Puzo and Writing


On my refrigerator, stuck to the side with magnets, is a piece of paper, about eight by seven inches, with the upper margin torn and ratty from where I ripped it out of a magazine about 20 years ago. It is crinkled, brittle, stained with drops from some past kitchen mishap. (There have been a lot of those over years.) On it are some of my favorite quotes about life, love, sex, marriage, death, and writing. Writing is last, under the part about death, which, in very great hindsight, should have triggered some primal warning in my snake brain. It didn’t. Twenty years ago, I was too excited about writing, publishing, and a career in the field of my dreams, to catch such subtleties. I was also, I suppose, too young to heed the darker warnings beneath such simple nuances as positioning on a piece of paper. Since I just figured them out this morning, that particular wisdom has just caught up with me.

Five up from the bottom, is Mario Puzo’s advice for writing a best-selling novel.
It is among the most amusing—and most sad—things about writing I’ve ever heard. Mr. Puzo said, “Never let a domestic quarrel ruin a day’s writing. If you cant start the next day fresh, get rid of your wife.” At the time I tore the paper from the old magazine and stuck it to my fridge, I thought Puzo’s quote was uproariously funny, sly, and twisted, so I’ve kept it all these years. Along with Abraham Lincoln’s quote about writing and thinking, “He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I ever met,” I still think it is amusing, but now, after all these years, Puzo’s quote is far more poignant than hilarious.

Puzo was saying that life and relationships should never get in the way of one’s dreams. He is claiming that love is far less important than positioning on the New York Times Bestseller Lists. He believed that time alone with his typewriter (there weren’t many personal computers 20 years ago and he likely said that years before the quote made print) was more important than time with family, lovers, and friends. I beg to differ.

Being a writer is the most solitary occupation there is, right up there with being a hermit—though admittedly (well, usually) with better living conditions than a cave might boast. I do like my microwave, heating pad, memory foam mattress, iced tea maker, whistling tea kettle, television, and refrigerator, even thought the front doors of the latter have rusted through (design flaw, and a rant for another time).

Writing is the most joyful, sad, amusing, controlling, commanding, riveting occupation I can imagine, yes. But it is lonely. Relationships matter. They are the sap of life that rises through us and gives our writing deeper meaning. They support and cocoon us, adding richness and variety to lives that otherwise would be, well, hermetic. Relationships also give us a chance to support others, grow, learn, and find deeper meaning in life that would be arid and barren without them. Writers should cultivate deep and abiding relationships with others, and, yes, put them before writing. We should, must, walk away from the keyboard and live, love, suffer, and grow. And when we walk back to the novel or story, it will be imbued with new depth and intensity and wisdom.

Most relationships. Not all of them. There the exceptions to every rule. This week, my life has been touched by people that one should walk away from if possible. So I want to offer a little advice. Nothing so pithy and witty as Puzo’s advice, but a bit of understanding I’ve finally accepted. (I’m a slow learner, by the way, so it’s something I should have learn long ago.) Some people should not be in our lives. Some people should be pushed away and shut out. Some relationships should be broken. Because they damage our lives, our psyches,  and our writing.

Have I deliberately pushed some relationships back and away because they interfered with my life and my writing? Oh yes. And some people need to be out of our lives no matter our profession. Unless one is a counselor, or enjoys being needed by the needy, there are some relationships that need to refused or kept at arm’s length. Toxic people, people who are emotionally broken or damaged and demand of our time and give nothing back but heartache, people who are angry and call us on the phone and tell us how miserable their lives are—all the time, over and over—and who never seem to grow through their pain, yet won’t seek help, people who are users, takers, abusers, yes, these people often need to be pushed gently away—or even a good bit less than gently. When younger—when I put that list on my fridge—I seemed to attract and collect such needy people, but over the years I’ve realized that some folks just want to steep in their own misery, or they’d seek help and change. And so I did. Changed that is. I started pushing such people away. I’ve ended some relationships over the years because they interfered with my writing and my living.

But I’ve cultivated the relationships that matter: husband, family, friends. I’ve suffered with them, shared joy with them, and grieved then they were lost to me. And it is friends and family who have made life and writing worth the living.

So, I suggest that, with the exception of poisonous relationships, we ignore Mario Puzo’s advice, humorous or not. Writers need people. We need to love and be loved. Even when it’s hard and sometimes interferes with our goals of word count, publishing, and bestseller-dom.

That’s all. (Not that you didn’t know it already.) Love the people in your life.


17 comments to Puzo and Writing

  • Thanks, JF. Today is lunch with dad day. Word count will suffer, but who cares?

  • Totally agree. When I pick up my son from school, I’m done for the day. And if the snow had stuck this morning I(s he dearly wanted it to) I’d have been done at 7.30 a.m.

  • Lovely post, Faith. And brutally honest. I’ve done what you describe here, and it hurts. I’ve done it passively — letting people slip away – -and more actively, with that gentle or not-too-gentle push. It sucks either way. But it has to happen.

    I’ve also embraced those who give me strength and confidence and joy — my wife and children, other members of my family, friends, colleagues. And what you say is true: My life and my work are both richer because of these relationships. Including my good friends on this site. Thank you, Faith.

  • Well said, Faith. Toxic people (don’t know how old that term is but I love it) are just that — toxic. We’ve raised generations of kids to be nice, don’t say anything mean, don’t rock the boat, etc. But sometimes mean is a good thing. Sometimes that boat needs to empty a few people. Sometimes brutal honesty (emphasis on brutal) is warranted. Whenever I’ve had to lose a friendship, I remind myself how many billions of people there are in the world. Surely, I can find a better, more healthy friendship than a toxic one! And nothing zaps away the writing energy more than a person you don’t want to deal with.

  • Agreed. Relationships should come before writing (or any other pursuit), but not those relationships which detract from the fullness of living.

    There are times I find myself struggling against the press for time to write and I’m tempted to short change the time I spend with others. Honestly, I don’t always make the best choice. (My time alone connects me to myself and helps make be a better person, right?) In the short-term this can feel very gratifying because it gets me what we want at the moment. In the long run, unchecked, I risk losing the support of (and the opportunity to support) those who matter most outside of my private writing bubble.

    It’s all about priorities.

    The irony is when I forgo some of my writing time to focus on relationships, those same relationships can actually inform my writing through new perspectives, new understandings, and sometimes even new material. It’s not that we use our relationships to become better writers; it’s that good relationships make us better people and, in turn, better writers.

    It’s a difficult balance, but as long as I remain attentive to that balance both my relationships and my writing should be better off for it.

    Thanks Faith for that reminder.

  • Emily

    Really great post Faith! Loved it!

    It gave me a lot to think about. I’ve got some very important personal relationships that inform my writing (some of them in very literal ways: i.e. they are beta readers for me) and others that inform them in the ways you mention.

  • My wife and I seem to attract toxic people like some form of bizarre baggage magnet. Fair weather, manic depressive, needy, bi-polar, etc. It’s gotten to a point where if someone self destructs on us and then pushes us out and/or blames us for the split off we just kind of roll with it and ignore it till it goes away. I joke with my wife occasionally about writing up a friend contract where they have to tell us about any mental or personality issues ahead of time and sign it stating that they won’t have a meltdown somewhere down the road for no fathomable reason. I’ve dealt with it so often that I’m just completely numbed to it with an “oh well” attitude towards it. I just don’t have the time or caring anymore to let it bring me down.

    I’ve recently had to tell some people who continually want to use me for free film script writing/editing/revision that I don’t have the time to work for free on their half written material when I have my own projects that need finished (and family I need to spend time with, chores that need done, a three year old to take care of while mommy works, etc). The last piece was a major revision, and though it looked good when finished, it took over a month out of my own writing schedule.

  • Tiffany

    Um, Faith, I hope you are not referring to dinner Friday as toxic….

  • I like how you make the distinction of which people to push away and which to pull in. My sweetheart has been great emotional (and financial) support while I take a stab at writing. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably still be working some miserable job in sales, fiddling with the umpteenth version of chapter 1.

    There are people, however, that I’m glad are no longer in my life. One lesson we all need to know is when to draw the line. Life, like writing can be lonely, but that doesn’t mean we should cling to whomever is available in favor.

    Sometimes it’s good to be alone, as a person or as a writer.

  • AJ, I wanted it to stay snowy too! I was gonna make homemade bean soup and fresh biscuits and laze around some. But it’s March in the South. So, Dad and I went to Red Bowl and had a great visit.

    David, you said: “My life and my work are both richer because of these relationships. Including my good friends on this site.” And that is exactly the way I feel about it. The people I’ve met here are worth the time and effort of the blog. I lvoe you guys! (sniff sniff)

    Stuart said: “Whenever I’ve had to lose a friendship, I remind myself how many billions of people there are in the world. Surely, I can find a better, more healthy friendship than a toxic one! And nothing zaps away the writing energy more than a person you don’t want to deal with.” Oh yeah! Exactly! Only in defence of someone weaker than I, will I tolerate toxic, poisonous people. And there are so many healthy people out there. I look for them now! Adn I’ve met so many right here, and online.

  • John, it is hard to put the right things first. Some days it’s the writing. Some days it’s the relationships, or my health, or a fan or friend in need. But some days it means cutting out something that was hurting me or hurtful to me.

    Thanks Emily. Remembering that time limits us is important. And difficult. I’s so much rather be immortal.

    Daniel, I attract toxic, needy people too. For years I felt like I had to keep them around and keep propping them up and keep supporting them. It was a duty. No longer. I do keep needy — but not toxic — people around. That distinction is important. If can help someone, then they are worth the time and effort.

  • I broke these up because my replies would have been so long. Lunch with Dad was important!

    Tiff — NO! You are not a toxic person. You are a growing, stable, dymanic person and writer. I promise I was not talking about you!

    NGDave, sometimes it is a hard distinction. Sometimes identifying that toxic person and cutting him out of our lives is like cutting off a limb. As to your last line? *Yes* being alone is quite often a good thing! I live in my writer’s cave when a project ensnares me. I love it! But sometimes I stay in there too long, to the detriment of my health and relationships. Getting out of the cave can be a good thing!

  • Don’t spend too long in the cave, Faith. We all know what happened to Gollum. *wink*

  • When my husband and I moved to NY we left a lot of people behind. We moved into what we call our “NO DRAMA” zone. We hadn’t fully realized how draining some of these people had been until they were thousands of miles away and couldn’t just drop by (always unannounced.) We are kind of hermits now, and that is just fine by us. I guess we went from one extreme to the other. But, the peace and quiet is so…um…quiet and peaceful. I do have one drama friend left over from the old days. But, she would do anything for me. She’s not just a taker. She’s a keeper.

  • April, Despite cutting the most toxic people from my life, I have keepers too, and sometimes they are takers, sometimes they are givers. I guess that is what makes them friends and keepers, they change off responsibilities with me as needed.

  • Very wonderful post, Faith. 🙂 And very true.