Why I Write: Glenn Deutsch

I write because six, seven, or however many decades may take a long time to live, but amount to a short time on earth.

I write because my mother read the dictionary in the bathtub as a child. In college my father worked at the Brooklyn Public Library, where someone told him he’d make a good school librarian.

I write because they met in their twenties and Eros said, “People of the Book, make more.”

I write because my mother made up bedtime stories with recurring characters. I write because my father brought home books from his elementary school library. They were usually in fine shape. But not The Thing at the Foot of the Bed, a hardcover collection of spooky stories he handed me a few days before Halloween the year I was in fourth grade. A large crimson ink blotch on the fore edge had leaked into the outer edge of nearly every page. “Tell everyone it’s blood,” he said. I don’t remember anyone believing me.

I write because I took pride in being my school’s PTA English Student of the Year in seventh grade. Thank you, Mr. Reilly, may you rest in peace.

I write because aside from the Victorian erotica I dug out of my parents’ bedroom, I got especially immersed as a teenager in Rabbit, Run and Portnoy’s Complaint and a thick trade paperback assigned another year in English, Great American Short Stories.

I write because I took a high school elective called The Nature of Language.

I make literary efforts now because in my late teens I was shunted away from it — from literature and writing for print, though beginning a few years later, and then over the course of a couple of decades, I sought my way back.

My father became a district administrator for library and audio-visual and a proselytizer for electronic media. He orchestrated my graduation a year early from high school, and — shades of much of the attitude we see today towards the liberal arts — managed to convince me no one would read books in the not-distant future, that I should prepare instead to work in radio or visual media. I didn’t take any English classes as an undergraduate, started instead in Communication Arts on the radio-TV-film track; switched within the major my junior year to speech and public address. I also took journalism classes my last two years.

I write because my father didn’t make much of his art ability.

I write because there’s never been a kind of work I have enjoyed as much as writing.

Right out of college I had a family with my first wife and a job as a copywriter at a little ad agency in Wisconsin. At the time there were something like ten plays on Broadway written by former copywriters, and I told myself when I was forty, when my daughter turned eighteen, I could start writing fiction seriously.

In my mid-twenties I wrote a flash story before I knew there was such a thing, and put it away for twenty years, until one day I looked at it again and saw it wasn’t bad and revised it and got it published in Word Riot while I was also getting brand new stories from workshops into lit mags.

Also in my twenties, I read The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and passed Gardner’s little quiz about the weather you imagined for the day your protagonist learns something terrible.

I write because though I’ve never faithfully kept a journal or diary, I started as a teenager keeping scraps of paper — phrases, bits of dialogue, lines that would come to me — and clippings from magazines and newspapers, which I tore out for the subject or distinctive use of language.

For a time in the eighties I was a reporter for a business magazine in New York. At a conference one day I picked up a monograph whose point basically was that working for a time in journalism can be helpful if you intend to write literary fiction, but get too accustomed to journalistic formulas, get comfortable with journalistic cliches, and it’ll ruin you for style.

I write because the health editor at a fashion magazine I freelanced for told me once my copy was cleaner than what other freelancers typically turned in. She was also a girlfriend, and she read me a sentence she liked from an article I had written for her.

On a subway car, maybe that day, I thought for the first time of myself as a writer, even though I’d been writing professionally since college.

I write because writing can go so wrong or turn out so right and it’s all vice-versa the next day. Or as the legendary sportswriter Red Smith once said, “Writing is easy — all you have to do is open your veins and bleed.” Through writing I can appreciate how easy it also would be to be great at acting or singing or dancing.

When I was a reporter I liked letting sources talk a lot, and would transcribe interviews slavishly so I could render the person’s syntax and diction, working in punctuation I thought would help make the person sound exactly like they had in conversation. More typically, reporters cut in and say, “Thanks, I have what I need,” and pop quotes into a narrative. I suppose I was practicing at characterization, doing research of sorts on dialogue.

I was ever more certain in my thirties that I’d regret it someday if I didn’t try to write like my literary heroes. And also that I was missing something in my education. One year in my early forties, when I was between jobs, I took the Strong Interest Inventory at a career counseling center at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Three occupations clustered at the top of the results, all within a few points of each other: Writer, Teacher, and Public Relations Professional. Dead last on the assessment was Forest Ranger.

But I didn’t want to do PR for the second half of my life. I took twenty post-baccalaureate credits in British and American literature at my alma mater.

And then John McNally connected fiction writing and work ethic in a class at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

I was methodical in taking back my future, or a shred, or a semblance, or a dimension of it. I took six Iowa summer courses over two years, then a community college creative writing workshop, then an intermediate fiction workshop at UW-Madison, and I put in a total of five and a half years at a corporate job largely to fund an MFA for myself.

I write because my present-day wife arranged a gift for me with my corporate boss at the time: a five-week unpaid sabbatical so I could write before assuming the directorship of the company’s publications department that coming January.

I holed up those five weeks in late fall of 1999 in an off-season condo outside of Austin, Texas, with a portable file box containing notes, half-hearted attempts at stories, and some research. I wrote the first draft of a novel, eighty pages single-spaced longhand with a fountain pen on legal pads, and also sketched out a couple of short stories.

I write because I have always liked the tools. Liked first learning to clamp the pads of my first two fingers and thumb against a pencil. Have cared for certain pens, typewriters, computers.

I write because before she died in 2000, my mother’s mother, who had macular degeneration, nevertheless looked me in the eye one day in her apartment and said, “Don’t waste your talent.”

I write because my mother could have done more with her intelligence. And belligerence. Like become a trial lawyer.

When it finally came time to apply to programs and start an MFA in Fall 2002, Jaimy Gordon at Western Michigan University determined I should helm Third Coast, and so I was accepted on the doctoral track. In addition to writing and editing, I learned a complementary new trade, teaching, which since 2006 has afforded me time to keep writing, or at least to revise a lot.

I write because I can hold in my mind more than one conflicting idea at a time about what constitutes good writing (see Dybek and Gordon, style) and still retain the ability to write.

I write because I gave up a lot of money in order to write.

I write to advertise myself.

I write because only a few events have changed my life as much as reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in Comparative Lit spring semester of my freshman year. I’ve reflected on that bit of personal history in a short story that ran in Gargoyle which I extracted from a novel-in-progress.

I write because some of my strongest memories are of things I experienced in short stories — whole stories, or imagery. I’m thinking of “Young Goodman Brown,” “The Lottery,” “Pet Milk,” “The Shawl,” “The Half-Skinned Steer.”

Some of my most embarrassing private moments have also arisen from the experience of reading. No, I didn’t act out the liver scene from Portnoy’s Complaint (actually it wasn’t a scene). But when I got to the end of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, I did bawl and blurt out, sniffly-nosed, “¡Yo so un macho!”

I write because I also want to be someone who creates those kinds of effects for readers.

To be honest, I don’t write enough, even now, when I have long winter breaks and summers off. I’m not particularly introverted, still need to earn a salary, spaced my children thirty years apart, have trouble at times believing I don’t always need to be doing something practical, lost some ability to focus when I quit smoking, sometimes think about chucking it because who’s the audience for this writing, anyway, On the other hand, I have learned I write well when I’m tired.

I ruminate and dare to write because the alternative is to become depressed.

In his later years my father suggested I might like to work at something I could do while listening to music, which I assume he did while painting. Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” was playing on a favorite online radio station when I thought to add this.

I write to remember, of course.

I write because even though for twenty-plus years I wrote ads and news releases and newspaper and magazine articles and executive speeches and other ephemera, some of it not bad, when it finally came time, I didn’t just start writing fiction like someone who’d been publishing for twenty years, didn’t all of a sudden burst past all the practical writing and write like a middle-aged master of fictional forms, far from it. In applying myself, I have had to develop humility.

I write to discover my extant potential as a writer.

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About Glenn Deutsch

Glenn Deutsch’s stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Literary Review, Confrontation, Post Road, Notre Dame Review, Gargoyle, and Prick of the Spindle, among others. In the nineties he wrote for half a dozen newspapers and magazines in Milwaukee. Since 2002 he's lived on the other side of the lake, in Kalamazoo, where he is completing a story collection and his first novel.