Who has time to be a writer?

Published August 11, 1998 9:16AM (EDT)

Dear Mr. Blue

Although I am crazed taking care of two children and working
part time, I still manage to write occasional essays/reflection-type
pieces. My problem is this: How do I know if they're any good? My
friends and family say, "You should do something with this." What
should I do? Don't suggest taking a writing course -- I barely have
time to shower and get gas in my car.

Writing in Limbo

Dear Limbo,

We writers don't really think about whether what we
write is good or not. It's too much to worry about. We just put the
words down, trying to get them right, operating by some inner sense
of pitch and proportion, and from time to time, we stick the stuff in
an envelope and ship it to an editor. A writer is a person who writes,
that's all, so you're a writer, and God bless you. If there's a
magazine that you yourself enjoy reading, send them something. And
if they send it back, don't worry about that either.

Dear Mr. Blue

I've been married for 18 years to a man I love very much. Seven
years ago, we moved the family so I could take a better job. I
screwed up bad by having a two-night affair with a guy at work,
which was truly lousy. I screwed up again by telling my husband
about it. And I screwed up more by staying at my job for another
year. My husband took his wedding ring off and is only staying with
me for the sake of our four children. He has separated emotionally
from me. What do I do?


Dear Unloved,

What a sad tale and I feel sorry for you and your
husband. Telling your husband about the affair was a cruel thing to
do, no matter what your reasoning. But here he is, still under the roof
despite everything. Furious, but on the premises nonetheless, and so
there's got to be hope. My hunch is that he must love you very much,
or else he'd have gone off with Amber the cocktail waitress. My
advice is that you be utterly kind to him but focus on your children.
Lavish your love and attention on them. Children are fascinating,
worthy of our interest, and they crave attention and respond
beautifully to it, and perhaps in raising them together, this common
bond could inspire the two of you to resume your life as a couple. If
it doesn't, then tell him to quit being a martyr and figure out a better
way to live his life.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have ambivalence disease. No matter who I'm with or what he is
like, I feel unsatisfied. I feel I'm about to find someone better. When
I'm in a relationship, I have one foot out the door. I'm 33 and too old
for this. (My first book comes out in a year, and I keep thinking
maybe somehow I'll meet some better men then.) Is there a cure for
this horrible condition?

Sick of Myself

Dear Sick,

What's horrible about being unsatisfied? Welcome to the
human condition. Thirty-three isn't too old to still be adrift
romantically. I was almost 50 when I found The Right Woman and
you know what? If I'd met her 20 years ago, I might not have
recognized her. But even in your ambivalence, you can be properly
grateful for each man who cares for you. And congratulations on your

Dear Mr. Blue,

Years ago, my "great love" backfired after five years, and since then,
my love life has been going downhill fast. Successive relationships
are shorter and shorter, more like one-night stands. My friends refer
to me as "the unstoppable dating machine." I am starting to loathe
myself. Do you have a suggestion? Or a reading list?


Dear Frantic,

There are people who write to Mr. Blue who would
consider themselves lucky to have your problem. They sit waiting for
the phone to ring and there you are with four or five callers on hold.
If you really do loathe yourself, maybe you could take your talent for
seduction and use it to sell aluminum windows door-to-door or raise
money for public radio. Meanwhile, your friends envy you your
charm and you want me to recommend books to read? Well, I
suppose Frank Harris' "My Life and Loves" and the memoirs of
Casanova come to mind, but I suggest that you enjoy the summer
while it's here.

Dear Mr. Blue,

After years of writing short stories and getting rejection form letters,
I recently gave up on the publication game and all that heartbreak and
started writing for the simple pleasure of it. The result is that writing
has become far more enjoyable and I feel I have been freed from
something that was holding me back. My recent work is
immeasurably improved, and I think some of it is of publishable
quality. I'm worried, though, that if I go back to submitting for
publication, writing will again become a means to an end instead of
an enjoyable end in itself. How do I maintain the joy of writing with
no pressure while at the same time seeking publication?

Stuck in Illinois

Dear Stuck,

There's a story here somewhere, about a guy who wants
something and doesn't want to want it, who hopes for his heart's
desire to burst into the room one day when he isn't looking and take
him for a ride. He is hungry and he hopes to be waited on, he is
lonely and wishes that 14 close friends would arrive with a case
of beer. Writers have always tried to understand themselves by
writing metaphorically about their own condition. You should try
writing about this. But unless you are a saint, your writing is intended
for a reader, and without her, you can't be satisfied.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I want to become a poet, but I don't seem to be able to comprehend
meter. Can I live without it?

Wannabe in DC

Dear Wannabe,

There is meter in everything we say, everything we
write. There is even meter in your question. All writing has a
cadence to it and I can't imagine a writer who isn't interested in this,
though you needn't sit around and think about it. You can simply
write your poems and read them aloud to yourself and the meter will
be obvious to you, artful, clunky or whatever.

Dear Mr. Blue,

Every time I go out with my friend Ruth, she brings along some
friend of hers that I barely know. It seems like Ruth and I never get
to talk just the two of us. I'm beginning to worry that she thinks I'm
boring or something. Am I being selfish with Ruth's attention, or is
Ruth being rude?


Dear Worried,

If you want to be alone with Ruth, invite her to your
house for dinner and set two plates at the table. And if Ruth asks if
she can bring a friend, say no, and she won't.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I've met a really sweet woman who I'm very attracted to and
well-suited for and who feels the same way about me. The problem is
that she has been seeing a dishonest and emotionally screwed-up
bartender for a year and half and has not broken off her relationship
with him yet, although she is on the brink. She says she likes the
"communicative" sex with him and likes being able to help him out
with things like emotions and career. She describes their relationship
as "unhealthy" and seems to want to drop the ax, but sometimes she
seems stuck in some kind of loop. In the meantime, she doesn't
respond to my e-mail or phone calls. How do I deal with that?

On Deck in San Francisco

Dear On Deck,

I'll say this as gently as I can: This really sweet
woman is emotionally screwed up, and you should quit calling her
and sending her e-mail. You should go for a long walk through your
elegant city and ponder the vagaries of human nature and sit in cafes
and drink coffee and study the Minnesotans and Iowans who come to
San Francisco to relight the flame under their kettles. Do yourself a
big favor. Drop her and get attracted to somebody else.

Dear Mr. Blue:

I got a letter three months ago from a publishing house that says, "I
am happy to say that we are interested in your book proposal and I
have sent it off to London for a couple of the other editors to look at.
I will write again as soon as I have any other news." How promising
does this sound to you? How long should I wait before I send a
follow-up letter? The anxiety is killing me. Any tips for staying

Anxious in Manhattan

Dear Anxious,
No reputable publishing house would toy with you and say they were
interested if they weren't, and after three months, you could
reasonably send them a note and ask, "How are the deliberations
coming?" Better yet, call them up on the phone, it's easier to tell if
they're lying if you can hear their voice. Don't be afraid of people in
publishing. Walk tall. You're an author, after all. And if they've lost
interest in your proposal, it's no big deal. Send it on to someone

Dear Mr. Blue,

I moved to Los Angeles six months ago and discovered I am not
really the L.A. type. I don't like the beach, cars, palm trees or
mainstream films. I'm attractive (some say beautiful), yet L.A. men
aren't exactly breaking my door down. What might I be doing
wrong? Are men intimidated by opinionated, smart and articulate

An Outsider

Dear Outsider,

Los Angeles is a big city, and like other big cities, it
contains large populations of people who aren't "the type." New
York has inhabitants who aren't loud and in a big hurry and Dallas
has people who aren't brash and Miami has some who aren't on drugs
and Seattle has plenty who don't hike or bike and Minneapolis has a
large supply of non-Scandinavians -- being untypical is hardly a
social disadvantage. Men aren't intimidated by smart women, but
sometimes we are put off by arrogance, as anyone would be, and
what does "articulate" mean, anyway? Why offer that as a badge?
Everyone is articulate in the right company. I recommend that you
take it easy and enjoy L.A. as long as you're there. It's a great city
with a fabulous history and the more you learn about it the more
you'll want to know. And in the process, you might meet a couple of
men you'd want to get to know better.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I have been dating an older man for about a year, on and off. I like
him very much; at times I feel I love him. He does not tell me he
loves me, but he did say that I was "growing on him like a fungus
lately." Well, before we warmed to each other, back when our
relationship was difficult, I started writing to my former boyfriend
from college, whom I hadn't spoken to for two years, and I like what
I am finding there as well. A while ago, I invited him to move out
here and now he says that in a few months he will. I haven't told him
about my current boyfriend. He is very attractive and we have much
in common. Plus, I'm not sure if my current boyfriend will ever fall
in love with me. Although I am not sure if I trust the motives of my
former boyfriend.
Am I blinding myself to something here?


Dear Confused,

You have a couple of interesting months ahead of
you. It's brave of you, encouraging one guy, even as you string along
another, but the blind one is not you, it's your current boyfriend, the
older man. When the college boyfriend moves to wherever you and
Uncle Bud are, you will no doubt get some good stories that you can
amuse your children and grandchildren with someday.

Dear Mr. Blue,

I'm a teacher, freelancer, soon to be MFA candidate, and I've gone
and fallen in love with a sweet, generous, taciturn
lobsterman. We're each 39, never married, both very busy, have been
seeing each other for just over three months, but already I can see our
children's smiles in his eyes and hear their giggles in his laugh. How
can I keep myself from telling him these things? I'm certain he knows
what path we could be on here, but I don't want to buzz past him at
warp speed.

Some Impatient

Dear Impatient,

There's a kind of giddiness, a helium quality, in the
early months of romance that you ought to enjoy and then allow to
dissipate, and when the balloon comes down, you can settle into the
relationship and learn to feel comfortable with each other, regardless
of mood, and find out what each other's habits are regarding civility
and so forth. When you and your lobsterman get to some stable point,
you can pick your moment and look him in the eye and say, "I want
to have a baby with you." He may grab his slicker and dash for his
boat, he may grab you and make love with you, or he may simply
become very thoughtful. The odds of him choosing the right door will
improve with time.

Dear Mr. Blue.

Perhaps you can help, perhaps not. My husband has insisted on
subscribing to TV Guide, and recently I spotted him taking TVG into
the bathroom. It dawned on me that I have never seen him read an
actual book, only periodicals. I confess this disturbs me terribly. Does
this constitute a relationship problem or should I just learn to live
with it?

Turned off

Dear Turned,

I can't help. If your husband had been a major book
reader and gave up books in favor of TV Guide because of lower
digestive-tract problems, I'm sure you would know that. You married
a guy who is vitally interested in TV. There are worse things. Live
with it.

Dear Mr. Blue:

Does oral sex constitute a sexual relationship? I asked a friend who is
a Republican and a Bible scholar, who says it isn't. Now I wonder if
my Irish Catholic upbringing may have locked me out of a lot of fun
open to Baptists. Are there religions in which oral sex is OK, and
where do I go to convert?


Dear Curious,

Oral sex is sexual, and people who engage in oral sex
have a sexual relationship. I don't care what the Baptists say about
this. Oral sex is perfectly OK, and you can practice it to your
heart's content, but it is not asexual. And in the Christian religion, we
would prefer that you practice it with your wife. It is precision close-up
and takes some expertise and isn't something you'd offer to strangers.
That's our feeling, anyway.

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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