The Perils of Hanging Out With a Writer

This is sort of tongue-in-cheek…and sort of not.  When I was a little kid, growing up on Drakestown Road, Hackettstown, New Jersey, my dad was a novelist and freelance writer.  Also a world traveler which, if you translate it, means he was rarely home.  This had its pluses and minuses.  When Dad was home, his books were the subject of much local hoopla.

The good folks in Hackettstown (an itty-bitty town) would, on occasion, have a book-burning when some of Dad’s books were too, too, too.  (Usually too much wild sex.) And it was sometimes rough shopping at the A&P with my mom.   No one was on the fence about these things.  And when he’d go on the Today Show, which was often, he’d get congratulatory calls as well as the other kind, depending on the topic.  It was no big secret that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it, and fortunately, the rest of the family had no interest in or proclivity for writing.

But then, while stationed in Tokyo, I had an idea for a book that kept gnawing away at me.  Try as I might, I couldn’t turn my back on it and soon I was writing my first novel, entitled His Natural Powers.  It was filled with mistakes, both in technique and in plot formation, but I was hooked anyway.

The standing rule of thumb for writers is you have to write literally a million words till you just might begin to understand what you’re doing.  Try to write a thousand and you’ll get the idea, though with very few exceptions, it holds true.

My shortest and weirdest book, a parable, that strangely follows the essence of Dylan’s, Like a Rolling Stone.

I get asked quite often what the process is like and 99% of people get it wrong.  “Oh, I imagine it’s a very solitary life, being alone in a room.”  Nope, that’s completely wrong.  If you’re sitting there and lonely, you aren’t in the groove at all, you’re in trouble.  With practice, there’s a place (in my mind) where I go to and I completely disappear, only to reappear exactly in the middle of the scene I’m writing.  A writer doesn’t sit there and think, “Okay, what does Sylvia or Alfred say next?”  You sit there (invisible to the characters) and listen to them.   At least ten times a day, I’m utterly surprised by what comes out of their mouths.  Sometimes pleasantly so, sometimes, shockingly not so.

Another part of the story of what America went through during Vietnam

Okay, so what are the perils?  Well, there’s a t-shirt Pam bought me a couple of years ago that says,  BE CAREFUL YOU JUST MIGHT WIND UP IN MY NOVEL! It’s not that a writer decides to do this, but sometimes…sometimes…a character just shows up from out of nowhere and walks into a scene.  This just happened about a month ago and this character is and working in Old Fort, NC.  Now…for the record, every single novel that’s published has the same disclaimer:  The events and characters in this book are purely fictional.  Uhmmmmm…  The publishers put that in the beginning of the book whether you like it or not.  There’s this word, litigation, you have to think of.

“Is that it, Henry?  That’s the worst I have to worry about?  You might make me a character?”  No.  Most people are pretty happy being characters and becoming immortalized.  But there is a price to be paid.  The truth of the matter is, every writer I’ve ever known, myself included, quickly begins to build up a mental muscle…a quirk.

In order to write, you absolutely have to be able to put yourself in the mind of the person sitting across from you or standing next to you.  You have to be able to EMPATHIZE, to truly put yourself in a person’s mindset and think and feel what they do.  This sounds a lot cooler than it is.  It unequivocally gives the writer an unfair advantage, because he or she already has a pretty good idea of what you think of them and how you feel about them.  It’s annoying for both parties sometimes.

I even wrote a fact book, entitled The E-Factor, which minutely details all the proactive things you can do with all that empathy.  In truth, I shelved the book after I was finished because it was just too much to deal with or to expose to a large number of people.  Being empathetic doesn’t automatically make you a good guy.  It could be used improperly if it were used by someone unethical.

The First, a novel by Henry Harvey

An out-and-out thriller, set in the very near future.

When I was just getting started in writing, Pamela, in her effort to be as supportive as possible, set up the most picturesque room in our house at CrossBow.  It was on the second floor and overlooked woods, a stream, and a giant pond.  In truth, for a year or two, I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was wasted on me.  When a writer writes…he isn’t there at all.  He doesn’t see.  He doesn’t hear.  He doesn’t smell.  He’s off wherever the action is in the book, listening to what the characters have to say.  He’s mute and an attentive reporter.

Clarification:  To be accurate, a writer also cherry-picks like crazy.  In his or her mind, the guy down the road may be the character.  But to obfuscate things (and not get sued) that tall cowboy-type who drives a truck, may actually be somebody much, much different.

…kinda makes you think.

I wrote an e-mail about an hour ago to some friends and associates.  In the first couple of lines I stated:  In the world of a writer (or an artist) there is only one cardinal rule:  DON’T BE BORING.  You can, on occasion, do almost anything else, but being boring is the most deadly sin of writing.

And on that happy note, back to page 274, on The F**KET List where things are beginning to unravel horribly……uhm….for the characters.  I’m having a ball!






10 Responses to "The Perils of Hanging Out With a Writer"

  1. Debbie says:

    Having known, or associated with quite a few writers I have heard your description of how it is to write on more than one occassion. I’ve also heard that the characters living in your head at the time can be very distracting. All I can say is, I have enough craziness going on in my head, I don’t need any one else in there. I’m looking forward to reading the F**ket List, I need a bit of light reading.

  2. Henry Harvey says:

    Hey Deb,
    It’s actually not like that. When you talk to several people you see them and converse with them…but they’re not inside your head. Or, when you watch a movie or TV show, you see people and hear their conversation. When you’re writing its a LOT like watching a movie…only you are writing the scene.

  3. Henry Harvey says:

    Had no idea…and I lived “at the top” of the mountain – all those years. As always, love reading your writing!! Think about you every time I pass your childhood home. I do, however, look at it differently now after reading…your writing.

  4. Henry Harvey says:

    Hey Ruthann!
    Really nice to hear from someone from the Waaaay Back Years. Glad the writing works for you. When you write you have absolutely zero idea whether people will resonate…or not.

  5. Henry Harvey says:

    Love hearing about your writing process Henry! Do you think your writing style has changed at all since you’ve moved to NC? I’m curious about that.

  6. Henry Harvey says:

    That’s a really good question…with an unfortunately boring answer. Nope, style is something you acquire very slowly over time. In the beginning I was a Steinbeck wannabe. It took some years to turn into me. But NC? Honestly? Everyone is a walking “character” down here and that’s not a cut, it’s high praise. Lots of storytellers down here and (thank God) I fit right in. I can go into Gibbs hardware for a light bulb and an hour later, I leave the place with tears of laughter. Everything was sooooo self-serious in Bucks County. Losin’ my sharp edges.

  7. Henry Harvey says:

    What was your Dad’s name? I don’t remember book burning in Hackettstown but then I grew up in Long Valley

  8. Henry Harvey says:

    His name was Frank Harvey. It was on the front page of The Hackettstown Gazette…..but then if a cat went up a tree, sometimes that would make it in, too.

  9. Phil says:

    I’m already a character in your book, eh, blog. I write, you spar and we both have fun. Right? I do appreciate the writings of a poet or haiku because so much can be said with so few words yet the picture is generally exquisitely descriptive. We get into each others head a tiny bit….Just a peek. I’m glad you have fun.

  10. Henry Harvey says:

    Uhmmm… “The characters, events, and dialogue in this book are products of the author’s imagination and…blah blah blah” I hope you’re having fun, too Phil! If we aren’t…we’re not doing it right.

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