Truths about Writers: Ann Beattie

1. They take souvenirs of Important Evenings for their “mother.” This is like taking leftovers home for the “dog.” Of course, some mothers do get the souvenirs and some dogs do get the scraps. However, it is not likely.

2. If they find a copy of Richard Yates’s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, they buy it. It is as if they’ve found a baby on the front step. They peek inside, examine the dog-earing, the marginal scribbles. Or perhaps it’s a clean copy, which carries its own kind of sadness. In either case, they embrace it, though they already have multiple copies. Those are irrelevant to the one they would be abandoning if they left the book behind. This is a hostess gift you can give any fiction writer, guaranteed to delight her even though she already has it. Regifting becomes an act of spreading civilization.

3. It makes the writer’s day if he or she can include the opinions of a truly stupid character or text in the story, punctuating those announcements with exclamation points, which are the icing on the cake. This situation is to be found in novels, too, but novelists are less likely to be immensely flattered if you have noticed their needle in the haystack(!). For particularly adept and judicious uses of the exclamation point, see the works of Joy Williams and Deborah Eisenberg.

4. Without these things, many contemporary American short stories would grind to a halt: fluorescent lights; refrigerators; mantels. They are its gods, or false gods. In that it is difficult to know Him, these stand-ins are often misspelled.

5. Poets go to bed earliest, followed by short story writers, then novelists. The habits of playwrights are unknown.

6. Writers are very particular about their writing materials. Even if they work on a computer, they edit with a particular pen (in my case, a pen imprinted “Bob Adelman”); they have legal pads about which they are very particular—size, color—and other things on their desk that they almost never need: scissors; Scotch tape. Few cut up their manuscripts and crawl around the floor anymore, refitting the paragraphs or rearranging chapters, because they can “cut” and “paste” on the computer. As a rule, writers keep either a very clean desktop or a messy one. To some extent, this has to do with whether they’re sentimental.

7. Writers wear atrocious clothes when writing. So terrible that I have been asked, by the UPS man, “Are you all right?” An example: stretched-out pajama bottoms imprinted with cowboys on bucking broncos, paired with my husband’s red thermal undershirt (no guilt; he wouldn’t even wear such a thing in Alaska) and a vest leaking tufts of down, with a broken zipper and a rhinestone pin in the shape of pouting lips. Furry socks with embossed Minnie Mouse faces (the eyes having deteriorated in the wash) that clash with all of the above.

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