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How to be a writer: Steve Silkin

We can learn a lot from other writers. Here's another excerpt from our books, Be a Writer & Be a Better Writer (Updated edition out now!), to shed a little light on the writing life. Catch up on the series here.

I know Steve Silkin knows his stuff because he was one of my editors during the decade I wrote for the Los Angeles Business Journal, where he’s the deputy managing editor. Editors who are successful writers in their own right (and believe me, there are many editors who aren’t) do a terrific job of developing talent while producing solid product. Steve’s one of the best.

Be A Writer Like Steve Silkin

1. What kind of writer are you?Business-journalist-Steve-Silkin

I’m a journalist and a short story writer and a novelist. I started my career in newspapers at the International Herald Tribune in Paris. Then I returned to California, where I grew up, and worked as an editor at the Simi Valley Enterprise. We were taken over by the Ventura County Star, and they kept me on as a City Hall reporter. When I left the Star, I worked as a travel writer and editor at Guest Informant for four years. I joined the Business Journal as news desk editor at the end of 2003. I write headlines, proofread/copy edit news articles and supervise a small staff of interns.

I have always wanted to write short stories and novels, but I really didn’t have the chops until I attended a couple of writing seminars and learned some key concepts about story structure, word choice and capturing the telling detail. I’ve written about 30 short stories – about half of them have been published, some online, some in print. I’ve self-published two collections of short stories. I’ve written two novels and will be self-publishing those in 2006. I have about 20 readers, mostly friends from high school, some former colleagues and new friends. And that’s probably about all I’ll ever have. But that’s OK. I did what I wanted to do. I won’t be dying one day and say: I should’ve written those stories. I should’ve written those novels.

2. Why do you write?

Life is so deep and mysterious and such amazing, tragic and beautiful things happen, I knew that I would have to memorialize my experiences somehow; they couldn’t just evaporate.

3. What made you want to be a writer?

A very, very hip 10th grade student-teacher named Candace Norton couldn’t have me sleeping in class anymore, because some of the other kids were starting to do it, too. So she gave me a paperback copy of “One Flew of Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and sent me to the library to read it every day. It’s an amazing book. But it didn’t quite do the trick until two years later, I made a chance discovery of “The Stranger” and “The Plague.” I knew I wanted to do what Kesey and Camus had done: tell stories that deep, that mysterious, that amazing. But I was a teen-ager living in the suburbs. I may have had some stories to tell, but not all that many. Hemingway learned writing as a journalist; Camus was a journalist with the French Resistance under the Nazi occupation. I decided to learn writing as a journalist, like they did, so I dropped my plans to be a music major and joined the staff of the college paper instead. I got a job at a porno theater, and a very, very hip projectionist there named Tony Witzel turned me onto Fitzgerald, Nathaniel West and D.H. Lawrence. Then I took off to see the world, traveling Europe by bike from Paris to Barcelona, then thumb, boat, bus and train to Brussels, Amsterdam, London, Rome, Athens, Vienna, Copenhagen, working and making friends and living life along the way. Years later, when I finally had the chops to write, I had some stories to tell.

4. What advice would you give to a writer who was just starting out?

Read Kesey, Camus, Kerouac, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Kawabata, Raymond Chandler. Read Paul Auster, John Fante, Banana Yoshimoto, Madison Smartt Bell, Irvine Welsh and Denis Johnson. Read a newspaper if not every day, at least two or three times a week. Read Harper’s or the Atlantic or Time or Newsweek. See how writers tell stories. Listen to their voice. Watch how they choose their words and structure their sentences. Notice how they end their stories. You feel something at the end, don’t you? Why? I’ll tell you why: It’s magic. Go to a country where you don’t speak the language. Write a poem. Turn it into the lyrics of a song. Sing it. Walk down the Promenade des Cygnes, an island on the Seine in Paris: it’s where Beckett and Joyce used to walk. Go to Marx’s grave in London’s Highgate Cemetery. Drink from the stream in Delphi where Aphrodite renewed her virginity. Stand on the edge of the Sahara and look out to the horizon. It’s a big, wild, crazy world out there and you’ll have plenty of adventures along the way to write about. I know I did.


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