How did you become a writer?
I think most writers are in some way born to be writers. It's how we make sense of the world and our place in it. We also love the little magic beans known as words.
The first writing I remember was a script for the original "Batman" TV series. I must have been 6 or 7. It started out like every other episode, with the announcer intoning, "It was a beautiful day in Gotham City." My mother had told me that commas were meant to give a reader a pause, a break. I was a thoughtful lad and didn't want to exhaust my readers, so I inserted a comma after every word.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Most of my writing proclivities were formed around 12 or 13. That's when I began binging on Kurt Vonnegut and Charles Dickens. I also obsessively read The National Lampoon in its glory years, as well as absorbed The Firesign Theatre, the Marx Brothers, and various comedians on record.
At my all-boys Catholic high school, my English teacher Mike Witucki was greatly encouraging. He also showed us how to handle being a wise-ass in a conservative, sometimes limiting environment with style. Without him and my little band of artistic wiseacres, I probably would never have thought of being a writer. My family never encouraged it, certainly. I will always be in my father's debt, however, for insisting I study Latin. I suppose you can be a good writer without studying Latin, but why make it harder on yourself?
I wish I could say that I found mentors in college, but years of defending my choice of an English degree from sniggering comments about its usefulness built a thick shell around me. I had determined that I would have to go it alone, without the help of anyone **sniffle**. I suppose I half-expected to end up in law school or grad school eventually, because that's where English majors landed. Thank god that didn't happen.
When and where do you write?
I write in the morning after walking the dog, before being harangued by everyday life and the internet. I most often write in my cluttered basement office, but if I get too distracted by other obligations, half-finished projects, intrusive emails or tiny toys, I relocate to a coffee shop. There are about 7 within walking distance of my house, one of the benefits of living in a city like Chicago.
What are you working on now?
I don't like to describe works in progress; that's a confidence a gentleman or lady shouldn't divulge til the proper time. I will say that right now I have a short play in the hands of a few theater companies, a half-completed longer play, and a book project suggested by my publisher in Britain. I need to start working soon on a Christmas story, something I've done every year for my wife, so I'd better get scribbling.
Through the end of the World Series, I will also continue to moderate a group website for baseball doggerel called Bardball.com. I created the site after some friends started swapping grotesque limericks about Barry Bond's chemically enhanced bod. We're now in our ninth season of daily baseball doggerel, keeping up the tradition started by sportswriters 100 years ago and continued by Edgar Guest and Roy Blount, Jr. It's also a good writing exercise!
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Instead of writer's block, I often suffer from writer's clog. When words slow to a trickle, increase the flow by taking a walk, writing a limerick, or playing with the dog. If there's still no relief, rest assured that ideas are percolating and something better will come tomorrow.
I will say that, at my 25th birthday, I was blindsided by weeks of panic attacks. Nothing was being written, and nothing was going to be written, because of the stifling pressure I was putting on myself. I could barely make it through my day on the job as a trade journal editor. (Here I was, an abject failure at 25. That's what happens when you take rock lyrics too seriously.) Luckily, two blessings came along:
1. I found a psychotherapist who helped me realize I had a right to whatever I was feeling, as well as the right to do what I wanted with my life, including NOT writing; and
2. I began taking improv comedy classes. Chicago of course is the birthplace and eternal wellspring of improv, which uses exercises and practice to train people to invent stage performances on the spot. This helped me meld my literary side and my humorous side, which had become bifurcated in school, and I had never been happier. I spent the next several years messing around in clubs and cabarets with some very bizarre comedy. (One act elicited my absolutely favorite newspaper review: "Out-and-out painful in its sheer stupidity." You can't buy publicity like that, pally!) Many of the conceits behind my writing projects had their beginning in a little club in front of 15 people, including "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories," which originally was merely a time filler to read between other performances.
These days the performing bug is satisfied with storytelling and "live lit" events in the city. It wakes me up a bit, gives me pressure to write something new by deadline, and gets me out among people (isolation is the thing I hate worst about the writer's life). Reading aloud is the acid test for any writing. Nothing reveals a dull cliché or an overpacked sentence like reading your work aloud.
What’s your advice to new writers?
1. Whatever you are working on, FINISH it in some way or other. Get to an end. I often jump across huge stretches of a work with phrases like "Then she solved that problem" or "and everyone was hit by a bus." I hate all my endings, generally, but that is solved in the rewrite. Inspiration fades like steam, and sometimes when it's gone, all the will or effort you can muster will not make the piece come alive again. It's easier to edit a completed if shoddy piece than rekindle the spark in something that began well but has been allowed to get moldy.
2. Never describe what you're working on, especially in the beginning. Let your crazy elves work on it, both consciously and unconsciously, before debuting that new pair of shoes. Even the most well meaning person can puncture the nascent bubble in your imagination that your writing depends on.
3. On the other hand, when a piece of writing is finished, get it out in other people's hands. Ask for criticism, submit it for publication or performance, or put it up on the web. Then repeat the process. Until you develop a thick skin for rejection, you're just playing at writing.
4. Rewrite everything at least five times, including your bedtime prayers. God wasn't satisfied with one version of events--you shouldn't be, either.
5. Read your work aloud. Your writing has a rhythm like music. Don't be satisfied until you've found your inner Coltrane.
6. Never take advice from anyone. Including me.
James Finn Garner's best known work is the "Politically Correct" storybook trilogy, all of which were New York Times best-sellers. Rejected 30 times before finding a publisher, the original volume, "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories," went on to be an international best-seller and translated into more than 20 languages. A former columnist for Chicago Magazine, his writing has appeared in publications such as Playboy, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and TV Guide, and been broadcast on National Public Radio and the BBC.
His most recent project is the award-winning clown-noir farce-mystery series starring "Rex Koko, Private Clown". A mash-up of circus lore and hard-boiled crime fiction, the titles in the series thus far are Honk Honk, My Darling; Double Indignity; and The Wet Nose of Danger. As e.e. cummings wrote, "Damn everything, but the circus!" More information can be found at his website, jamesfinngarner.com.