Writers on Writing

Only in Key West, at the Annual Literary Seminar, will you find as many luminaries in the audience as those illuminating the stage.

The theme of this year's Seminar is the examination of the short story. The authors invited to speak were not exclusively short story writers. But all had engaged in the art form.

Every year, one way or another I sneak in (tickets are hard to come by) as there's always someone I want to know a little better. This year it is Tom McGuane.

I've been reading McGuane since the eighties. Obviously he's been writing longer than that but he came into my life in the eighties. And from the first book of his that I read I was inspired, I was in awe, and I would be a lifelong fan. To me he is one of the greats.

It is always a worry of mine to meet the creator of any creation that I admire. Too often have I been disillusioned by the maker and thus lost interest in his craft. So it was with some trepidation that I went to hear the man speak.

By now I've heard him speak three times. Each time trying to absorb and remember every word he uttered, from lengthy wonderful anecdotes to witty one liners. The other panelists mostly sat tightly wrapped and bolt upright in their chairs. Meanwhile McGuane slouched comfortably with his long legs crossed at his blue and yellow sneakers. And while the other panelists were eloquent, quick thinking, clever and often funny, not one looked relaxed. While everyone was great in their own way it is impossible not to choose a favorite. McGuane, despite being partially deaf, was easily and by far the coolest and most fascinating.

He told one story about writing a first draft of what he thought would be a novel and how after some editing it was barely a seven page short story and then after further editing it was nothing but a wad of papers thrown in the trash. And looking back on that exercise he says it's possible that somewhere in there was a decent short story. He says he does not go back and read his printed works because there would always be something he would want to change.

He also sensitively thought to reference the late very brilliant author Robert Stone, his friend of many years. McGuane said that according to Robert Stone, 'If you think there's something wrong with your story, there probably is'.

Tantalizingly, McGuane suggested that Ninety-two in the Shade and Panama (both written in the 70's during his decade-long sojourn in Key West) are really two-thirds of a trilogy, and that he tinkers with the possibility that one day he might return to Key West and write that last book. We can only hope to get so lucky.