When students asked if they could write I told them that ten years in the future if they were writing they were writers; if they weren’t writing, they weren’t writers. The reward of writing is writing, just as the reward for being a Marine is being a Marine.
Robert Flynn, professor emeritus, Trinity University and a native of Chillicothe, Texas, is the author of thirteen books. Nine novels: North To Yesterday; In the House of the Lord; The Sounds of Rescue, The Signs of Hope; Wanderer Springs, The Last Klick, The Devil’s Tiger, co-authored with the late Dan Klepper, Tie-Fast Country and his most recent, Echoes of Glory. His dramatic adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was the United States entry at the Theater of Nations in Paris in l964 and won a Special Jury Award. He is also the author of a two-part documentary, “A Cowboy Legacy” shown on ABC-TV; a nonfiction narrative, A Personal War in Vietnam, an oral history.
Visit Robert’s web site: www.robert-flynn.net/
Novel: Echoes of Glory
Novel: North to Yesterday
Story Collection: Living with the Hyenas
How Robert Flynn Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Denise at San Antonio Tourist for recommending Robert, and thanks to Robert for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
From an early age I felt a sense of vocation. I was born and reared on my father’s farm and I spent a lot of time alone working in the field or herding animals. To entertain myself I made up stories or sometimes impromptu speeches beyond the hearing of any human. I spent a lot of time trying to understand what that feeling meant before I knew there was a word called “vocation.” I took a longer time trying to understand what “vocation” meant to me. I didn’t know any writers and had no idea that someone born on a farm could be a “writer” or “author.” Those were from far away places like England or New York City. I dropped out of college to enlist in the Marines because my country was at war and I didn’t know how I could not go to its defense. The only thing I remember my father ever asking me to do for him was to keep a diary while I was in the Marines. His father was murdered when my dad was eight-years-old and he and his older brothers had to help their mother save the farm. They went to school when there was no work to be done on the farm. I don’t know how far my father got in school but he kept records on the farm and he had kept a diary when he was in an infantry division during World War One. He asked me to do the same. He never asked to read it or whether I kept one but I did write every night before I went to sleep and I learned that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I liked examining my life.
After the Marines I returned to college and Paul Baker, highly regarded professor, wrote on one of my papers that I could write. He didn’t say I could write well, just that I could write and I took that as permission. Telling someone that you’re going to be a writer is not like saying you’re going to be a doctor or lawyer. It’s like saying you’re going to be a movie star and seeing your friends snickering. “Who does he think he is?” So, I never said that to anyone. I did work up enough courage to tell my wife that I wanted to be a writer. She didn’t scream or laugh. She said that if that’s what I wanted she would help me. We were very young and neither of knew what that would entail. We did know that we would have to support writing, that it wouldn’t support us. I had graduated from Baylor University and they had classes in playwriting so I decided to return, get a Master’s Degree and then see how the world looked.
My wife supported me, sometimes financially, even when I took risks and sometimes I did. Two men were my mentors, critics, guides and friends. Paul Baker, chair of the Baylor Department of Drama and Eugene McKinney who taught playwriting. Directors in the directing classes selected plays from the playwriting classes and cast students from the acting classes to perform the selected plays. Two of my plays were selected and performed before an audience. I knew then that writing was my vocation. However, every idea comes in its own form and the ideas that came were better suited for reading than for viewing. I wrote stories that were rejected, sometimes seemingly on the same day. Because of a major upheaval I began writing my first novel. I saw it as an anti-western, a story that dispelled western themes and myths. It was a quest story, the search for a “holy grail,” a pilgrimage story of men trying to find themselves in their dreams of doing something heroic. However, the plot was a cattle drive from Texas, after the days of trail driving were over, to “Trails End,” a former cow town that had become a near ghost town. If I sent it to a publisher that published westerns it would likely be rejected because it didn’t follow the western format, and if they did publish it readers and reviewers would prejudge it as a western and declare it a failure. In searching for a publisher I found that Alfred Knopf declared they did not publish westerns. If they published it, everyone would know it was not “Six-guns at the Junction.” I sent in to Knopf “over the transom” with a letter that stated the story was no more a western than “Don Quixote” was a western. That seemed to intrigue them. After several months I received a letter that the novel had been read but they wanted another editor to read it. I sent that letter to an agent who was recommended to me and he said that if they were that interested he would contact them and tell them to give me a contract or a rejection so that he could move on to other publishers. They sent a contract.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
The book that has most inspired me and to which I often return is “The Creative Process” edited by Brewster Ghislen, a collection of writings about their creative process by creative thinkers such as Henri Poincare, Albert Einstein, Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso Henry Moore. Among the writers are William Wordsworth, A.E.Housman, William Butler Yeats, Rudyard Kipling, Henry Miller, Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Be patient. Paul Baker told me that it took ten years to be a physician. When students asked if they could write I told them that ten years in the future if they were writing they were writers; if they weren’t writing, they weren’t writers. The reward of writing is writing, just as the reward for being a Marine is being a Marine. There is no guarantee of “success” unless you define it as writing as long as you can think. Discover your resistances to work. We all have them. The most common one is fear of failure. If you never begin the poem, never finish the story, never mail the manuscript to a publisher, you can pretend you haven’t failed. Take the Thomas Edison approach: you have discovered 3, 10, 20 ways not to write a poem or story. Every kind of work has its frustrations; learn to live with them. Enjoy the process. Maybe nothing you write will be published in your lifetime but writing is something you can enjoy every day for the rest of your life, God be willing. And maybe, even if doctors think you are comatose you are back in your childhood inventing stories for your own pleasure.