One of the great pleasures I discovered on becoming a published author were all the other great authors out there I get to meet. And not just because they are terrific writers, but because they are also really great people. One of those is my guest here today, Tim Hallinan.
Tim's done a lot. He's got three series out there. The Poke Rafferty series, and in fact, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth Poke Rafferty thriller, was nominated for two major awards, the Edgar and the Macavity. He also writes the Simeon Grist Mysteries and the Junior Bender Mysteries. Not only that, but he's also got some short stories up his sleeve with a contribution to BANGKOK NOIR, a collection of stories set in the Big Mango – written by some remarkable storytellers, and for a great cause—taking care of Bangkok's poorest children. And finally, moved by the aftermath of the earthquake in Japan, Tim gathered mystery authors--including yours truly--to write Japan-themed original short stories for an ebook collection called SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, with all proceeds--including those collected by Amazon.com, truly unprecedented--going to Japan Earthquake relief.
His newest Poke Rafferty book, THE FEAR ARTIST, will be on its way to bookstores in July. But today, Tim is talking about playing with his words.
AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE WORD
by Timothy Hallinan
How come what I do for a living isn't called playing?
I've always been envious of professional athletes and musicians. When they show up for work, they're turning up to play. Me, when my wife asks me what I'm going to do all day, I say, “Work.”
Okay, I know it's just a word. I know that the pitcher who's just tossed three home-run pitches, or the defensive lineman who spends all Sunday colliding with guys the size of pre-fab houses, doesn't feel like he's frolicking. I've seen how deeply Venus Williams feels a loss. It's real, not just—well, play.
But the word “play” means something, and it's something I need to make a conscious effort to integrate into my writing. Of course, writing is, on at least one level, playing—it's playing make-believe. It's also play in that it involves daydreaming; imaginary friends; fantasies of love, adventure, and getting even; and, of course, wordplay.
And it's a unique form of play, because—if you imagine it as a board game—we're allowed to invent the entire board, one square at a time. No Park Place and Baltic Avenues for us: we've got an unlimited GPS. For that matter, we can make up the rules, within reason, and change them at will, also within reason. (Learning what comprises “within reason” was one of the most exciting things about writing for me, almost as exciting as realizing that I can occasionally move that boundary, as I become more accomplished.) And it's also play in another way: You get better at it by doing it.
I shouldn't even have to remind myself of all this. Who else in the world is as privileged as writers, composers, and artists? Who else is permitted daily to be at the moment of creation? Who but a writer gets to uncover whole segments of story, one word at a time, like using a soft brush to clear the sand from the spine of some long-buried beast? Who else experiences the thrill of realizing that a character has chewed through her leash and lit out in her own chosen direction? Who else gets to laugh out loud several times a day at jokes she didn't know she was going to make? Who else gets to leave the first footprints in the snow every single day? Who else gets to write something trivial on page five and realize on page 270 that it's absolutely essential?
On the second page of the next Poke Rafferty book, The Fear Artist, due for release by Soho in July, a stranger dies in Poke's arms. I needed, obviously, to describe the stranger. (“What are we looking at?” is one of the questions I ask myself most frequently.) This is what I wrote:
He’s a once-tough sixty-five or so, the planes of his face softened by the passage of years, wearing a T-shirt and a photographer’s vest over cargo shorts, both soaked from the rain. The chunky garments emphasize the thirty or thirty-five extra pounds that suggest he might be American or German. His fair, wet hair, vaguely military and brush-cut, all of an inch long, is in retreat from a high, balding forehead. For some reason what draws Rafferty’s attention, as people continue to run past, is that the skin on the top of the man’s head is crimson from sunburn. It’s been raining for days, but the man is sunburned.
When I wrote that, I was on the second page. I was just warming up. I paid no attention to the fact that the man was sunburned; it was just how I saw him. Not until about 65 percent of the way through the book did I have Poke ask himself why the man was sunburned, and the answer pointed him toward an understanding of his problem—and it's a whopper of a problem.
Things like this—mysteries like this—aren't part of the experience people usually have in mind when they use the word “work.”
I'm aware that the writing session isn't always going to be mystical or exhilarating, sometimes it's a slog, when every word weighs five pounds and you have to heave it into place by hand, when at at the end of the day, it feels like you've just built a sagging, uneven, substandard wall around something that wasn't even worth walling off. But the stubborn truth is that frequently, when you go back to those slogs, you find that you managed to strike the vein anyway, that it's pretty good, or—at the very worst—that you've learned one way not to write it.
Athletes and musicians qualify to “play” for a living by hours and hours of practice, thousands upon thousands of repetitions. Some of those sessions, perhaps most of them, are probably pretty boring, drudgery, in fact. But skill comes with drill in sports and the interpretive arts; and in writing, I think that drudgery can be the path to inspiration and inspiration can power the drudgery.
And yet . . . and yet. And yet, knowing all this about my chosen life, I still have a hard time putting my seat in the chair three days out of five. There are days when I would rather safety-pin my socks into pairs than write that first word.
I'd rather do anything, at those times, than go to work. And maybe that's most of the problem. Maybe, from now on, when my wife tells me what I'm going to do, I'll say I'm going to play. The very word lightens the heart. In fact, I've just had an idea about this book I'm working on.
Pardon me. I've got to play now.
For more on Tim's books, go to his site here.