I would sit cross-legged on my bed, using my copy of The Great Comic Book Heroes as a desk, and write and draw and compose lyrics.
Enamored by Marvel Comics, I wrote and drew the adventures of Greatman, The Fabulous Five, Brink the Atomic Man, Moss Man, and JoBanner — the last a poor guy who turned into a monster that was two legs and a huge head (and I just now 50 years later realized that yes I stole the concept from the Hulk but — “Banner”?! I never noticed my scientist-turned-monster was called JoBANNER?!!).
I would churn out song after song for an imaginary radio station so I would have enough songs for its weekly Top 20 countdown show, attaching them to artists with names like Joe George, The Masons, The Dixons, The Four, Tom Swift and the Swifties, and the psychedelic rock band The Congested Sinus.
Later I would write poems in groups of 12 — because most record albums had 12 songs — and package them into “poetry albums” I would pass around to friends. And I made a comic book to pass around called Captain Zap.
“When I became a man, I gave up childish things” — I kept writing songs for years, even learned how to play guitar, but the comics and poems trickled to a halt, and I became self-conscious about telling people what I was writing, if I was writing. I did go into reporting the news, a career that involved a lot of writing, but writing for pleasure went by the wayside, especially in the quantities of my youth. I kept a lot of that stuff — it’s in boxes around here somewhere — and my memory is a lot of it was not great and a little of it was pretty good, and it was fun making it all, and therein lies the point: It was fun!
Somewhere along the road kids grow up and are taught that the craft involves agonizing and rewriting and 30 drafts to make it perfect, and so the process becomes a drudge and the creative energy and spark start to sputter away, first in the product drained of its life and then in the not showing up to do the work in the first place.
And so, to re-ignite the fire, I reach into my brain where that nerdy awkward kid from the 1960s is still bopping around, self-conscious and pimply but glad to be alive, and I sit with one leg crossed to make a 4 in my big blue chair (cross-legged doesn’t work anymore) and I say, come on now, let’s have fun! And when I let him loose, he goes flying across the page and hundreds of words later we stop and take a breath and look back at what came out and go, “Whooo! What a ride!” And it was fun.
This is not a craft — well, yes it is, the words won’t be unveiled without a tiny bit of tinkering — but most important it’s a roller coaster, bumper cars, merry-go-round and Tilt-A-Whirl all rolled into one, or if you please it’s a run through a meadow, a walk in the woods stopping at every wildflower and frog and new bird and gorgeous spiderwebs hung between branches and glistening in the sun. Writers have fun or they wither and die. Well, “die” is a big word as long as we’re breathing, but when the fun goes away, when the joy of putting words together fades, it’s just not as musical and it all comes chugging to a stop like an old steam train pulling into the station.
Writing is a selfish act — writing words to please yourself that maybe no one else will ever care to see — but when the joy pours through, the result is something to behold and share with the world — and suddenly it becomes selfless because you bring a little happiness to others.
And I scribbled all this in a half-hour because I wanted to show you a concrete example of what happens when you sit down and resolve to have fun and let loose the words. Because fun is one of the cornerstones of good writing.
And who says having fun is bad anyway? Do you know how much fun it is to cover a news story — waiting in a pile of reporters for a candidate to come out and give his victory speech, talking to a 96-year-old veteran who just got back from a surprise day trip to visit the war memorials in Washington, writing up a jury verdict from the big trial in time for the top-of-the-hour newscast or the paper that goes to press in 45 minutes?
And the people! Co-workers and the people you meet day by day — there are so many interesting people out there and stories to tell, literally billions of them. You never run out of ideas, you have to pick and choose which ones to write and try not to regret the ones you didn’t write.
If there is no fun in what you do to pay your bills, you ought to consider a new source of income.
Writing for the sheer joy of writing is not about figuring out how to pay the bills. But ironically enough, some of the people who write for the sheer joy of writing end up being able to pay the bills just fine.
It’s one of the great secrets: Writing is not a painstaking chore. It’s fun.
First, show up to do the work. And then play.
Have fun. Have fun. Have fun!