Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bad Writing? Good Parenting!

The Secret of the CavesImage via WikipediaSometimes, the worst writing conceals the best of intentions. I learned this from Gene Weingarten's heartwarming article on the man behind the popular Hardy Boys series, Leslie McFarlane.

Weingarten first writes of how he felt betrayed by the unbearably bad writing that characterized the adventures of his boyhood heroes, Frank and Joe Hardy:

"The dialogue is as wooden as an Eberhard Faber, the characters as thin as a sneer, the plots as forced as a laugh at the boss's joke, the style as overwrought as this sentence. Adjectives are flogged to within an inch of their lives: 'Frank was electrified with astonishment.' Drama is milked dry, until the teat is sore and bleeding: 'The Hardy boys were tense with a realization of their peril.' Seventeen words seldom suffice when 71 will do:
'Mrs. Hardy viewed their passion for detective work with considerable apprehension, preferring that they plan to go to a university and direct their energies toward entering one of the professions; but the success of the lads had been so marked in the cases on which they had been engaged that she had by now almost resigned herself to seeing them destined for careers as private detectives when they should grow older.'

Physical descriptions are so perfunctory that the characters practically disappear. In 15 volumes we learn little more than this about 16-year-old Frank: He is dark-haired. And this about 15-year-old Joe: He is blond.

These may be the worst books ever written."

But when he goes into the remarkable story of Mr. McFarlane, a largely self-taught, hardworking family man who eschewed writing well (which he could do) in favor of writing to feed his family, his initial feeling of betrayal gives way to admiration.

"I envisioned the young Leslie McFarlane, a fine writer, hunched over his typewriter, babies at his feet, desperate for the money to buy the coal to stoke the furnace to survive another day, haunted by fear, humiliated by his failure, guilty over his gall at subjecting the people he loved to the reckless dream he chased, banging out another idiotic novel for a plutocrat who abused him.

If you are a bad writer, then writing poorly must be no big deal.

But if you are a good writer, writing poorly must be hell. You must die a little with every word."

McFarlane wasn't an angel. He was, like many writers, a passionately flawed man. At his worst, he was a quiet monster, much like Melville's Captain Ahab, a man who couldn't let go of his youthful dreams of erudition and renown. But this didn't stop him from trying to be the best parent he could be:

"For five years after the Depression hit, during the worst years of doubt and shame, Leslie McFarlane hit the bottle. Drink is the bane of the writer at war with himself, and it nearly destroyed this one. His wife, Amy, a woman of uncommon strength, threatened to leave him.

This is not a chapter of his life that McFarlane has chosen to chronicle in his memoirs. His son, Brian, reveals it. His father, he says, was endangering his life and his family.

A writer can be the most selfish person on Earth -- demanding silence, expecting adulation, shamelessly mining the privacy of those around him for literary material. McFarlane did all that. He was no hero. But at his center lay something heroically unselfish. It showed up in the Hardy Boys -- not on the pages themselves, but in the simple fact that he was writing them at all. McFarlane was willing to demean himself and, as he saw it, to betray his craft, in order to put food on the table.

And now he faced the loss of his family. The end was in sight, and he knew it.

So McFarlane took the page out of the typewriter, crumpled it up, and wrote a new end. Good writers know when to do that.

He left home for a few weeks and went to a clinic in Hamilton, Ontario. Got himself straight. And never was drunk again."

His legacy may be seen in his children. He never stopped helping them achieve their dreams. Brian McFarlane was a hockey player who parlayed his love for the sport into a successful career as a broadcaster and sports writer. He is also a member of the Canadian Hockey Hall of Fame. His daughter, Norah Perez is an accomplished novelist.

He may not have fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming an accomplished man of letters. But he was, in the end, an accomplished man, husband and father. 

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petrufied said...

Hi John-D! Thanks for sharing this! It makes me look at those series books in a new light. :)

I've always liked them despite the bad writing--they get kids started in reading (including me!)

John-D Borra said...

Nicole, I'm glad you enjoyed the article I linked to. It's really heartwarming.

And I really appreciate how The Hardy Boys series encouraged me to read and to continue to grow by reading more. :)

czyka said...

Hi Mr. Borra! I'm so happy I stumbled upon this post. I'm not a fan of the hardy boys, but because of this post, I'm planning to browse through it again in this light. I'm sure I can learn a lot. I was very inspired by Mcfarlene's story that I ended up writing about it. If you have time, check it out: Continue to inspire sir!

John-D Borra said...

I loved your entry on mothers who write as well! I pray you and Sophia continue to teach and grow as you journey through life. :)