by Stephen Jay Schwartz

I guess the first really serious bit of writing I did was a short story called “Yahrzeit Candle,” which I wrote when I was twenty years old. I wrote it in the months following my father’s death. My writing changed overnight–suddenly I had things to say that could not suffer poor writing. And out came this story about a little Jewish boy who comes home one night to find his father stooped in front of a large candle. The boy’s grandfather has just died. The candle burns for seven days and the boy watches his father fall apart before it. The boy doesn’t understand; he thinks the candle is hurting his father. But when he gets close to the candle, when the smoke gets in his eyes, he is overwhelmed with memories of his grandfather. In the end, he tries to snuff out the candle, to save his father. His father wakes and pulls him back. They hug for the first time in years. The candle, having done its job, flickers out on its own.

I was attending a community college when I wrote it, and I entered two national short story competitions that had ties to the school. The story won both competitions, and there was a cash prize, too. I remember the day I went to my professor’s office to get the check for the awards. I remember his words. “You might not write a story this good for many years. Don’t worry about it. Just keep writing, and understand that it’s part of the process.”

We stepped out of his office onto the second-floor terrace and he handed me the check and the award letter. As soon as I took them, a gust of wind came and took them from my hands. The letter and check fluttered down into the bushes two stories below.

“Easy come, easy go,” my professor quipped.

Words to live by.

It’s interesting how I thought that first story would be the beginning of so much. It was, but not in the way I imagined. At the time, I thought the story would open doors (Eli Weisel called it “Shining, evocative and penetrating”). I thought opportunities would suddenly materialize and I would spend the rest of my life employed as a professional writer and film maker.

This life we’ve chosen, it doesn’t come easy.

I’m beginning to take a long-term look at it. It’s not just a job. It’s not just a career. It’s a life. What we write is what remains. Taken together, it marks our journey. From my very first short story (“Sammy the Dinosaur” at age 8) to this very blog post today. Every story, every screenplay, every poem, every blog. They are the atoms that define me. They are the things from which I evolve.

I might still end up supporting myself by my writing alone. It could happen. I could balance the load writing novels, screenplays and television episodes. Then again, it might not happen that way. I might have other jobs and write on the side. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As I’ve been told, “even Spinoza spun glass.” I haven’t done the research, but I take that to mean that Spinoza had a day job, in the circus or something.

If you think about it, precious few artists support themselves by their art alone. Even the ones we consider “great,” the ones who didn’t start living until they died.

I have a friend who is a Story Editor on a very popular cable series. He’s successful enough to be a showrunner now, for the spec projects he has sold. I told him that I would probably be writing a spec script for his cable show, to use as a writing sample in case Boulevard goes to series. (Boulevard has been optioned by a major TV producer). If I want a chance to write on the series (if a series gets off the ground) I have to show the producer a writing sample — a one-hour TV script for an existing series with a similar tone to my books. When I mentioned this to my friend he said, “Isn’t it amazing how we still have to write for free? It doesn’t matter if we’ve had books published or films made from our screenplays, we still have to write for free to prove to others that we can write.”

This is it, guys. This is being a writer. This is the commitment. If the stars align, we could all be millionaires. One book could do it. One spec script. It’s the dream I’ve lived on for years. Since “Yahrzeit Candle,” which wasn’t the most commercially viable project I’ve ever written.

But, you know what? It had heart. I wrote another heartfelt short story after that. And then my first feature script, which had heart. That project won another competition, and got me a film agent. And then I learned to write what I thought I was supposed to write. I wrote crafty, slick, commercial vehicles. And I lost my way. I lost my way all the way up to the point that I ditched it all and sat down to write my first novel, Boulevard. And that had heart.

I’ve spent the past year and a half writing my third novel. It was supposed to be bigger than Boulevard and Beat. It was supposed to be a commercial vehicle. I struggled and struggled and then abandoned it, to write something small and heartfelt. And, lo and behold, my voice came back. I just started writing the new piece when my wife begged me to go back to the other one, to reinvent it so that it wasn’t such an obviously commercial vehicle, to find my heart in the story. There was too much there to abandon. I agreed, and now I’m juggling both books. And looking for the day job that will support this passion of mine.

I’m writing what I want to write, what my heart tells me to write. It will take as long as it takes to do it well. I decided a while ago that novels are where I’ll put my best. In this one realm, I won’t compromise. It’s different than writing a zombie film, which, regardless of how much heart I manage to stuff into it, remains a zombie film to the end. It’s a commercial venture.  I know that going in.

My novels, however…well, I hope they are commercial successes. I really do. But if they aren’t, so be it. I write books to make me happy. If I’m not enjoying it, I shouldn’t be doing it.

Easy come, easy go.

17 thoughts on “EASY COME, EASY GO

  1. Debbie

    Yahrzeit Candle made me cry…I didn't even read the book and you made me cry! 🙂 My father too committed suicide and that event shaped my views on death, pain (mental anguish), suicide and probably saved me many times. I sometimes try to see if it figures in to my male characters or how my female characters relate to men.

  2. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sarah – your comment, though short, speaks volumes. It touched me. I'm glad what I wrote resonates with you.

    Alaina – it's that brass ring we keep shooting for.

    Debbie – me, too. My father's suicide influenced everything I've written since. There's no way I could sift this influence from my life. It's the kaleidoscope with which I view the world.

  3. Lisa Alber

    Yes, thank you, Stephen. I wonder why I struggle with the fiction life, thinking I should give up and get a "real" job to earn decent money…but then I don't. I'm not sure what keeps me going except the dream.

    On my wall, a quote by Anais Nin: "Dreams are necessary to life."

  4. Allison Davis

    Like the lady said, you gotta have heart: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbkgAiLsHuE
    Like the Tin Woodsman said, if I only had a heart!

    But you are right. I published my first poem at 8 or 9, got into the newspaper at age 12 (with my Beatles haircut), staged my first original play in summer stock during high school…but worked throughout, doing the trade off. Because it has to ring true or it doesn't work. But we continue to strive and write, because there's no other alternative.

    I get it. Wonderful piece. Will you let us read the short story? That would be a great download on your website.

  5. lil Gluckstern

    Your writing so often brings tears to my eyes. I could have used a candle like yours. Maybe you can write from the heart and still please the powers that be. I would like that. Did you ever get the letter and check back? And I would look forward to the series:)

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I am working and thinking about this post. I know writing from the heart is a metaphor, but it's making me wonder where I write from. Writing for me is more like alien abduction, being invaded by characters and ideas. I can get just as obsessed with a commercial venture as with a more personal one, and yet I have no control at all over the process. It seems to be utterly random whether I write well or not as well. I have no idea whether anyone will like this thriller I'm finishing or not. I don't even know if I will like it when it's done. I only know I have to finish it, or I will have failed the story.

    It's a strange thing.

    I would love to read Yahrzeit Candle, too – definitely something to put up on Amazon!

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Mark – thanks. It's good to see that voice rising on the page again.

    Lisa – what I'm learning is that the writing just never stops. If you get that "day job" to get you money to survive it just means you'll have less time to write. But you'll still write, because you have to. Sometimes, when you only have a small amount of time to write, it brings out the best in your work. I think that's how it works for me. I'm looking forward to doing better work in fewer hours.

    Tim – thanks for checking in, brother. I know you know where I'm coming from.

    Pete – that's what I've realized…it IS an adventure. This whole life thing. It would be a shame for me to miss out on it by wishing it was something else.

    Allison – I love how you pulled that Damn Yankees out of your hat. And I want to see you with a Beatles haircut. The short story…you know, it was good for a kid of twenty. I re-read it recently and it could use some touching up. When I get a little time I'm going to do just that, then submit it to some mags for publication. I never sent it out to get published before. Oddly, however, I adapted it as a feature screenplay on a grant from an organization called The Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, like twenty years ago. I renamed the piece "In Loving Memory." I expanded on the themes and brought the grandfather's character out in flashback. I added some nice touches that I'd like to somehow fit back into the short story. So, it looks like the short story is a thirty year work-in-progress.

    lil – yeah, I do believe I can write from the heart and satisfy the commercial powers that be. Fortunately, my heart goes towards stories that contain some rather intense action. Imagine if my heart went to the observation of flowers? I'd be screwed. And, yes, I heard my professor say "easy come, easy go" as I was darting down the stairs and leaping into the bushes to save the letter and check.

    Mary – thanks! And you, my friend, have the very best day job in the world – working with dolphins in South Florida. Damn, talk about doing good work. I want to join you in the water.

    Alex – regarding "Yarhzeit Candle," see my note to Allison above. Writing does become an obsession for me and maybe that's why I want to know my heart is in it before I get buried in self-doubt. Because I will get buried in self-doubt if it doesn't feel right. At the same time…I also don't know if a story works when I'm done. I don't know if it's shit or magic. However, I know when I love individual scenes, or chapters, or passages of prose or dialogue. If I love enough of them, I'll end up loving the story.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Stephen
    This is a very apt post for me at the moment. I'm still feeling shredded after finishing the last book, but that's not necessarily because I don't enjoy it. I just beat myself up if I don't feel I'm producing the best work I can. Lots of guilt and angst.

    So, does it make me happy? That's a tricky one. I just know NOT writing would make me miserable.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Zoe – good point. It's harder NOT to write than to suffer the slings and arrows of writing. But lifting the deadlines and the self-imposed expectations might make writing enjoyable again. I think that's what I'm yearning. At this moment, at least. Six months from now might be an entirely different story.

  10. Gar Haywood

    Stephen: I'm sitting here trying to figure out what to say on this subject that I haven't already said. I can't, so I'll just repeat myself: You have to WANT to write what you're writing in order to do your best work, the work you were MEANT to write. You have to believe on some level that it is your DESTINY to write something great, something incredible, that no one else in this world could produce, and then you have to sit down and write it, commercial considerations be damned.

    And pray, yes pray—to just the goddamn light bulb above your head, if that's the closest thing to a "god" you can profess faith in—that it will pay your bills.

    This is both the great curse and great blessing of writing on spec: There's no guarantee you'll make a dime from it, but you can be absolutely certain it will represent your finest stuff. Because it's yours and no one else's.

    You've got the talent to blow up. Keep on keeping on.

  11. Reine

    Stephen, this is why I love writers and other artists. To find a way to do what you love, for yourself. It is to me what is important. I need to live that way myself, and I need to see it in others.

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