On Writing: Hunting the Illusive Neon Panther

By Michael Willard

Over the years, I have committed sufficient words to paper in books, articles, columns, and songs to fill the pages of “Gone With the Wind” multiple times. It’s a solitary journey without an applause track.

You grow accustomed to the lazy rhythm. You have to love the loneliness, rolling around in it like a shaggy dog on grass after a sudsy bath. Only dying will set you free, and you’re not certain of even that.

I prefer being upright and inhaling and exhaling. I also like two fingers of whiskey at the shank of the evening, and will not give it up unless my liver squeals and St. Peter plays Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah on a blues harmonica.

Writing is more a craft than an art, though this is sometimes debated. I have often said creativity is that elusive neon panther that sashays through your mind when you least expect it. You have to be prepared to seize the moment and the idea.

This takes patience. You don’t go panther hunting with a mousetrap. It takes studied diligence; and, in the darkness, those darn cats are sometimes difficult to recognize. Often they are camouflaged as garden variety cliches.

Creativity is not a romantic notion, though it can be.

Sometimes the search for it resembles picking Delta cotton under a noon sun or working the graveyard shift at a bargain basemen brothel in Shantytown. Other times, it’s a rhinestone prairie, and those are the moments for which we live.

My first “professional” writing assignment was at age 18, penning obituaries for the Orlando Sentinel and Evening Star and covering the cop shop. I spit brevity in bursts: “Joseph Jones, 87, died Tuesday of some horrible disease.”

You want more than that? Buy a funeral notice.

Writing and dying are two existentialist playgrounds I take seriously. When I die, I have said I want to be holding a copy of the James Joyce classic “Ulysses” in my still warm hands. I’ve never read the book, and probably never will.

However, always the PR guy, I want folks to say in my recent absence and in an obit that could be put to music: “Hey, he was a writer and such a literary fellow.”

Having written 17 books, I consider myself an expert on self-flagellation and disappointment, though there have been marginal successes, particularly when they were translated into Russian or Ukrainian.

I’m also experience-wary — and weary — of the con game of publishing. An author who is a serial killer has a better chance of an advance from the publishing gods than does an author who merely writes brilliantly about a serial killer.

Still, I have never had the temptation to murder in multiples; or, in the painting sphere, to slice off an ear like Van Gogh for the sake of the craft.

What about most of those stupid literary contests that put money in someone else’s pocket? Forget about them. They are catnip for the gullible. Submit an entry of your grandma’s cherry pie recipe. I guarantee at least an honorable mention.

With this rant in overdrive, I continue: When a publisher turns down your book because it lacks — that overused term — “a suspension of disbelief,” don’t drink the arsenic. Some 30 publishers said the same of Stephen King’s mega-hit “Carrie”.

A couple of other thoughts:

Some bozo has given you a devastating review? Cheer up. Critics are the ones that go on the field after the battle is over and shoot the wounded. Most have never written a book-length narrative. They are wannabes and pretenders.

Don’t just write about what you know. That’s boring. Write about what you would like to know.

I wrote about the US Senate and politics in my novel “The Legacy of Moon Pie Jefferson” after spending years on Capitol Hill. However, the book contained a yarn built on a half dozen directions and I had to do heavy research.

In my “A Thief Wears a Burning Hat”, I had to think like a detective. I’ve never even held a real pistol. In “Killing Friends”, I had to acquaint myself with various poisons and how to effectively apply them.

I generally leave that skill off my resume.

My least favorite activity is marketing my books — and I’m a marketing guy. But it comes down to this: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, did it fall? You have to make the damn tree fall and also lasso in an audience.

In truth, I don’t write books. My characters do. They take me on a journey, the destination of which I have no idea. It’s why writing is such s great adventure.

If the characters ever stop talking to me, I’ll stop writing, and maybe take up needlepoint or alligator wrangling.

Image for post
Image for post

Written by

I am a novelist, painter, songwriter and essayist but my day job is elevating the profile of authors, entertainers and business executives.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store