A GOOD MAN AND ME
Terry Kay is on my mind.
I have known Terry since the mid-1960s when we both were writing for The Atlanta Journal. He came out of the sports department and took over as the film and entertainment critic and soon had a national reputation as a discerning critic and as a gifted writer.
In 1976 Terry published his first novel, The Year the Lights Came On, and since then he has leaped from one literary mountain peak to another. His book, To Dance With the White Dog, received world-wide attention and from it came a splendid movie. Now Terry is recognized as one of the South’s most lyrical voices and, perhaps more important, as one of God’s good people.
But that is the professional Terry Kay and I know another Terry and that is why he is on my mind.
Many aspiring writers come to Terry for advice. They are amazed that he takes their calls or meets with them. He is patient and solicitous and encouraging. He knows most of these people could not write a laundry list. He knows most of these people will never make it as a writer. But Terry is a kind man and he takes time – time he could be spending on his own work – to counsel with young writers, to offer guidance, advice and – most of all – encouragement. The would-be writers go away thinking that maybe one day their dream will come true; that one day they just might become a writer. They go away thinking Terry Kay is one of the nicest people they have ever met. They go away grateful that they know a famous writer and he spent time with them and he gave them hope.
And in that vast and sprawling underground network of un-published writers, the word is out: if you need help, help on anything, call Terry Kay.
That is why Terry is a beloved man. That is why he is known as one of God’s good people. That is why when I think of Terry, I think of his kindness, his gentle spirit, and how many people love him.
This is on my mind because a few days ago a person came to me for advice about writing. I have known this person for many years. She was my landlord at a time when I was a starving freelance writer. She knew I was having a rough go of it and, because she was an English teacher who had a reverence for writers and for the written word, she reduced my rent. I’ve never heard of a landlord lowering a tenant’s rent and I have never forgotten her kindness. Then and now it meant the world to me.
After she retired, she decided she wanted to be a writer and she has plowed diligently in a rocky and unyielding soil. Over the years I have spoken with her many times and done my best to offer guidance. But she follows a dream of writing literary fiction while I write non-fiction and I know little of her world. But I do know something about this business of writing. And a few days ago I did something Terry would never have done: I spoke the harsh truth about this business to her. I told her she thought too much about writing, that she talked too much about writing, and that she did too little writing. I told her she was too idealistic when this business calls for a hard pragmatism. I offered her no encouragement. I offered no support of her dream. I told her the things about writing that she was concerned about were irrelevant and that she ignored or overlooked the things that were relevant. Go home and write, I told her, and stop being so intellectual about this business. Think of it as a job. If you want an intellectual model, think Darwin. Because unless you are fit and adaptable, you will not survive.
She was crushed.
Many times I have replayed our conversation. I rationalize my words to her by saying I did her a favor, that I told her the truth, that if she really has the spark within she will write no matter what I said.
But I had no right to trample her dream.
As is true with most writers, my journey has been long and hard. There have been so many failures. I have never seen the romance in writing that so many others see. A series of therapists made a lot of money from me. And here is the bad news: the work never gets easier.
Most would-be writers will always be would-be writers. They will fail, usually for one of two reasons: first, they think there is a recipe to follow and once they learn the recipe they will be successful. Second, they simply are not willing to go down into the quarry and swing the big hammer.
One day their dream will wither and in their old age they will remember with nostalgia how they almost became a writer. They could have succeeded if only . . . if only . . . .
That is God’s honest truth.
But I wish I had followed Terry’s model.