Writer Mark Trainer talks about what he learned from Pulitzer-prizewinning author Peter Taylor:
I used to work for the writer Peter Taylor. Because of a series of strokes, he wasn’t able to type his own manuscripts. He was barely able to write legibly with a pen. I had been a fan of his writing since college, and so jumped at the chance to see how he worked. I learned a lot from him. Here are two things–a big lesson and a small trick.
First the small trick. The narratives of Peter Taylor’s finished stories had a wonderful way of seemingly straying here and there, as though the narrator were recalling whichever events from the time he was writing about popped into his mind. By story’s end he always pulled these strands together to powerful effect.
While he was dictating a new story to me, I noticed he kept repeating the same line. It was something like, “And so another person in my life disappeared seemingly without a trace.” In every day’s work, this line would come up at least once. I thought maybe he was slipping in his old age, repeating the same line again and again. But I also didn’t think it was my place to tell him how to write a story.
Then one day he dictated the line again and told me that he sometimes did this in his stories when he was afraid of losing track of a central idea that brought the narrative together–he’d just repeat the central idea again and again to keep from straying too far away from it. And sure enough, when he handed me back subsequent drafts of the story, each time iterations of the line were struck out. It seemed to me each appearance of the line was like a piece of scaffolding used for construction and taken away when he no longer needed it.
Now for the big lesson. Like I said, in the years I knew him, toward the end of his life, Peter Taylor couldn’t type. He could barely read his own handwriting. Sometimes it took him a long time to find the right words when he spoke. I was in my mid-twenties with no physical ailments and no responsibilities. I wrote an hour or two a day but was easily distracted by my social life, my job waiting tables, or maybe an old episode of The Rockford Files.
A few days a week I’d trudge over to Peter Taylor’s house and each day he would have pages of handwritten manuscript he’d worked over painfully, small notes scribbled on pieces of junk mail and napkins. When he couldn’t sleep at night he’d dictate into a tape recorder. Sometimes he tried the typing, slowly, slowly. When he put all this together, his daily output invariably dwarfed my own. Back then, I wrote like someone with no limits on time and opportunity. At his age, he knew better.
Mark Trainer is a writer in Washington DC. His fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The Greensboro Review, The Mississippi Review, and others. His nonfiction has appeared in The Washington Post. He’s currently working on a collection of stories called Bad Daddies.