Larry Brown

A new challenge

The year is 1/12 over, and so far, I’ve kept my challenge of blogging something…anything…every day. 31 days, 31 blog posts. For the blog posts, the focus has been on quantity, not necessarily quality. As with any workout regimen, the first challenge is just doing it, so the blogging challenge is all about re-creating the discipline of creating, of making things every day.

Now that I’ve gotten that habit established, it’s time to think about quality.

The blogging will continue for at least the next 11 months, but I want to add another wrinkle to this challenge. To set the stage, I need to digress.

Larry Brown is one of my favorite writers. Back when he died in 2004 at the agonizingly young age of 53, I was getting up at 5:00 on workday mornings to go to Heine Brothers Coffee to write for 60-90 minutes before going to work. I’d even sneak off to write on weekends and holidays when my family would allow it.

On November 26 of that year, I rode over to Heine Brothers and got a coffee and the Arts section of The New York Times like I did each morning to shake out the cobwebs of the night’s sleep. When I sat down and opened the Arts section, what greeted me was the news of Brown’s death. When one of your heroes dies, it’s a tough blow to absorb.

I tell that story because it meant that the bucket of interviews, written and/or videotaped, would never increase. What was was all there ever would be. As the years have gone by, I’ve periodically searched YouTube to see if any new Larry Brown footage has surfaced, but each time I look, I find the same videos.

Larry Brown has been on my mind for a few days, and today I did that YouTube search and watched a few of those treasured videos and listened to Brown’s wisdom on persevering in the face of reason and adversity. It helps.

In a nutshell, his story goes something like this:

Larry Brown was born on July 9, 1951, in Oxford, Mississippi, about as famous a writer’s town as any in the country. But he wasn’t born into a literary family. Rather, Brown’s family seems like a bunch conjured up in a Faulkner novel. His father was a hard-drinking sharecropper. His mother was a shopkeeper and postmaster.

Brown managed to graduate high school in 1969 and serve a hitch in the Marines before coming home to a string of dead-end jobs. In the early ‘70’s, Brown joined the Oxford Fire Department, where he worked for 16 years.

When he turned 30, Brown decided to teach himself how to write. He was an avid reader, but when he made that fateful choice, his tastes ran to Stephen King and trashy page-turners. He carved out a quiet place in his house, and between there and his off hours at the fire house, Larry Brown taught himself to write by trial and error.

In one of those YouTube videos, Brown says that to have read a story from those first few years, one would have no choice but to come to the conclusion that there was no talent there. He admits, without a hint of irony or a self-deprecating wink, that the stories were awful. But he also says that something deep inside him knew that if he had the guts to put in the time and face the pain of repeated refection and failure, eventually it would all click and he’d understand how to write good stories.

And so it was that 8 years after embarking on a journey to become a writer that Larry Brown was “discovered” by Algonquin Books. Even so, he didn’t trust the success and didn’t quit his fireman’s gig until he had a few books under his belt.

Larry Brown is my patron saint of writing. Cormac McCarthy my write prettier sentences, and Ken Kesey may have had more soul, but Brown speaks to the scared little boy, the underdog from PRP and the under-practiced amateur in me. Brown presents himself as the encouraging big brother – “Hey, if I can do it, so can you, man. You just have to put in the hours and bleed.” That guy. My guy.

And so it is that I come back to Larry Brown once again to find encouragement after having stepped away from the pain a spell. This time, I want to stay for good, so I’m setting goals and shooting my mouth off about it, an old motivational trick I’ve always used to paint myself into a corner that requires action or embarrassment for having not followed through on my boast.

Today is February 1, a nice round number, and my goal is to write at least one short story each month for the remainder of the year. I don’t know if I’ll post them. We’ll see about that. If any are good enough, I’ll submit them around and write about what happens with that process. If any of them suck, I’ll just bury them in a folder on my MacBook and be satisfied with having hit my number for that month.

Wish me luck.