Men from Philly are cheese steaks

Garrison Keillor answers your questions about writing and romance

Published June 30, 1998 3:31PM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue,

Is one who is dishonest in his/her writing also
dishonest in love?

The Plumber

Dear Plumber:

Ordinarily one resists drawing connections between Lit
and Actual Life, but here there may be a link to be found: in Life, as
in Lit, honesty is in the eye of the victim, and if one can persuade
reader or lover that one is smarter or funnier or more elegant than one
actually is, then one is not dishonest -- the author finds redemption in
the reader, the lover in the lover. In this way, we succeed in being
judged for our best moments, which is surely everyone's goal, writer or
lover. One thinks immediately of the long and tortuous romance between
Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, who addressed each other in their
poems as "You" and "Camerado." They were crazy about each other, lived
for each other, never met each other, inspired each other, and to the
very end, she believed that he was a Unitarian faith-healer and he
believed that she was a young man named Albert. Was this dishonest? Or

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a Minnesota girl living in Philly. I've always
maintained that I would return home once I found 1.) a wonderful spouse
and 2.) a job that allows me to leave Minnesota three months out of the
year. How would you recommend I go about attaining these without
resorting to extreme measures?

Jen X

Dear Jen X:

I don't know much about Philly, but I do know that you
won't find a spouse there. The class lines are severe. Guys in Philly
are either creeps or jerks, effete preppies or street-corner thugs. Your
wonderful spouse is back in Minnesota. He's probably a schoolteacher.
You can become a teacher too, and the two of you can have June, July and
August off.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Some successful writerly acquaintances of mine went to
posh universities and got fabulous summer internships because their
Uncle Teddy was an editor at such and such publishing house, and now in
their 30s they're friends with everyone else who went to the same posh
universities and has uncles in the business, and I am trying not to
loathe them. I would like to believe that this is the land of the
self-made author, but I'm beginning to wonder. So tell me: How much of
it is what you write, and how much is who you know?

Hustler from Hoboken

Dear Hustler:

Nepotism and other forms of networking don't count for
much in the land of authorship, and I don't think they count much in
publishing anymore either. Those glad-handing acquaintances of yours
from posh universities (P.U.) may have scores of P.U. friends and uncles
in the business, but it's a volatile business, and if they aren't smart
and quick, if they back losers and not winners, then their uncles will
have to find them other work, perhaps as comptrollers or vice
presidents. But no matter what feudal customs remain in the publishing
world, the literary world is wide open to ambitious nobodies from
Hoboken, graduates of squalid universities, people with bad hair, geeks
of all persuasions. What matters in the Lit World is getting the stuff
down on the disc that enough people are going to want to read based on a
whisper of publicity.

Dear Mr. Blue,

How important is New York, anyway, to a writer? Does one
really have to go to posh lunches at 44 in order to be accepted in the
publishing world? Does one who lives anywhere except below 14th Street
run the risk of being seen as out of it by editors? Is there life in
other zip codes?

A New Yorker

Dear Yorker:

There is life out here on the windswept steppes and it's
a good life, given the fact that Salon can be accessed as easily from
here as from 14th Street, and when did you last attend a publishing
lunch where the conversation was better than what you find in
And when did editors become authorities on what is hip? The notion
is laughable. New York is a grand old city, a living preserve of the
'40s and '50s, and hipness is not what one goes there for, so much as
nostalgia for the great ideal of the Metropolis, a lovely notion in
suburban America. A writer who lives in St. Paul, Minn., however, is
living in a city where 1.) there is a terrific bookstore or two, 2.)
there are plenty of writers around if you want to know some, and it's
easy to get to know them, 3.) it's not so scary to be short of cash, 4.)
you don't worry constantly about the world passing you by and 5.) you
get a real winter, the monastic season, which is of inestimable value to
a writer.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Is there any way in which a work of literary quality
can be cooked up by many chefs? Communal (or multiauthor) writing
produced some pretty sublime stuff in the past: the Declaration of
Independence, "The Iliad," the Bible. Why not again?

Plumber in Vortex

Dear Plumber:

The Declaration of Independence is basically Jefferson
edited by a committee; "The Iliad" is Homer's, even though he drew on
earlier writers; and the Bible is inspired of God, who has apparently
chosen not to produce a sequel. As examples of communal writing, one
could better cite the Windows 95 manual or the Republican Party
platform. History shows that the writing of literature is a solo
enterprise and that if you hitch 40 brilliant soloists to one wagon, you
only find out how banal brilliant people can be.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Have you any suggestions as to where, besides a bar, a
first date might take place, or what activities it might consist of?

Wisdom Seeker

Dear Seeker:

The purpose of a first date is to let the two of you
size each other up quickly, and I don't think a bar is a good place for
that. Too dim, too safe. Better to have the date out in the open, at a
bowling alley, a pool hall, a dog show, a baseball game, a tractor pull,
a walk in the woods. A bar is a clichi. A poetry reading is
better. A sheep judging. An auction. A public hanging. Take a look at
each other out in the real world, I say.

Dear Mr. Blue,

What do I do with my active 4-year-old son when my
urge to write strikes hard?


Dear Hopkins:

When my son was 4 and I was writing freelance and took
care of him during the day, I was lucky to live in a safe neighborhood
where little kids traveled around in packs and looked out for each
other. Quiet streets, big attractive parks. You could let a kid out in
the morning to roam and he came back for lunch and that's when I got my
work done. A child-safe neighborhood is a godsend to a writer. After
that, there's paid babysitters, Grandma or Uncle TV.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've read your sage advice on writers not dating other
writers and am inclined to agree. However, what's a writer to do when
he/she finds the writerly profession has consumed every facet of life --
social, professional and otherwise -- and there are no nonwriters to be
found? Is it necessary to take up some silly hobby, say, spelunking or
C++ programming, to meet nonwriterly potential significant others?

Bookish One

Dear Bookish:

Break out of your circle. Don't let your life get that
narrow. Writers are supposed to circulate and soak up the talk and
observe other lives, including those of unliterary people. Go find some
people you don't entirely approve of and hang out with them for a
change. You may find dating material there. If not, see if one of your
friends doesn't know a nice mathematician. I've heard they are wonderful

Dear Mr. Blue,

I recently spent a weekend with a group of authors,
unpublished neophytes such as myself beside writers with decades of
critical praise. How does one approach an author whose work one has
enjoyed and tell them so? And what does one say to an author who has
received much praise from fans and critics, but whose work one has never


Dear Harry:

You say the same thing to the author whose work you've
enjoyed and to the author you've never read: upon introduction, you
shake hands, look Author in the eye and say, "I like your work." That's
all you need. Gush if you must, but then you run the risk of looking
like a bootlicker or a shill. Authors do not stand around and flatter
each other; they're not like theater people. Authors are busy people and
do not have to apologize for what they haven't read. "Like your work" is
a phrase that takes care of old business pretty well, and then you can
go on to talk about what's really interesting.

Dear Mr. Blue,

A wise freelancer friend of mine once said:
"Working for smart, creative types is like being an abused child. But
working for business types is like being an abused dog." This was to
console me in my attempts to work in public radio. The consolation has
worked for about a year, but now I need a new one. Have you got any?

Lassie B.

Dear Lassie B:

I wouldn't dream of trying to console you. The work
itself is consolation, and if it isn't you should get out of public
radio and make a wad of money selling trivets or something. (Money can
be a wonderful consolation.) I've seen it from both sides -- as a lousy
boss and a disgruntled employee -- and the only good solution, if an
employee cannot get gruntled, is to quit. All of that happy therapeutic
BS that came into the workplace when Personnel became Human Resources
is of limited usefulness. You've got to love the work to be happy in a
place, period. If you don't love the work, then you have to learn how to
content yourself with it. If you can't do that, you have to go. If
you're really feeling badly used, don't negotiate with your oppressors,
is my advice. Walk. If you're a crucial employee, they will beg you to
come back, if they have a brain in their heads. (Do you know what a
chore it is to replace a capable employee? It's no fun.) If you're not a
crucial employee, then go and become crucial to somebody somewhere else.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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