Motor City Burning: A Novel

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Is Experience Overrated? One Writer’s Checkered Résumé

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After two years of college I dropped out because it was a waste of time and money. Since boyhood I had known I wanted to be a writer — a real writer, a novelist — and after 14 years inside classrooms I’d come to the conclusion that I needed to get out into the world and start harvesting the stuff novels are made of, a substance so vital and valuable that it became the title of a memoir by the great Martin Amis. I’m talking about experience.

By the time I left college I had worked any number of jobs, which are a form of experience in that they send us into the world and force us to figure out how to survive there. Beginning at an early age, I had delivered newspapers, caddied, worked as a bar boy, a dishwasher, a busboy, a bartender. But now I believed I needed something more daring, something more artistically remunerative. The way to have something worth writing about, I reasoned, was to have adventures. This meant two things: plunging into unfamiliar worlds and traveling.

I wasn’t the first aspiring writer to come to this conclusion. Surely Ernest Hemingway couldn’t have written his stories and novels if he hadn’t fished the rivers of northern Michigan, seen combat in the First World War, lived and loved in Paris, hunted big game in Africa, watched the running of the bulls in Pamplona, and battled marlins off the coast of Cuba. Hemingway’s fiction lives on the page because it’s grounded in physical worlds he knew intimately and was able to describe with spare beauty. Other writers I admired had pursued lives of action, from Herman Melville to Jack London, Joseph Conrad, and even Henry Miller, though his adventures were decidedly more seedy than swashbuckling.

Given all this, I was delighted to land a job as a farmhand in Vermont a week after dropping out of college. The place was a sort of nursery for broken-down thoroughbred racehorses from nearby Green Mountain Park, the last stop for many of these nags before they were turned into dog chow or glue. The huge, jittery horses terrified me, but I found I loved the manual labor — baling hay, digging post holes, cleaning stalls, putting a roof on a barn — and above all I was thrilled to be accepted into a raffish blue-collar crew that consisted of a ham-faced Vermont farmer, a hard-drinking cowboy with a broken leg, a petty-criminal greaser who had his eye on the foreman’s hottie teenage daughter, and a gifted old black trainer who nowadays would be called a horse whisperer. I knew I wouldn’t have met any of these people if I had stayed in school.

When the racing season ended I pocketed my $500 life savings and drove my wheezing ’54 Chevy pickup cross-country, then proceeded to work a string of odd jobs up and down the West Coast, in kitchens and vineyards, dairy farms and orchards. At night I worked on my apprentice novel — a murder story set on a Vermont racehorse farm. I threw the manuscript out, of course, but the experience wasn’t a waste. It taught me how far I had to go before I would be able to consider myself a beginner, and it led me to ask myself if I wanted to spend the rest of my life working minimum-wage jobs to support my writing. The answer was no.

It was at about this time that I discovered a remarkable non-fiction book by the short story master Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, which stunned me with this insight: “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not be merged in it.”

This turned my world upside down. If I wanted to become a novelist, according to no less an authority than Flannery O’Connor, I didn’t need to wander the world harvesting experiences. I needed to figure out a way to get paid to contemplate experience and then write about it. The best way to do that, I guessed, would be to get a job as a newspaper reporter and serve my apprenticeship in the typhoon of a daily paper’s city room. My father had done this. So had Mark Twain, Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Tom Wolfe, and countless others. But this was the aftermath of Watergate, and I knew it would be impossible to land a coveted reporter’s job without a college degree. So I sold my ’54 pickup, took a bus back across the country, and returned to college to finish my final two years.

It ended up working out — eventually. After graduation I spent five months knocking on doors at newspapers until I got my first break, a cub reporter’s job on a Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania tank town, starting pay $140 a week. I was, just barely, a professional writer. More newspaper jobs followed, as a reporter and columnist at bigger papers. I kept writing fiction on the side, sometimes giving up the steady newspaper paycheck to travel and work as a magazine freelancer, a New York City bicycle messenger, a construction worker, a Nashville disc jockey. Once, when particularly hard up, I even worked as an “actor” in a porn movie. As justification for this dubious career move, I turned to Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer:
Then one day I fell in with a photographer; he was making a collection of the slimy joints of Paris for some degenerate in Munich.He wanted to know if I would pose for him with my pants down, and in other ways. I thought of those skinny little runts, who look like bellhops and messenger boys, that one sees on pornographic post cards in little bookshop windows occasionally, the mysterious phantoms who inhabit the Rue de la Lune and other malodorous quarters of the city. I didn’t like very much the idea of advertising my physiog in the company of these élite. But, since I was assured that the photographs were for a strictly private collection, and since it was destined for Munich, I gave my consent. When you’re not in your home town you can permit yourself little liberties, particularly for such a worthy motive as earning your daily bread.
My apprenticeship wound up lasting a lot longer than I’d expected: after my college graduation, 16 years passed before I finally published my first novel. When a second followed, I quit my last full-time newspaper job and supported my fiction writing with freelance assignments from anyone willing to pay me — daily newspapers, glossy magazines, college alumni magazines, this and other websites, the rich friends of a rich dead man in need of an upbeat obituary. It has been almost 20 years since I saw my last steady paycheck, and in that time I learned that no writer can afford to be choosy when it comes to earning his daily bread.

In those years I also published a third novel and finished several that haven’t found a buyer. Writing hasn’t made me rich or famous, but I’m still alive, I’m still paying the rent every month, and I’m still writing every day, which is the thing I most love to do.

My big mistakes, I now realize, were to equate adventure with experience and to believe that the writer’s job is to be merged in experience. There’s nothing wrong with adventure, for writers or anyone else, but as Flannery O’Connor taught me, it’s unnecessary for a writer. She rarely left her home in Milledgeville, Ga., and Marcel Proust rarely left his bedroom. They understood that the writer’s business is to contemplate experience, and, just as important, to realize that all experience, no matter how seemingly trivial, can be put to use. The experience of spending a day alone in a jail cell would hardly qualify as an adventure, for instance, but it’s an experience that could make for a rich short story or novel, in the hands of the right writer. The point is that action and adventure — harpooning a whale, say, or getting cut down by shrapnel — are not impediments to writing, but they aren’t prerequisites either.

And then there is what Martin Amis called “main-event experience” in his memoir Experience, the ones that put us through the emotional meat grinder. I have experienced my share of these, including the death of both parents, a sibling locked in a fight with addiction, lost friendships and loves. These are not uncommon experiences but they’re powerful, and they’re definitely worth contemplating, for writers and everybody else. The reverberations of main-event experience are the gold mine.

There’s also nothing wrong with including the experience of work in fiction. The wheat-threshing scene in Anna Karenina comes immediately to mind, as do the gorgeous horrors the poet Philip Levine found inside the Detroit auto factories where he worked as a young man. But as I look back at my checkered résumé, I see that the only job that directly fed my published fiction was my time as a bar boy in a suburban Detroit country club during the summer of 1968, a year after the city was ravaged by a vicious race riot. My experience of working amid rich, white auto executives and black waiters from the inner city made its way into my third novel, Motor City Burning. That’s not much of a return on an investment of so many years. All writing is in a sense autobiographical, but the point is that unless you’re writing baldly autobiographical fiction à la Henry Miller or Proust or Karl Ove Knausgaard — which I am not — you will probably not profit much from your work experience. Your job is to contemplate all of your experience, then set loose the dogs of your imagination.

Come to think of it, I wish my résumé wasn’t nearly as long as it is. Given how little I’ve been able to use my work experience in my fiction, I’ve come to see all those thousands of hours of working to pay the rent as time that could have been more profitably spent writing, or reading, or contemplating my experience. But few writers are born rich, and few people who are born rich become writers, so I realize I don’t have any right to lament my middle-class fate. It’s hardly unusual, and it could be so much worse.

All I can do, all any writer can do, is figure out a way to get someone to pay me to write. And keep contemplating my experience. And keep writing about it, every day.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Aaron Burden.

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