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Harriet Halliday Renaud

A Writer’s Writer, on Writing

Edited by Lissa Tyler Renaud


In the 1960s, the prestigious California Writers’ Club invited my mother several times to deliver talks on the short story form. She had been researcher, writer, reviewer and editor for Time, Newsweek, and other major U.S. publications. As a freelance writer, her short stories appeared in many of the top national magazines.

For readers of Scene4, this is the second of Harriet Halliday Renaud’s talks on writing, but it was actually the first of a series of three talks; this one was given in Oakland. You can see the previous one, given in Sacramento in 1962, in three parts along with more introduction to her [qv].

This talk that follows is from March 1960. At a time when many writers felt obliged to stay hush-hush about also being young mothers, it is a feature of Renaud’s talks that she insisted on describing, right-up-front, her motherhood and her wife-hood, both of which inevitably played enormous roles in her writing life. Not one to be coy about gender inequities in the realm of domestic responsibilities, her remarks underline the fact that even the hard-working writers in the audience who were young fathers more than likely had someone doing their laundry, feeding them, and caring for their children so they could write. And if that “someone” was also a writer, the odds were exponentially against her. In this context, it’s fun to note that this is the first appearance of her graphic “almost 1-1/2, almost 2-1/2…” litany (see below), which returned in her talks again and again. But it was also a serious matter—and remains so today—that all the male and female “practicing pros” in the audience weren’t practicing on a level playing field at all. And while she was ostensibly speaking only about the challenges of her own, impressive writing career, she was also speaking for virtually all the women in the room, and to virtually all the men in the room.

In her manuscript for the talk, there are often words or passages she has crossed out. Some of them are just a record of her looking for the exactly right way to say something, and those are easy to leave out. But some of them I suspect she cut only for length, and among those there are sentences of such charm that they are hard not to share. One of those is embedded in a section she didn’t use, describing trying to write while living out of boxes in a temporary rental: “I dug out an old card table, which we had always meant to retire because when it got tired, one of its legs collapsed; and on it, I put our portable typewriter, which jumps around in moments of excitement…”

Lissa Tyler Renaud


Write the Story

Harriet Halliday Renaud

When Jane Putnam [co-chairman, California Writer’s Club] asked me to come and speak this evening, I hesitated and searched my soul about accepting her flattering invitation because she told me you were all writers, and I didn’t know whether I could say anything that would be useful to a roomful of practicing pros. Well, after I’d hesitated and searched for about fifteen minutes, it became perfectly clear to me that of course I was going to speak whether I had anything useful to say or not. At which point I even thought of something that might be useful.

It occurred to me that when I come to hear other writers, it’s because I want to hear (1) How they do it, and (2) How hard it is. Every year I come to the big Writer’s Conference here at the Claremont [Hotel], and I listen to what everybody has to say, including the people on either side of me, who are usually either complaining about the ventilation or trying to talk someone into getting them a drink from the bar, and then when I get home I wake up my husband and tell him, “I must tell you what happened at that fascinating writers’ conference. Erskine Caldwell and Kathleen Morris and Mark Schorer and Elizabeth Bowen were all there, and they all said that writing is very very hard. See, I told you.”

I feel very uplifted. I mean, it makes a difference to know about that shared burden. Sometimes it makes a difference for as long as two and a half days, and sometimes it makes a difference only long enough to get me back to my typewriter in the morning. But I’m not one to belittle any random moment of uplift, either for myself or any writing colleague, and on the chance that even one disheartened soul among you will get maybe four quick minutes of uplift and a nudge toward that typewriter, I would like to get it said immediately that although I have earned money from writing, off and on, since I was sixteen, and have written for Time, Newsweek, Charm, a New York newspaper, and a TV personality, and have published as a freelance in The American Mercury, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Saturday Evening Post, I hereby freely assert that disciplined writing is very very hard.

As for how I do it: Someone said that I ought to tell how I did when I got into the Post. Well, I’m happy to go along with that, because I learned something from that Post story, the first one I’d ever submitted to them—I learned the basic, the indispensable trick of how to do it. It doesn’t matter how practiced a craftsman you are, how subtle your intuitions, how sophisticated your perceptions, how unique your awareness—if you want to publish in The Saturday Evening Post, there is one trick to keep in mind always, because without it you’ll never never make it: The very first thing you must always do is Write the Story.

Now this may seem like a very simple idea to most of you—for me, it was a long, tortuous, and unwelcome revelation. At the time that it finally came to me, I’d just spent more than a year of not writing, and muttering and complaining about not publishing, and not writing, and muttering and complaining about—well, you know what. Now, I had perfectly good and apparent reasons for not writing—one almost 1-1/2, one almost 2-1/2, one almost 6-1/2, and one thirty something and a half. And this engaging and charming crew of reasons had somehow got it worked out that they never did anything together. Partly because of their ages, partly because of their different needs, and partly as a result of sheer grit and determination, they had schedules which never never ran concurrently. While one slept, another had to be fed; while one blessedly gurgled with fresh, dry pants, another needed a lunch packed; while two went out to play, another needed an early, very early dinner. Nothing about all this was extraordinary, except that it meant there was never more than twenty minutes—twenty-five if I was lucky and the dry pants stayed dry—without a serious interruption. And if there was one thing I always needed in order to be able to write—and this wasn’t a convenient idiosyncrasy, but part of my personal writing history—it was large blocks of free time.

Then, just about this time, my husband happened to go into a new barbershop, where he happened to pick up an old and mangy copy of a magazine in which there was an article by Catherine Drinker Bowen in which lo! she discussed just these problems. He offered to buy the magazine, the barber said, “Take it; take it,” and that’s how I got it. Rarely has anything I’ve read meant so much to me. You know what that wonderful woman said? She said writing is very very hard. Not only that. You know what else she said? She said that in order to write you have to have large large blocks of absolutely free and unencumbered time! She even did me the enormous favor of quoting someone to the effect that he could do no work on the day that he knew he would even have to go out for a package of cigarettes. Of course she said other things too—among them a French saying which went: “If I desert Art for one day, she deserts me for three.” But that wasn’t the kind of thing I was looking for. I quoted that poor man and his trouble about getting his cigarettes something like 27 times in the next two days. “See?” I said to my husband, “I told you so.” He replied to all this with a therapeutic, neutral silence, and I happily went on clutching all those selected portions of that article and quoting…..

And then on the fifth day after the advent of the article into the house, I got up and prepared to spend another soothing day with that man and his terrible problem about the cigarettes, and it occurred to me that I was spending an awful lot of time with him and his difficulties, and as for me, I couldn’t see that anything much was going to change. Of course, I’d always have him, and in time almost 1-1/2 would get to be almost 2-1/2; almost 2-1/2 would get to be almost 3-1/2, and almost 6-1/2 would get to be almost 7-1/2 and I would get to be a den mother—but as I sighted down the long, long months, none of this seemed to add up to any large blocks of time in which I could write in order to get published.

After this had gone on for a few weeks, I went to a graduate English conference on the Cal campus one evening—because I firmly believe that I’m going to go on feeling like a graduate student in English until I’m 93—and Prentiss Cooms spoke that evening, and among other enlightening things he said was that it was very very hard to get into the Post through the slush pile. Well, the uplift from that lasted long enough to get that manuscript into an envelope, bypass my agent, and send it directly to the slush pile. The story was bought, in time it was published, Jane Putnam saw it, and here I am.

When I knew I was going to be here, I asked an acquaintance who has spoken to this group, what kind of technical point he thought you would be most interested in. “Plots,” he said. “Plots?” I said. “Plots,” he said. Well, I’m glad to talk about plots because when I got to thinking about them, in order to talk about them here, I realized that ordinarily they are the last thing I think about. Almost everything else will get me started on a story—a chance word, a remark, a hat, an atmosphere, a tone of a story I’m reading, a sudden feeling about a certain kind of character—but by the time I’ve worked out any single one of those completely, I find that the plot has sidled in and I’m stuck with it.  And if what I have figured out about those other factors is absolutely true and correct, then the plot that has established itself is the absolutely true and correct one, and the story appears in a magazine and I get one of those lovely fat checks for it. And if I’ve misperceived or otherwise pushed one of those factors out of its true shape, then I get a letter from an editor that says, “How about a little more conflict here?” and then I know I’ve got a stinker, and it doesn’t do me any good at all to work on a little more conflict here, because I know all that sneaky plot did was flow from a mistake I’d made much earlier in the proceedings.

Now, all this sounds like the kind of doubletalk that used to drive me wild. Any time anyone would say, The style is the man, or plot is character, or character is plot, I would see little flares of red before me, and sometimes, if it wasn’t a complete stranger, I’d scream. The fact that it’s all true doesn’t matter. It’s like a conversion; until you’ve experienced it, you don’t believe it. And like the true convert, I never get tired of saying over and over again, what I believe: I believe a good story does not start with plot, but with a fully realized character, or a fully realized life situation, or the fully realized implications of an atmosphere, or some realized experience of the author’s, and the stimulus to examine any one of these can come from anywhere—I once wrote and sold what turned out to be a very moving story because a Negro maid we had once used the unlikely word “bereft”. The stimulus, as I said, can come from anywhere, but it will rarely, rarely come first from plot.

I would like to tell you two anecdotes which illustrate, I think, some of this thinking about plots.

[To be continued…]


Note: You can read some of Harriet Halliday Renaud’s short stories in the Scene4 archives.


Previously in This Series of Talks

Packaged Instructions: The Instant Short Story (Part 1)

Packaged Instructions: The Instant Short Story (Part 2)

Packaged Instructions: The Instant Short Story (Part 3)

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Harriet Halliday Renaud was a journalist, feature and fiction writer, book reviewer, movie and theatre critic, and editor from 1935 to 2016, for national magazines from Newsweek to Harper's Bazaar. For more of her writings, check the Archives 

Lissa Tyler Renaud, Ph.D. is the director of InterArts Training. She has been a visiting professor, master teacher, founding editor, critic, speaker and recitalist in the U.S., Asia, and Europe. She is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For her other commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2018 Lissa Tyler Renaud
©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine




August 2018

Volume 19 Issue 3

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