Write-a-thon, Day 16: To Shirley, with love

Posted: July 9, 2013 in Writing
Tags: , , , ,

Diet cookbook 1

When I was in junior high, I started reading The Writer, which surely must stand as one of the worst-designed magazines of its day. It was filled with advice on writing, mostly, as I recall, from second-string novelists and science fiction and mystery writers. There were even a number of writers who made some kind of living from writing Westerns, which were still kicking around. Point of view was a big topic. So was first person vs. third person. These topics will never go out of style.

For a while the pages were very thick. I used some of them for backing or shims when I built models out of balsa.

The editor, A.S. Burack, was nearing the end of 40 years at the top of this heap. He began editing The Writer during the Depression and finished in the disco era. He wasn’t the first Writer editor to span generations – co-founder William H. Hills started out with the Robber Barons and finished in the Jazz Age.

The Writer is still being published, and in this century has become attractive and even innovative. I look at it sometimes online. But I miss Lesley Conger.

Lesley Conger (real name Shirley Suttles) wrote the “Off the Cuff” column from 1965 to 1980. In her charming, everyday, no-nonsense, and yet off-kilter style she spent 15 years telling us what the life of a working writer was like. Her columns were collected in To Writers, With Love, a hopelessly outdated book about postage, her passion for good typing bond, and miniscule pay rates. OK, that last part isn’t outdated.

My favorite episode in To Writers, With Love was the time Conger and her husband, a professor, tried to turn their bedroom into an office and ended up hauling in there almost every stick of furniture they owned. Though I also remember how, at the height of Bobby Fischer mania, she used his book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess as an example of why writing can’t be taught but how she wished it could be.

I love this book, though I’m positive that nostalgia helps. Conger, according to her 2010 obituary, published stories in magazines “from Cosmopolitan to Good Housekeeping to Playboy.” Her book will not help you do the same. It won’t teach you how to write. A lot of it is complaints! But reading her columns when I was 13 gave me an idea of what went on in a writer’s head. I couldn’t get that anywhere else. In skimming To Writers, With Love this evening, I was struck by all the useless information, and yet it still fired my imagination. Maybe it’s the equivalent of meatloaf and mashed potatoes – comfort reading.

The one quote Lesley Conger is known for is her advice to beginning writers: “You don’t need to know very much to start with, if you know the way to the public library.” Outdated, sure. But loving.

Wrote today for the 16th day!


  1. Accused of Lurking says:

    Congrats on writing for the 16th consecutive day. What I am most impressed with, though, is that you have a blog post for the 16th consecutive day. Not only do you have to face writing your novel each day, but then you have to tell your family, friends, and camp followers how it went. You are writing on demand, on deadline, with confessional details, and you are making it entertaining! I now read you before I read Dilbert and Doonesbury each morning. HUGE congrats on your accomplishment so far and the accomplishments to come. Keep that hitting streak alive, DiMaggio.

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      These are very sweet words. I don’t do anything before I read Dilbert and Doonesbury so I can appreciate the magnitude of what you’re saying.

      What I’m trying to do with these posts is pretend I’m an old-time newspaper columnist, like the gentleman I saw on a tour of the Boston Globe in the 1960s who was typing at warp speed with just two fingers. The editor leading the tour told us, “He’s on a deadline and he doesn’t know what to write.” (Imagine what that guy might’ve done if he’d ever learned how to type!) Many a columnist has admitted that they sometimes found themselves staring at the clock with an hour to go and with nothing in their brains. It doesn’t matter if your mental screen is blank — you just have to do it.

      I’m not getting paid like those guys, but I enjoy the challenge. It’s very different from fiction. It sort of puts frosting on the day.

      I’ll try to keep being entertaining. Thanks, buddy.

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