Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat

Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat
April 16, 1976

Outside of a bimonthly find, I can’t read books. Three hundred pages in two weeks usually means pick up book, page 30 stop, pick up next book, page 40 stop, next book, etc. for 10 books, dropping off into People magazine and lethargically thumbing back issues of National Lampoon. This anorexia nervosa around the printed page has been a life-long affliction. I don’t know how to prove this statistically, but empirically I’ve discovered that what I go through around books is a common dyspepsia among my generation (b. circa 1950) — which is to say, not many of us pleasure-­read anymore. And friends, what’s coming up after us is worse. I’ve taught, lectured, and read at roughly two-dozen colleges, and the amount of ignorance of, and indifference to, both fiction and nonfiction is devastating except for an occasional cult book, the leaders of tomorrow couldn’t read their way out of a Glad Bag. What’s more, they wouldn’t want to.

Consider: Every American born since 1947 cut his teeth on the tube seven days a week, with Saturday afternoons off to go to the movies. TV and cine are faster than Wonder Books, My Weekly Reader, Landmark Books, The Red Pony, and whatever’s on the cover of the NYTBR next week. TV is easier. It’s multisensory. Mov­ies, (on top of) being easier and multisensory, are also bigger and on top of bigger they happen to be group experiences. Relatively, books are hard work, static, one­-dimensional. Reading is an isolat­ed activity. We’re lazy — we seek the easiest information source, the most entertainment for the least effort. One picture is worth a thousand words.

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Whenever I do a talk or a reading at a college, I always ask how many people have seen the film Dracula or one of its offspring, usually 90 to 100 per cent. Solid. Now how many here have heard of Bram Stoker? On a good day, five to 10 per cent. And for the preschoolers it’s Count Chocula, a Chocolate Marshmallow breakfast atrocity… Do you know who Bram Stoker was? And so it goes. In other words, I would guess that most eight-year-old kids faced with a choice of watching an animated version of Treasure Island on Home Box or reading Robert Louis Stevenson will go for the Box. And once you start out that way, it’s all over. TV and movies are like Wonder Bread in reverse for the book-loving part of the brain.

Now, all this upsets the shit out of me. I’m a novelist. I’m a good novelist and I’ll get better. I’ve found my calling and if I have my way I’ll be turning out books for the next half-century, books that will blow people away. But right now all I want is to be read and not just by critics and grad students. I’ve got things to say to everybody. I won’t reduce my books to “Popcorn Lit” (whatever one critic called an addicting page-turner with no nutritional value) to get my audience, but I am gunning for that kid who hates to read but can memorize every cereal jingle in a four-hour sitdown with the tube. Because I’m on his case. I’ve been there, mainlining TV ever since I could say “Clarabell.” I’ve been bored by as many books as he and when I started writing I automatically screened out whatever bored me in others’ books. What you can’t read, you can’t write. My writing is a product of being a tube child and is geared towards other tube children, at least stylistically. In other words, even though that jingle-drenched kid might not care a rat’s ass about books right now, I’ll hook the little booger before I’m through. Ex-junkies can make good drug counselors.

Storytellers who will be writing for this generation and for genera­tions to follow and who care about being read by more than a select few thousand will have to acknowl­edge that they are walking around in a world where people’s brains are being wired for holograms and sensurround and the competition is not whatever was reviewed in the Sunday Times but what’s playing down the block and whatever’s on CBS (or WNET) tonight.

This doesn’t mean writers should take a workshop with Peter Lemongello, or that they should start churning out Popcorn and go “commercial” (who me? whata you, serious?). What it does mean, in storytelling fiction at least, is that there has to be a great streamlining, a stripping, a clean-to-the-bone eloquence projected. The writer has to go for the throat from page one, word one.

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To nail this generation coming up, there will be a need to be direct as a heart attack; there will be a need for passion and integrity, an immediacy and urgency as if the writer were sitting naked on a hot stove and couldn’t jump off until the story was finished.

Spit has got to fly.

Books must be written that are alive with people who breathe. Literary characters must cease and be replaced by human beings. Novels must become three-dimensional. The print on the paper has got to crackle with life. There has got to be a direct line between the heart and the hand. An absolute guilelessness, a terrifying hon­esty.

To me, writing is acting on paper. I try to visualize everything, limit my narration to the surface of things — what a reader can see in any moment. Exposition is spare, simple, and direct. I don’t try to transcend my people but rather, to become them. If I can trance myself into becoming my character, I can load every gesture and interaction with enough information for a book in itself. It’s a simple matter of show and tell. There is a way to “show” every “tell.” There is a physical action, a mannerism, a tone of voice, a phrase that will nail down every conceivable experience, and when the writer matches up the perfect gesture for that human moment, the results are sublime.

Both my novels took two years. The first was spent talking to my characters, the second, writing. Creating characters with any substance is an evolutionary process, and I had to live with them dawn to dusk. The first year, I was a stone lunatic. I had all these people setting up shop in my brain. But by the time I was ready to write I could take a battery of MMPI and Wonderlic personality tests for each of my people and answer hundreds of questions with as much intimate knowledge as if they were taking the test.

Plot always comes automatically once I know who my people are. The inevitability of their personali­ties makes the “story” a natural projection of what drives them from day to day. In a given scene I may know nothing more than how it’s supposed to end, most of the time not even that. Scenes are improvised. A character does or says something, and with as much spontaneity and schizophrenia as I can muster, another character responds. In this way, everything I write is spontaneous chain reac­tion and I’m running around play­ing leap frog in my brain trying to “be” all people.

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If art does imitate life, the most “authentic” fiction has to progress moment to moment in the mind of the writer. When I write, my only notes are a tentative shopping list of prospective interactions vaguely formulated in my head. They can range all over the book and be based on anything from an an­ecdote out of my past to a con­trived plot device. With this mosaic pattern of writing, I can address myself to the scene on the list which is most in tune with the mood I’m in at that moment. If I am writing a jealous rage, odds are I’m in a jealous rage at the time. In this way my writing is always “hot.”

A crucial part of that essential sparseness I strive for is keeping morals and messages out of my consciousness as fastidiously as possible. For the sake of immedia­cy, for the sake of creating a world without station breaks, the only thing that exists are my people. When I create a character, I grant that character enough respect and elbow room to dig his own grave or build his own monument. When I read, any intrusion — any editorial by the author — breaks my concen­tration, takes me out, makes me put down the book and pick up People.

As much as I dislike the majority of novels that come into my hands, there have been some that made me delirious with pleasure and hip to the fact that no matter how fantastic other art forms might seem, there is an ineffability, a sublime punch/counterpunch in the written word that can be duplicated in no other medium. And for the little that I value much of what’s in print I’d hate for a whole generation to miss out on even that small amount. And if I didn’t mean that I’d be at the damn movies right now.

At 26, Richard Price is the author of The Wanderers, a highly-­praised novel about a teenage gang in the Bronx. His new novel, Bloodbrothers, concerns a fam­ily of hardhats in Co-op City. 


Schumer Wants to Curb “Academic Doping” in College, Suggests Drinking Coffee Instead

They’re study drugs. Adderall, Ritalin, Vyvanse–you name it. The plague of prescription pills, with their often dangerous side effects, has been heavily reported by major media outlets but still continue to dominate finals week on college campuses across the country. And Senator Chuck Schumer wants to do something about it (in New York, at least).

“Academic doping,” Schumer called it in a midtown press conference yesterday; this notion of abusing ADHD medication for academic gain, something that the senator has projected for 15 to 35 percent of college students. As a result, he’s asking for both private and public institutions to implement tougher students or discontinue prescriptions from student health centers all together.

“We want SUNY and our private colleges to start being careful when it comes to these drugs,” he said. “They can be Adderall and similar amphetamines and not under a doctor’s supervision can become addictive and abusing them by themselves can lead to depression, anxiety and even psychosis.”

Schumer’s process to “start being careful” hopes to cut back the seemingly free-wheeling nature of student health centers with relation to these prescription handouts. So his solution is this: track the mental and medical after-effects of prescribed students; get parents and practitioners to sign off on diagnoses; and conduct informational workshops at orientation and during the semester.

Oh, and replace Adderall with tons of caffeine. “There are better ways to pull an all-nighter and stay up,” he said. “There’s coffee, there’s things like NoDoz.” Sources (myself) can confirm that.

But take it from a newly post-grad student like myself: When it comes to obtaining drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, where there’s a will, there’s a way–one person’s prescription can equal 10 others’ use. Luckily, Schumer understands how the trade works a bit, especially after penning the anti-drug-crime Safe Doses Act.

“For somebody to call up and say ‘well, my doctor prescribed it at home, send me pills, here’s the prescription number,’ that’s not good enough,” the Senator said. “If a student gets 100 or 200 Adderall pills, even if they are legitimately entitled, they may lend a bunch to their friends.”

You got it, Chuck.


College Housing Non-Profit to Recover Millions in Funds Stolen by Founder

George Scott, former president of Educational Housing Services, will finally pay the price for sucking millions of dollars out of the very organization he founded more than two decades ago.

The disgraced former president must repay $4.5 million to the organization — after agreeing to settlement terms with the New York State Office of the Attorney General.

Scott founded EHS in the late 1980’s with the mission of providing low-cost housing to students and faculty at institutions of high-learning throughout the city. He embarked on a far less honorable mission in 2002 when he created Student Services Inc., which he used to funnel money from EHS for years.

SSI secured numerous contracts with EHS from 2003-2009 to provide cable, internet and telephone services to residents. The sham organization purchased those services from large telecommunication companies and then proceeded to sell them to EHS at ridiculously inflated rates — services that EHS could’ve easily purchased directly from the larger telecommunications companies at much lower rates.

In 2008, EHS and SSI agreed to a multi-million dollar telecommunication services agreement that would’ve ended in December 2013. SSI will forfeit the remaining $2 million it was expected to earn over the remainder of the contract.


“Siphoning millions of dollars at the expense of college students is deplorable,” NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, said in a release. “We have no tolerance for officers and directors who treat a not-for-profit organization as a vehicle for personal enrichment, and we will hold them accountable for breaking the law.”

Five members of EHS’s board of directors, who served the non-profit while Scott orchestrated his schemes, also agreed to pay back $1 million in restitution for failing to exercise adequate oversight over the organization. Not only did the board fail to oversee Scott’s seemingly blatant abuse of power, but they also rewarded him with pricey perks, lavish compensation, and costly travel and housing expenses unrelated to EHS operations.

“Scott’s conduct and the role of the EHS board in enabling his abuses represent the complete opposite of what is expected from the leadership of not-for-profit organizations in New York State,” Schneiderman said.

Each of the members is required to pay back $25,000 individually and a collective $850,000 to EHS for the board’s oversight failures and for authorizing excessive compensation for their own services on the board. Scott and the former board members are prohibited from ever serving as officers, trustees or directors at a not-for-profit organization in New York again.

The money recouped from the settlement will go towards lowering student rental costs and upgrading housing amenities.


Obama, Schumer and the Student Loan Armaggedon

Over 7 million students receive some sort of subsidized student loan from the U.S. federal government. That is a ton of debt and it’s getting larger every year: eclipsing credit cards and car loans, the figure right now stands at around $870 billion nationally. And, on July 1st, it could double in size.

As of now, students pay an interest rate of 3.4 percent for Stafford loans but, due to Congress’s constant evasion of the issue and short-term budget deals, the number will revert back to 6.8 percent that day if no action is taken. What does that mean for students?
The White House claims that an additional grand would be placed on top of loaners’ backs if nothing is done. But, thankfully, the timing comes at an opportune time: as the election nears, Democrats, including President Obama and New York Senator Chuck Schumer, are looking to keep students on their side of the aisle.

In an effort to avoid the college credit armageddon, Schumer is pushing forth legislation that will block the 3.4 percent increase by freezing the current rate for another year. But these are the kick-the-bucket negotiations that got us here in the first place: with the extension, Runnin’ Scared will probably find itself writing another article, identical to this one, a year from now about the impending loan crisis.

Although he can only use his bully pulpit, President Obama took a similar approach to Schumer today in his Sunday address, calling for Congress to get its act together fast because “we should be doing everything we can to put higher education within reach for every American.” Except one thing: July 1st also marks the day loans for graduate students will no longer be subsidized in order to increase Pell grants for undergrads – an act the Obama administration has more or less ignored. One step forward, two steps backward.
For the Republicans, though, the student loan problem is a weird crossroads between a past disagreement and a future election. In 2007, the Congress made the 3.4% cut that is currently in effect but the GOP, although the bill passed with bipartisan support, was angry at the Bush administration for its deep cuts in the interest rates, arguing it would raise deficits and be wasteful spending.
Fast-forward five years: fueled by anti-spending fervor, the Republicans are much more unwilling to meet Obama halfway on policy or the budget. Romney will have to decide whose side he is going to take come July: his party or the 7 million students that are going to enter fall semester a thousand more dollars out.