WRITING FROM A FLOUR SACK
Fact: I was born on a bathroom floor. Literally. My arrival into this world was followed seconds later by an unceremonious drop onto the cold tile of St. John’s Hospital in Detroit, Michigan.
You see, I was the fifth out of six children. My mother knew my delivery would be fast, but the nurse at the hospital insisted she go to the bathroom before the doctor arrived.
Later, after the drama and I was pronounced healthy, my mother told the doctor that the nurse should have listened to her, that she had warned the nurse that the baby (me) was going to arrive any second. That, having already delivered four children, she knew her body pretty well.
The doctor said, “Five kids, huh? Maybe you should tell your husband to keep it in his pants.”
Both of my parents were born in Italy. They emigrated to the U.S. in the 1950s. My father always said the biggest difference between Italy and America at that time was that you could work your ass off in Italy and have nothing to show for it. If you worked hard in America, you could eventually become wealthy. He started a construction company and worked 6 days a week, from dawn to dusk. Eventually, he was successful.
My mother raised six children.
She is a strong woman.
Both she and my father share a love of aphorisms.
The one I remember most? “A well-made flour sack stands on its own.”
It was almost like a mantra with her.
At a key point in my writing life, that phrase came in handy.
So there I am. I’ve got a full-time job in advertising. I’m writing about products that suck, working for people I can’t stand, and with two good friends, drinking every night after work. At a little bar not far from the office. I’m averaging about five or six drinks a night. Every weeknight. More on the weekends.
But on those weekend mornings, I’m writing fiction. Just short stories that I try to picture in The Paris Review.
Everything gets rejected with remarkable efficiency.
One night, probably half in the bag, I come across THE DAY OF THE JACKAL on television. The original movie is pretty campy and the remake with Bruce Willis is a pure load of crap. But the book. The novel by Frederick Forsyth is one of my all-time favorites.
The scene on television is the best part of the movie: It’s where the Jackal is sighting in his rifle. He paints a little face on a small melon, then blows it apart from 500 yards away.
There’s no epiphany. I go to bed. But as I toss and turn, vodka fumes in a cloud around my pillow, I think about the narrative structure of the story. I’ve read the book several times. Even have a collector’s edition. The chase. The tension. The violence.
When I wake up the next morning, I make an especially strong pot of coffee. I push aside my short literary fiction, and start a new story.
It’s about a hitman and a female escort.
Later that day, during some interminable meeting where everyone is throwing out insidious phrases like “let’s get on the same page,” and “think outside the box,” I realized what I was doing.
I was writing to please others, instead of focusing on the kind of stories and books I like.
Crime fiction. Thrillers. Suspense.
I had forgotten one of my mother’s cardinal rules.
A well-made flour sack stands on its own.
I know it sounds melodramatic. But the truth is, everything changed after that night. I still despised the advertising industry, but I no longer let it bother me so much. I begged off going to the bar with my friends, instead choosing to work out and then get some writing done in the evenings.
Eventually, I finished several crime novels. Even landed a big New York literary agent.
But a funny thing happened. My agent, and publishers, seemed to have endless debates about how to market me. Should I be a hardboiled crime novelist? A thriller writer? A traditional mystery author?
There were suggestions to change this book and change that one. Then change it back. Then change it to something else.
But now I had learned. I was smarter.
I told them thanks, but no thanks.
It was time to stand up and be the writer I wanted to be.
So I became an indie author.
And when my first book became a Top 10 Mystery on Amazon, I knew I had made the right decision.
Never underestimate the power of an Italian mother armed with an aphorism.
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