Monday, February 24, 2014

Reads for Writers: Helene Hanff Provides a Masterclass


From Kate's Writing Crate…       


As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide masterclasses within their books.

        Masterclasses take place when performance artists and musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don't generally have this option, but I have found some books to be masterclasses for characters, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.


        You can have a wonderful literary life if you are determined to be a writer. Helene Hanff is proof of that.


Hanff wrote several charming memoirs—the most famous being 84, Charing Cross Road, which has a sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, both set in London. She also celebrated her life in the big city in Apple of My Eye, Letter from New York, and her first book, and my favorite, the delightfully funny Underfoot in Show Business. However, Q's Legacy reveals how hard she worked to become a writer, that showing up really is half the battle, and that synchronicity has a role to play.

Before she became a successful author, Hanff dreamed of becoming a writer. She won a scholarship to college. After one year, she lost it due to the Depression.
Disappointed she had learned little about writing in college, she went to the library to find herself a teacher. The librarian sent her to the 800 section where she discovered On the Art of Writing by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, MA, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature in the University of Cambridge. It was one of several volumes of lectures delivered to his students at Jesus College, Cambridge. Delighted with his teachings, Hanff referred to him as Q.
Hanff studied Q's lectures for two hours a day, studied books he referred to and recommended for four hours a day, and wrote. However, her parents expected her to work so she was sent to a secretarial school.
After two years of office work while still studying with Q, Hanff became stage struck and started writing plays. She then entered and won a writing competition. She moved to New York City as the prize included working at the Theatre Guild. Her secretarial skills were put to good use taking notes during interviews with stars like Katharine Hepburn in the Theatre Guild's productions for press releases distributed to newspapers. At the same time, she wrote a lot of unsuccessful plays.
Also back to studying Q's lectures, Hanff was looking to buy cheaply-priced, but good quality books he recommended. A small ad in The Times led her to contact a bookstore in London located at 84, Charing Cross Road. Through a shared passion for books and years of trading letters, Hanff became friends with the staff.
Hanff moved on from the theater to write successful scripts for live TV shows shot in New York until the industry moved to Hollywood. Desperate for a job, she hoped she would not have to work in an office.
Luckily, an agent called Hanff looking for old plays or scripts she might be able to sell. Hanff went to her closet and pulled out a couple of failed plays. Then she remembered a producer once told her one of them would be better as a magazine article. It took her a month to turn the plays into articles, one for Harper's and the other for The New Yorker. After publication, Hanff received a call from an editor who asked if she had written any books. She had not, but they decided to meet for lunch anyway.
The editor suggested she spend the next six months writing a funny book about coming to New York to crash the theater scene. Hanff decided she could do that and Underfoot in Show Business was published.
Hanff then got steady work writing history books for children, but that series was discontinued. Again looking for work, she received the news that her friend, the manager of the London bookstore, had died. Hanff remembered all the letters they had shared and went looking for them.
Synchronicity led to her letters to and from the London bookstore becoming her most successful book and led to a movie deal as well. Hanff followed up with several more books of letters along with her memoirs.
        Helene Hanff's dedication to writing is inspirational considering she never stopped whether she was a celebrated bestselling author or homeless between successes. She believed in herself and her calling. She lived a true writer's life. We should all be so dedicated.
Have you followed through with any of your writing dreams?

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