Washington is a city of would-be writers. People come here not only to acquire influence on Capitol Hill, to get a steady job in the Veterans Ad ministration or to make good money with a consulting firm, but also to write. Their experiences are important because they took place in Washington. Or Washington itself is unimportant to them--they are writers to begin with, and whatever happens to them is their raw material.
The Washingtonians interviewed here are a small sample of people who pursue writing as a second career but haven't been published. Their number is in the thousands. The Washington Independent Writers Association is the largest such local group in the United States and more than half of its 1,400 members write only in their spare time.
For every aspiring author eager to have his or her project mentioned in print, another is not ready to come out of the closet. Some of them confide to friends that they are working on their memoirs or thrillers or poems only for their families, or for their own enjoyment, or to put away in a bottom drawer somewhere.
The writers who tell their stories here include a computer specialist, a pediatrician, a secretary, a psychiatrist, and an inventory clerk. Their ages range from 32 to 78. Their projects range from a psychoanalytic study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge to the autobiography of a black woman who says she has been victimized by men, from a collection of essays about solitude and happiness to a novel about an astronaut crash-landing in the Amazon jungle.
Writing a book is an obsession, an escape from job and home. Its completion is a test of talent and character; getting it published is a triumph. A book is a monument of self-justification, a strategy of self-improvement. "Writing is like having a mistress," one of the authors says. "I don't like being away from it."
A person engaged in writing a book says to the world: "I am somebody. I am more than my job. I have a story to tell." For those who keep mailing their manuscripts to publishers, a book printed and bound and for sale on a shelf is the dream of a lifetime, an intimation of immortality.
But the chances of getting published are minuscule; the odds for best-seller fame are infinitesimal. There are perhaps as many as 100 rejected manuscripts for each of the 40,000 books published in the United States every year, and only about 40 books a year sell more than 100,000 copies. Most leading publishers refuse to read a manuscript from an unknown, unless recommended by an agent, a friend or a famous writer.
If all else fails, there are the vanity presses. For printing a few thousand copies they charge about $5,000--which, reports a recent Columbia University survey, also happens to be the average author's yearly income.
"I wouldn't pay to have my book published," says the computer specialist interviewed here. "If my stuff says something, the marketplace will buy it."
But hasn't the stationary word lost out to the flickering image? Scanning for a message in endless columns of type is hopelessly old-fashioned; reading a book from cover to cover is a major commitment of time. Isn't it possible to get the same information --and more entertainment--by watching the screen, TV or film?
Not so, say these would-be authors. "The inception of the image is still by way of the word," says the computer specialist. "There is something false about TV," says the inventory clerk who writes essays. "TV makes people wonder if we or the images on the screen are real. For me, writing has to be the truth and nothing but the truth."
"Why are you writing a book?" I asked each.
"I write because I have to," was the common denominator of the explanations.
One writer put it this way: "I started writing my book the week my wife quit me and a higher-up said that he was going to get me fired. The book helped me a great deal. The book has been my life."
None of the writers interviewed here has had a book accepted by a publishing house. Some of them have their manuscripts ready and are looking for a publisher. Others have only a chapter or two, or at the very least reams of copy they are determined to organize into a book.
Theirs is a story of ambition, high hopes, second youth. We should root for each one of them.
John Carter has a Huck Finn whole someness, a Huck
NOVELIZATION Finn smile. But his face has deep worry lines that suggest he has been knocked about: a recent divorce, a failure--so far--to become a full-time writer, a drifting in and out of cities and occupations.
He says he is confident that his book, a novel he has been working on for eight years, will be published soon and will be a success. Then he will be on to his next book.
Carter speaks in clear, tightly constructed sentences. He won't be caught saying "you know" or "hopefully." He knows what he wants to say and he has been rehearsing for years. Now 49, he has wanted to be a writer for 30 years.
"My basic perception of life is that the goal is heroism," Carter says, "not just to survive but to transcend."
His novel's protagonist is an astronaut disappointed after returning to earth and tired of "working for people who were thin-lipped and self-important and chillingly proper."
Nothing can match the experience of being rocketed into space. Flying a mysterious cargo that turns out to be a nuclear device, he crash-lands in the Amazon uplands. "It's a mythical location, a swamp and a jungle," Carter says, "totally isolated. He faces not so much physical but psychological survival."
The protagonist says: "There was only one thing wrong with flying: sometime, in some place, it was necessary for the flier to come down. For on the earth there was too much--too much frustration, too much ambiguity, too many tangles and too much glut. In the air everything was simple and clear ..fs. On the ground even brilliant men acted strangely. There was nobody I knew who did not at times lurch around like a drunkard, without reason and with no apparent purpose."
The current version of the manuscript--about 200 neatly typed, doublespaced pages--is the third draft. An agent returned the second draft some years ago with the comment, "Glows but does not resonate."
"Writing the book and creating the character, I re- create myself," Carter says. "The book and I feed off of each other."
He writes almost every evening and one day on the weekend--about 20 hours a week. His regular job takes up about 70 hours, he says, "and my two lives coexist raggedly. But time makes itself available. I am attempting to write a classic--a man's book that will be read 50 years from now."
As a child in his native Cleveland, Carter wanted to be a naturalist. He took creative writing at Duke University, then worked on an oil tanker. He lived in Greenwich Village and worked on a novel that was "almost published" by Random House but was never completed. He drifted first to Texas, then to California, got married, raised a family, taught writing at the University of Arkansas.
After he came to Washington in 1964, he became active in Montgomery County Democratic Party politics, sold advertising and insurance and worked in social service programs. Now he is with a computer firm in Rockville, "translating computer concepts into plain English." He takes as much pride in "picking up the guts of a galloping computer technology" as in his talent for "clarifying fuzzy statements."
"Clarity is my main criterion," he says.
Softspoken, lithe ElsieMcRae has sparkling eyes, but even when she smiles she looks as if she might start crying.
She worries whether her husband will like her book--an autobiography. She would prefer to write under a pseudonym made up of her mother's first name and her grandmother's last name because she doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. But, most of all, she is afraid of hurting herself.
McRae was born in Washington and has spent all her life here. She held clerical jobs in banks, and for the past four years she has been a secretary in a downtown office building. At 32, she is a well-tailored woman with poise and presence.
Her book draws on the journal she has kept from the age of 12. She plans to add "the real gut stuff I left out of my diary. Some of it is X-rated-- things I never told anybody. But the book won't be only about sex. I want to be proud of the book."
She has a looseleaf notebook with typewritten sheets--her random thoughts. "They all say the same thing --Oh, oh, oh, help!"
Her book is to begin with a piano concert at age 7. Her success left her with a feeling that she could have been a concert pianist. Then comes a chapter titled "Friends and Fighting," relating life in Taft Junior High and McKinley High School. Other chapters are "Getting Pregnant," "Getting Married" and "My First Job." She plans to write about the men who "didn't treat her right," and then about her husband, with whom she is "madly in love." She says: "I love being married."
There are chapters titled "Mother Dying" and "Daddy Dying"--recent events that "taught me to cherish life instead of getting angry. Dealing with death has made me more mature. Now I know what a real problem is: losing someone who can no longer say to you, 'I love you.' But what I would really like to do is to go to the middle of the street and cry out, 'God, give me back my mother, or take me where she is.' "
The last chapter is titled "Me Dying."
"It's such a struggle--my living," she says. "Everything ends with me dying --the confusion in my head, my bills, my questions--everything!" Her book is also an attempt to understand why black men "don't stick to their women. All these men should be mothers in their next incarnation! If I had to do it all over again, I'd keep my legs crossed and get a chastity belt.
"But I am not throwing blame at black men. I want to describe how American society makes them afraid of showing emotions. I want to show men that they are not less a man because they are asked to take part in raising a family and running the home."
Her husband is different, she says. If the book is successful, she would like to make him a "house-husband." She would go back to work, perhaps write another book, "something fictional-- someone else's hard-luck story."
Her husband would stay at home. "He is a far better housekeeper than I am," she says. "I don't see any sense in my sitting at home. I love the way he works. He can put a crease in a pair of jeans that won't come out after 50 washings."
McRae writes: "I have wasted time letting people take advantage of me. I have been told that I am too soft and that this is my problem and whenever I try to stand up for my rights, I find myself stepping on someone else's toes, and then this puts me back to square one all over again, being used."
Stephen M. Weissman
Stephen M. Weissman, M.D., is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University school of medicine and a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with an extensive clientele. A restless high achiever, he jogs six miles a day--up to 12 on the weekend--and cooks gourmet meals of great complexity.
For three years he has put in 35 hours a week--usually between 6 and 11 a.m., plus some evenings and weekends--writing a biography of 686 typewritten pages, complete with appendix, bibliography and notes, titled: Coleridge and the Ancient Mariner: Opium and a Survivor.
"As a therapist, I sit and listen to my patients most of the day," he says. "Writing a book is the opposite of being a listener."
An English major as an undergraduate at Cornell, Weissman chose the 18th-century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge because of his interest in how emotional problems and drugs help or block creativity. He describes himself as "a semiactivist" in the 1960s causes of poverty, health care and Vietnam. He admires Coleridge as ''a man who sympathized with the French Revolution and trod the thin edge of civil disobedience, publishing a one-man newspaper and running the risk of imprisonment for sedition."
According to Weissman's analysis, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is "a universal poem on fratricide," a recollection of a childhood incident in which the poet tried to kill his brother. But because the brother later killed himself, after a voyage to India, the poet felt responsibile.
"And if Coleridge's poem was intended to symbolically repair his loss," Weissman writes, "it was also meant to atone for his irrational guilt ... The mariner's perpetual guilt and atonement make a great deal of sense if we think of him as endlessly tormenting himself for having undeservedly survived a disaster for which he blamed himself, a disaster in which everyone else perished."
Now, with the work done, Weissman says, "I don't love Coleridge; I don't hate him. I accept him. He was a great and generous person but weak and hypocritical toward the end of his life. He started out as a revolutionary, but became a status-quo person. He was most attractive as an adolescent. As he progressed through life, his ideas degenerated, and drugs destroyed him.
"My book is about the double edge of idealism--how it inspires dreams and how it leads to disillusionment. The book is also about drugs--how they give glorious visions at the beginning but later destroy the capacity to be imaginative. Coleridge said it best when he called opium 'the milk of paradise.' It tastes good when you take it, but it curdles later on. Coleridge had great visions, cosmic and unique, yet he ended up dully staring at his own excrement in a stupefied condition."
Weissman is looking for a publisher. If his book is successful, he says he will write another. But, he quotes Coleridge, "never become an author by trade." He doesn't want to depend for his income on the literary marketplace. He is engrossed in his profession and finds writing "an ideal second profession." He hopes reviewers will welcome his book as a different type of literary criticism but expects disapproval from orthodox psychoanalysts for not dwelling on the poet's relationship to his parents, for not being "party line enough."
Esther Bender always has been a storyteller. One day,
RUMINATION in 1974, a friend suggested that she write up her mother'sstories, brought over from the Old World, from the river towns of Latvia. "I thought I'd just as well add my life story too," she says. "It's not a pretty story. But every word of it is true."
For three weeks, Esther Bender wrote--20,000 words in all, done up with neat long-hand. "When I do something," she says, "I feel I've got to do it right. So I stayed up writing day and night. Isn't it awful?
"I never graduated from high school. So I don't do too bad, do I?"
These days Esther Bender is 78, living in a senior citizens' apartment building in Rockville. Her one-bedroom apartment sparkles. The walls are covered with her needlepoint work --children and roses-- and framed photographs of her family: parents, brother, sister-in-law, husband. All dead.
"I am all alone," she says, in a firm voice that does not ask for sympathy. "I have no family, except for a stepdaughter who lives in New York."
Esther Bender was born on New York's Lower East Side, but has lived in the Washington area for 50 years. She followed her brother, who played the violin in "exclusive night clubs" such as the one in the old Raleigh Hotel. For 21 years, she sold clothes at Kann's department store, "working on straight commission."
Her autobiography is gripping, fast moving, without any purple patches. She introduces her mother: "She was a beautiful woman, with large sorrowful brown eyes and gorgeous white hair which she wore in a pompadour which was the fashion at the time. She never thought of herself as beautiful, and it rubbed off on me. She was a talented woman. She could make anything on a sewing machine."
On her brother: "I nicknamed him The Professor because he seemed to know the answer to any question. He had a photographic memory. At night when everyone was in bed, he was sitting on a chair under the gas light in the kitchen with a book in one hand and a hunk of rye bread in the other until my mother found him there and made him go to bed. My brother spoke, read and wrote six languages which he learned by himself. He would get a grammar and a dictionary from the library and study the language he wanted to learn, and then he would read all the books from the library in that particular language."
On herself: "God blessed me with a gorgeous lyric soprano voice, a two-octave range, and I could sing a high C. I wept and wailed that I wanted to study voice. I wanted to be an opera singer. My brother, being the oldest and a boy, made all the decisions for the family, and he said, 'What do you want to do? Sing in a saloon?' I might have been better off singing in a saloon."
The manuscript, typed up by a friend, has been rejected by several publishers. Last July, Simon & Schuster advised her: "Unfortunately, unsolicited manuscripts arrive in our offices in such overwhelming numbers that we have been compelled for some time now to adopt a policy of not considering such manuscripts due to our inability to process the work load. A viable alternative for anyone seriously interested in being published is to attempt to engage the services of a literary agent."
She says she is not upset that the book hasn't been published. "Why get upset? I read many books. They are so much better than mine.
"My life was unfortunate. I had many talents, but at the time I was born my parents didn't understand that. It has all gone to waste. When I was younger I was very timid. I thought everbody else knew more than I. In my senior years, I have done a lot of things I hadn't thought I had the gumption to do. Writing is a talent I never knew I had. So you learn with age. Now no- body can get the best of me. I fight for what's right.
"I don't give up. I'll try again with the manuscript."
DEVOTION Harold Reeves
'I have been so lucky," is a sentence often said by Harold Reeves, a 32-year-oldinventory clerk. "As time goes on, life is getting better for me."
He is a private man, given to contemplation the way alcoholics are given to drink. He writes because "when things are calm and peaceful, one should reflect on what went into that goodness."
He believes in finding the positive in all things, and writing is his favorite strategy. He writes at home or on park benches, usually at the zoo, or at the new Pennsylvania Avenue park project. A reed-thin but muscular 6 feet 2 inches, he is a statue of a young writer when sitting stiffly upright on a park bench, feet crossed and chin pressing down, notebook in one hand and a pen in the other, poised to create and frozen in tension.
He loves ritual because "ritual means it's always the same." He is a staunch Catholic, and he loved his two years in the Army, "firm in believing in duty, honor and country."
Life is a march of conclusions for him. He is a bit of a preacher--the type who preaches to himself. "Somewhere along the line I learned to tell right from wrong," he says. "And I grew up believing that something bad follows if I do something wrong." He writes: "Lord, help me to remember that nothing is going to happen today that You and I together cannot handle."
Writing is a project of self- improvement for him. He has always wanted to write, he says, but thought that "you had to be totally professionally trained. Which is why it took me so long to get started. I still feel inferior to people who are super-trained."
Two years ago he "decided to put pen and paper together." He bought a green spiral notebook and began to write a page or so every day. "What I write has to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," he says. To the question: "What's your subject?" his answer is, "Myself and my son."
Reeves' son, Clayton, is 13. The mother, to whom Reeves was married for less than three months, lives in Texas, and Clayton was at first cared for by Reeves' parents. "I got him when he was 7," Reeves says, "and it turned out for the best. I don't like to say it, but my son is not too far from being a genius. I am dedicated to him, and I give him all my time. I write for him and for myself."
"The soul must be alone at times so fresh breezes can blow through to heal the wounds of all those with various troubles and to bring back calm," Reeves writes. Last year, he tried to write every day; this year, he gave up the idea of a journal. He now organizes his thoughts by subjects. His style mixes statements about the human condition with descriptions of his mood, what he saw on a walk or how he enjoyed a certain kind of music.
Under the heading "Happiness" he writes: "Each man is his own absolute law-giver, the dispenser of glory to or from himself, the decreer of his life, his reward, his punishment. Happiness is not something pursued; rather it seems to be a state of inner freedom from worries, self-doubts, fears."
He says that if he could sit down and apply himself only to writing, he could "put the book in shape in five months." His working title is "Plain and Simple Me."
He grew up in Norfolk, where his father was a longshoreman and his mother a dietitian. He was one of the first blacks accepted in a white high school there, but at the last minute, when it came to a court battle and the threat of a school shutdown, his parents sent him to Washington, wh18102ere he attended Mackin Catholic High School. After one year, he returned to Norfolk and was graduated from the black high school.
In the Army, he was trained as a supply clerk, and then he trained others as supply clerks. For the past four years he has been working in the supply room of a Washington social service organization. He says he loves his job almost as much as his home. This fall he moved into a house on 13th Street, with an option to buy. "Owning a house means that I am really settled," he says. If his book is published, he wouldn't want his life "to change one bit," he says. "I write for myself--and for my son. I want the world to leave me alone. But I would never want to stop writing. I have an urge to write."
'It was a snap to become a doctor,"pediatrician Roy Jacobstein says. "It was preordained--by my parents. But medical school is really a trade school. What I really want to be is a writer, and that's extremely difficult." He refers to his first poems, produced earlier this year, then asks: "But will my friends walk away when I show them my writing?
"If I find I can be a writer, nothing else is important. But if I fail ..." The sentence hangs. He tries to rephrase it, using the word suicide, calls it inadequate and rejects it. He continues: "I suppose there would be still some point to living, but ..." Another incomplete sentence in a blizzard of assertions, revisions, footnotes and disclaimers, accompanied by hand gestures, cocked eyebrows and beard strokings.
Dr. Roy A. Jacobstein, 33, is a fervent communicator.
Detroit-born, he is a pediatrician who works for a health plan in northeast Washington. His patients come from the black middle class and lower middle class. "They like me and I like them," he says. "But how can I really help a 14- year-old girl with a 3-year-old child? What can I do that's really helpful?" He answers the question paragraphs later: "You translate people you meet into characters in your novel. It's not so frustrating anymore when you can write about it."
After parenthetical statements about his "compartmentalized life--suburban home, office in the ghetto, the writer at his desk," he returns to the theme: "I am a hopeless white liberal. Of the last remnant. I think the right word is unregenerate. I'll look it up when I get to my room."
He telephones two days later. "What I meant was that I am a hopelessly white liberal. Not hopeless."
It's Tuesday, and Tuesday is one of three days when Jacobstein takes time out to write--about three hours Tuesday and Friday, maybe five on Sunday. Since Feb. 15, he has been renting a $150- a-month room at Ninth and F streets. There he has a desk, his thesaurus and Oxford English Dictionary, as well as a comfortable chair and a mat to rest on. The bathroom is down the hall. He changes into jeans and a sports shirt after entering the room.
"The change of clothes is important," he says. "Like for painters and sculptors."
He has not completed a chapter, he acknowledges sheepishly; all he has are a lot of pages, an outline, sections here and there, descriptions of minor characters.
Jacobstein's objective is to write a novel. His protagonist is "a burnt-out doctor" who worked in the black ghetto and failed to find "meaning and relationships."
The character goes to Thailand to tend the sick in a refugee camp and gets involved with a female TV reporter shooting a documentary. She is troubled by the visual clich,es of hunger and deprivation, and by the film's titillating effect on the viewers.
The novel will deal with unhappy people of the First World--the West--roaming the Third World. The doctor's trip to Thailand is "a form of suicide." He lacks commitment to the refugees.
A few months ago Jacobstein received an invitation from the Catholic Relief Services to spend two months in Thai refugee camps, leading a team of four medical students. "It's a real fluke," he says, "I would have gone on my own, to study the locale for my novel. Now I have a feeling that I am going to come back with a shaved head and in a saffron robe--the sort of thing I managed to avoid when my peers were doing it." He is to leave in February, the first anniversary of his decision to become a writer.
"In some way I always thought of myself as a writer," he says, "but can you call yourself a writer when it takes you 45 minutes to decide if a thing is scarlet or crimson? To be a writer to me means that you preserve things. I want to say that I was here on this world and this is what life was like."
Jacobstein is unsure about his ability to complete the novel, tentatively titled The Final Cut. "If I don't do it or if I am not satisfied with the novel, I don't know what I'll do," he says. "I want to write the great American novel. But perhaps first I should write something like Coma or Andromeda Strain. Those books were written by doctors. Nothing wrong with them. They are good beach reading. But I am presumptuous."
At times Jacobstein sounds like Woody Allen discussing his lack of self-confidence. But for Jacobstein writing is a matter of life and death. "I am doing the most serious thing I've ever attempted in my life," he says. "There are times I want to be funny--in sections of the book--but it's a deadly serious matter for me to write. In my room I have pages taped on the wall with plans for 30 short stories. But I am still working on my first.
"I cannot think of anything more existentially terrifying than to sit in front of the typewriter with a blank sheet in it."