There are many books written for writers. They can be fun to read and one or two may even be useful. But few are as deep or as influential as the recorded experiences of flesh-and-blood writers. We can learn a lot from these writers. Real writers. You know, the giants of the craft who have blazed a trail for those of us “undone by sloth, discouragement, and of course distractions.”
Take Ian Fleming, for example. His was a complex personality but I believe he nurtured, from a very early age, a consuming literary ambition.
A real writer, as Fleming’s life proves, is a writer even when he isn’t hunched at a desk bashing out words on a typewriter. Happening to be in Estoril during wartime, Ian urged his boss to accompany him to a Casino. He was thrilled by the atmosphere. Even so, he couldn’t help applying his imagination to give it an added twist. Having lost his money to some Portuguese businessmen, he remarked, “What if those men had been German secret service agents, and suppose we had cleaned them out of their money; now that would have been exciting.”
And so the plot for Casino Royale was conceived.
Imagination is all very well but writers need other skills. They must be resourceful and diligent researchers. They must be observant, with a keen eye for the telling detail. It helps, of course, to have a quick and agile mind. But what a writer really needs, what a writer must have above all else, is an unflinching urge to tell the truth and the ability to puncture pomposity wherever it occurs.
On a jaunt in Jamaica, recounted in Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett, Fleming confronted the unassailable egotism of Noël Coward and demonstrated that he was a writer of genius.
Coward’s move to Firefly coincided with his decision to leave Britain, sell his two houses there, and become a tax exile, living part of the time in Jamaica and part in Bermuda, where he became a resident. To celebrate this change of circumstances, he bought himself a vast sky-blue Chevrolet Belair convertible. When he took Ian and Cole Lesley for a drive along the coast, a local Jamaican, observing the extravagant vehicle and its high-spirited occupants, exclaimed, “Cheesus-Kerist”, whereupon Coward asked, “How did he know?”
Their stately progress was almost halted when they reached a petrol station. The car seemed to take an inordinately long time to fill up. When Coward asked the problem, Lesley informed him, “They can’t find the hole.”
“We’ve all had that trouble at one time or another,” replied Coward who refused to get out and look himself, thinking it would demean him in front of the natives.
With the help of the instruction book from the glove compartment, Ian finally solved the problem: the petrol-tank cap was behind the stop light.
“Anyone could have told you that,” Coward pronounced airily.
“It’s interesting,” Ian shot back, and he was the only person in the world who could have said this, “when you sweat with embarrassment the sweat runs down your face and drops off your first chin on to your second.”
“Don’t be childish,” blustered Coward.