penny by the word, Burroughs kept a meticulous chart and graph to track the amount of words he produced each month and year. Even though he grew tired of Tarzan and rehashed plots continuously, he produced a novel every year until 1947. The character was a hit with readers, and even now, all of the Tarzan novels remain in print.
By his own admission, Burroughs’s writing was “rotten,” so perhaps I can’t hold him to the same standard I do other writers. His circumstances didn’t warrant inspiration but desperate ingenuity.
Yet Burroughs worked with a kind of fervor that might be worth emulating. Thinking of his stark reality, I wonder how often my search for perfection has put undue pressure on my writing. I wonder if the need for “inspiration” in my writing has been a lie to account for procrastination.
Perhaps if I set out to write something rotten, I might be able to uncover those words that will lead me to something...magical.
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