Years ago, when I was a young rascal doing public relations for Signet and Mentor Paperback books, I found myself escorting Ayn Rand to a book signing. Yes, that Ayn Rand, as if there could ever be another. My job was to make nice with her so she’d be cooperative at the book signing.
As it happened, I was not, and am not, a fan of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. So small talk about her ideas was out. What then could we discuss on the long cab ride to the bookstore?Aha, thought I. I can ask her about writing. I’d read The Fountainhead and enjoyed it. So I told her that, sincerely, and asked her if she had any advice to give a young writer just starting out in fiction.
Now by this time in her life, Ayn Rand had a severe and forbidding face, as if her name and reputation weren’t intimidating enough. I could only hope I hadn’t made a fool of myself or irritated her. She turned to me and raised an eyebrow and I remember wincing. But evidently she was feeling kindly that day.
She smiled, and her thick white face powder wrinkled disconcertingly. She said, “Yes. This is what I always tell beginning novelists: When you’re reading fiction–which you should be doing constantly–stop whenever you read a scene that has an impact on you, a scene that scares you or touches you or that affects you deeply in some way. Ask yourself why. Read it again to see how the author did that to you. Then use the same techniques in your writing.”
“That makes sense,” I said, “but I don’t want to be copying anyone.”
“My dear,” she said, putting a thin, black-gloved hand on mine and making me feel about twelve. “Only geniuses come up with truly original ways of writing. Do you consider yourself a genius?” I tried to think of the best way to say “Of course not,” but she’d drifted away and was talking to the world now. “If you’re not a genius,” she said, looking out of the cab window now,”you’ll have to learn your craft. And if you’re a good writer, you’ll never stop learning it.”
It’s nearly 50 years later, but I still think of that from time to time. When a writer touches me in some way, I still try to figure out how he or she did it, and how I can use that technique. And I think of Ayn Rand, who–whatever else she might have been–was a writer to her core.