REVIEW: How to Be a Writer? Pulitzer Prize Winner Richard Russo Tells All

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The Destiny Thief:  Essays on Writing, Writers and Life

by Richard Russo

Knopf, 224 pp.

By Robert Allen Papinchak

One of the questions most frequently asked of writers is, “How did you get your start?” That and many other questions about writing and a writer’s life are answered in the all-encompassing nine essays in Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo’s The Destiny ThiefEssays on Writing, Writers and Life

Russo’s opening title essay gets quickly to the point. At 30 years old, seeking a PhD in American literature at the University of Arizona, he soon decides he’d rather be a writer than “somebody’s man in Charles Brockden Brown” at a mid-level college or university. He snaps up the “last slot in Arizona’s MFA program.” But it’s neither a swift nor easy path to publication as a novelist. His writing professor judges his prose “full of jargon and intellectual pretention.” He gets a B in the course.

By 1980, Russo leaves Arizona with both an MFA and a PhD. He realizes he knows “quite a lot about the nineteenth century novel,” some things about “how to create character,” and that “it’s conflict, more than plot that drives the best stories forward.”  With the two degrees in hand, he takes his “first academic posting” at a “branch campus of Penn State University” where he taught “a ton of freshman composition and the occasional lit course.” His department chair advises him not to write fiction because it was “endangering [his] chances for tenure and promotion.”

Instead of developing an “adventurous” lit-class syllabus, he “use[s] the time saved for writing stories.”  Inspired by the work of J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Raymond Chandler, John Cheever, and Ross Macdonald, Russo looks again at 40 pages that his writing professor praised and realizes therein lies his future. They are pages about “an upstate New York mill town” like the one he grew up in, the one he was trying to escape by going to Arizona. He found that his novel’s “backstory was the story.”  It becomes the basis, beginning with his first novel Mohawk, for his fiction.  It also gets him his first job as a writer at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. His destiny now seems certain.

In 1993, after a “long academic nomadship,” he settles in Waterville, Maine, with his wife and two daughters. It’s there, “belowground in a windowless” finished basement “sectioned off into a laundryroom and rec room” that he spends four years writing Straight Man, a novel of academia. Finally, after a movie is made from Nobody’s Fool, he is “allowed to move upstairs into a room whose window looked out onto [a] backyard.” This engenders the second entry in this collection, where he sees “The Gravestone and the Commode.”  It is also the essay that allows him the chance to riff on some of his discoveries about writing in general and the place of humor in his life and his writing.

The gravestone, there when he bought the house, lies against an apple tree in the backyard. Its mystery is in its inscription, NIMON KALEEL KATER, “conjuring in [his] warped imagination a fictional encounter between an old stonecutter and his young apprentice.”  The commode ends up on the outside deck while a bathroom is being retiled. The juxtaposition of the two objects serves as metaphor for “[p]art of a writer’s job,” the secret of performing “magic by slowing down the process by which observations are organized and classified.” The “thing itself,” in this case the gravestone and the commode, become the “potential for a story.”

In Russo’s mind, the objects also lead him to discover that he is “by temperament a comic writer.” His “natural way of looking at things” is to see the world as a “funny place.” The “gravestone and the commode coexist in [the] world.” It becomes the writer’s task to get “other people to see things” as he does, “to honor the truth of [his] idiosyncratic way of seeing.” Context becomes everything, whether it’s a joke that Bob Hope tells in “bad taste” or how stuttering can lead to laughter in A Fish Called Wanda, Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Shakespeare in Love.

Aspiring writers would be well-served to read the longest essay (over 60 pages) in the collection, “Getting Good,” as a master class in writing linked to thoughts on publishing (traditional and digital). Russo joins personal stories about being a member of a band in middle school with his grandfather’s history as a glove cutter and his own summer job in road construction to demonstrate the practice and skills needed to perfect any vocation. It is the equivalent of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours. His grandfather’s membership in a craft’s guild segues into Russo’s comparisons with the Writers Guild and Authors Guild that he joins and his “lengthy apprenticeship.” He concludes that “[t]alent, plus practice…plus time (lots of it), yield voice, attitude, style.” These are the mainstays of any accomplished writer along with being “in control of major story elements; character, conflict and point of view…working in concert, scenes and dialogue and narration [being] used effectively.”

The remaining essays in the collection range from his “Address to the Graduates of Colby College” (infused with a humorous set of Russo’s Rules for a Good Life) to an elemental assessment of “The Pickwick Papers” (an introduction to a Modern Library edition in which Russo lauds the young Dickens’s ambition and genius) and an overview of the innovativeness of “Mark Twain’s NonFiction” (from an introduction to an Everyman’s Library volume).

Destiny rears its omnipresence in one other deeply personal essay and one other writing lesson. In “Imagining Jenny,” Russo details the consequences of action and change as he recounts the sexual reassignment of a close friend and how it affects himself and his wife. And in “What Frogs Think: A Defense of Omniscience,” he examines the virtues and limitations of the point of view which determines the difference of not “what we see, but how” and when “how often influences and alters what.”

The final entry, “The Boss in Bulgaria,” returns to Russo’s beloved conjunction of words and music. From that middle school musician manqué he ascends to the equivalency of a “literary rock star” as the head speaker at an annual conference in a resort town on the Black Sea. He knows he is an “artist lucky enough to find, against all odds, a voice and the courage to raise it.”

Anyone in search of an eye-opening series of essays by a distinguished writer about writing and the writing life need look no further than the nine entertaining and informative entries in The Destiny Thief.

Robert Allen Papinchak has reviewed a range of fiction in newspapers, magazines, and journals including the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Seattle Times, USA Today, People, The Writer, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, the New York Journal of Books, The Strand Magazine, and others. He is the author of Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction.