Notes on a Remark by Elmore Leonard

How He Gave Up Booze and Learned to Relax

“By then I was in AA and perhaps not taking myself so seriously.  I do think my writing began to improve at this time, mainly because I wasn’t taking the writing so seriously, either.  I learned to relax and not think of it as writing.”

One of the things I most appreciate about the Library of America volumes is the Chronologies in the back, which work as mini-biographies.  The one on Elmore Leonard is especially extensive, because it was done by Greg Sutter, who worked for years doing research for Leonard and is now working on a biography.

Leonard was a Detroit guy who loved sports and was quite an athlete himself, loved to read, loved jazz and hanging out in jazz clubs, did some time in the military, went to the University of Detroit and landed a job in advertising, finally took a crack at being a writer.  It wasn’t that he had anything in particular to say; he was writing advertising copy for a living that thought he’d try fiction.  The market for Westerns was good when he was coming along—Leonard was born in 1925, began his writing career in the early fifties—and he had always love Western movies, so he tried his hand at that.  He didn’t become a household name—that wouldn’t happen for thirty years—but he got books and stories published and they were successful among genre readers.  Four were made into movies, so he had a connection with Hollywood.  When, some years later, the market for Westerns was drying up, Leonard didn’t blink an eye.  He turned to crime fiction.

I’ve said before that I think Leonard’s style is serviceable, if not particularly distinguished, but he had an absolute genius for telling a story.  52 Pickup is the single best example I’ve read; that book moves at such a rapid clip, every scene so abrupt, that it’s almost too much; you want to say, let me catch my breath here.  Even the ending is like that.  You think, what, that’s it?  (Although the last line is a classic.)  That story couldn’t have been better told.

In subsequent novels he relaxed a little on the plotting, or at least on the rapid pace.  Swag is as much about its two likable characters as it is about crime, and Unknown Man No. 89 is a love story (between scenes of extreme danger and violence).  It’s also a book about recovery.  Leonard wrote it around the time he gave up drinking, at the age of 51.  I found his statement about that fascinating both from the standpoint of recovery and from the standpoint of writing.

He says that when he went to AA he began not to take himself so seriously anymore.  That happens when you realize you can’t do everything on your own; you need a higher power.  He must have been one of the few people in the world who took Elmore Leonard seriously at that point, a successful genre writer who was nevertheless mostly unknown.  He was on the verge of being taken very seriously indeed, hailed as brilliant by much more famous writers than he.[1]  It was around the time that he stopped taking himself seriously that they started.

But the sentence I love is that last one.  “I learned to relax and not think of it as writing.”

What was it, if it wasn’t writing?

It was what Elmore Leonard did.  It was Leonard flowering as who he was.

The problem with many writers is that they’re trying to write well, trying to be something they’re not.  That creates a strain, and at the end of a day you’re ready for some booze.  But if you’re just doing your thing, doing what comes naturally, there’s no strain at all.  It’s like a jazz musician playing a solo.  You finish and have no idea what you’ve done.[2]

That brings to mind a statement by Allen Ginsberg that I’ve read to every one of my students in narrative writing.  Ginsberg is talking about being a poet, but at a certain level poetry and prose fiction are the same.  He says that you had to learn to write for yourself, and recommended that people do that by writing in a journal, as he had, doing a certain amount of writing that you never showed to anyone else so you can go to a deeper, more honest place.  He claimed to have learned that from Kerouac, who of course had great belief in a kind of spontaneous, automatic writing.  Kerouac and Elmore Leonard are strange bedfellows in the world of literature—throw Ginsberg in there and you’ve really got a mixed bag—but they all, one way or another, discovered the same thing.

Here’s how Ginsberg expressed it, in Lewis Hyde’s wonderful book The Gift.

“It means abandoning being a poet, abandoning your careerism, abandoning even the idea of writing any poetry, really abandoning, giving up as hopeless—abandoning the possibility of really expressing yourself to the nations of the world.  Abandoning the idea of being a prophet with honor and dignity, and abandoning the glory of poetry and just settling down in the muck of your own mind. . . . You really have to make a resolution just to write for yourself . . . , in the sense of not writing to impress yourself, but just writing what your self is saying.”

Elmore Leonard learned to write what his self was saying.  That’s when he became a star.

It’s like what the rabbi Zusya said in the Hasidic story.  “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’  They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’”



[1] Sutter gives us a list of his correspondents: Charles Willeford, Lawrence Block, Evan Hunter, Tony Hillerman, Pete Hamill, Russell Banks, Ross Thomas, Jim Harrison, James W. Hall, Andre Dubus, Dean Koontz, Walker Percy.

[2] As Dwike Mitchell reported in Willie and Dwike: An American Profile.