Who I Am

It was clear early on that I had a way with words, a gift of gab, but, as a friend put it to me not long after I left college sometime in the last century, “Zabor, you’ve got a terrific prose style, but the problem is you don’t know how to write about anything with it.” Which was concise, at least. Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but it was close. I didn’t learn how to write good dialogue until I was twenty-nine years old, and at least by then I knew how to get someone to walk across the room and sit down. “He walked across the room and sat down.” Took me a while to figure that out. My youthful considerations were more than a little abstract.

In short, I was a slow learner, had to work hard at the basics, and didn’t know how to access what I already had. I took a couple of fiction-writing courses as an undergraduate but never went on to a Creative Writing Program and an MFA. I decided to do it on my own, live a lot, make mistakes, read the best writers, and keep learning. I wrote a few things that worked in fragmentary fashion, and a short novel that held together from beginning to end but lacked the spark I could usually summon up. It was about living in a seaside cave in the Sinai desert but it was dull. I’d written it as an exercise in carrying something through, so it was a help in that respect. I had one good short story about Mozart and Haydn running into each other in Greenwich Village one night, but the ending leaned too heavily on the last pages of James Joyce’s story The Dead. Ever do that?

I didn’t start writing professionally until I was just over 30, and then it was for a mostly jazz magazine that shortly turned into a successful mag called Musician, which many people remember fondly. It was gratifying that people in the music world—writers, fans, even actual jazz musicians, who usually don’t have a lot of good things to say about their crrrritics, liked what I had to say. It bucked me up and helped convince me that I might actually be the writer I thought I was, or at least someone like him.

A year or so later my work at Musician led me to write the early chapters of a jazz-world novel that was eventually published as The Bear Comes Home and won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. The degree of technical accomplishment involved surprised some people who knew me as a journalist but didn’t understand that I’d been in the woodshed working on my chops for decades—the long, unknown, quiet solo work virtually every writer has to go through in order to, as the cliché has it, “find your voice.” But it’s not just your voice you need to find. Like how to pitch your voice, what are the good keys for you to sing in, what other voices—those of your characters—can be drawn from your overtones and undertones. Once found, that voice has to be opened up. This is what I like to help with. Find it, unseal it, find the music hidden inside.

Because it took a long time to do it for myself, I have a powerful fellow-feeling for writers who are working their way to the best writing they can do, a deep sympathy for anyone trying to develop and free the creativity they have inside them—that sense of a treasure inside one, waiting to be unearthed. When coaching writers, my characteristic emphasis is on getting life onto the page, and the technical means of doing so: narrative voice, selection of detail, and all the ways in which you can invite the reader to enter your storytelling world and find something of value. I don’t think there’s a single style that fits all, and since I worked my way up through the rudiments I know what a classical realist style is and I also have a feel for when and how to let it go and fly.

A novel, short stories, a memoir, a thriller, a clear book, a mysterious one, a book that puts everything in or leaves a lot up to the reader: I love to help bring all and any of it forth. I’m not especially prolific, so I have the time. And I like to stay involved.

If you’re working on something and there’s a kind of guidance you know you need but don’t know how to lay hands on; if your dialogue doesn’t sound spoken; if it doesn’t bounce or bounce back; if you can’t quite lay down the right establishing shot for a scene or a whole milieu; if you’ve got a larger problem with form or shape or with those arcs you’re supposed to build; or if your writing seems like a piece of taffy you can’t quite pull and some of it gets stuck in your hair: sometimes you need a bit of insight from an unknown angle, a slight nudge to the perspective, or a way you can relax into what’s already there in you. Here I am, I can help with this; get in touch, let me have a look at what you’re doing and let’s see what I can do for you.