Steve Fiffer

Before I file each diary entry with Slate, I read it to my children, 14-year-old Nora and 11-year-old Rob, and to my wife, Sharon (who says there is no need to publish her age on the Internet). You might think that Sharon would be my most severe critic. She ran a prize-winning literary magazine for years, has won awards for her short fiction, teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Illinois-Chicago, and has edited three popular collections of original memoirs by some of America’s finest contemporary writers. I once heard her persuade Jane Smiley to reorganize the opening paragraph of an essay.

Sharon did convince me not to recycle an excerpt from my current book as my opening entry. “Be fresh,” she said. (She meant original, not smart-alecky, but sometimes I can’t help myself.) But other than providing that excellent advice, she has given the thumbs up to each of my offerings with little criticism.

Nora has also won a few awards for her writing, including the local Martin Luther King Jr. “I Have a Dream” essay contest. She’s an opinionated young lady, who once chided a teacher for being sexist because he asked only the girls in his co-ed class if they were available to baby-sit. “Why single us out?” she wondered. I have a feeling she’d be playing a more active role in editing me this week if she weren’t so busy putting together her own writing portfolio for the freshman English prize competition.

That leaves Rob. Although he’ll tell you that he is interested only in sports, he, too, is an excellent writer. He’s also possessed of a particularly fine ear for dialogue. After watching and enjoying the video of David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, he began communicating in that unique language, Mamet-speak: “Would you please pass the bread?” I asked one evening.

“You’re asking me if I will pass the bread? Is that what you are asking (pause), to pass the bread?” Rob countered.

I caught on. “Yes, the bread. I’m asking will you please pass the bread. That is what I am asking”

Rob is not only the most proficient Mamet mimic among us, but the best linguist. During an episode of ABC’s Sports Night, he observed to Sharon, “They talk just like Mamet characters.” “What?” asked an amazed Sharon.

“I’m saying, what I’m saying is that they talk just like Mamet characters. That is what I’m saying.”

Anyway, Rob has reacted the most passionately to these diary entries. After reading the second one, he accused me of intentionally looking for things to write about. “That’s what writers do,” Sharon explained to him. “They observe the world around them and put it into some context.”

She’s right, but so was Rob. It’s a daunting task facing a blank page or screen each morning, not knowing what you’re going to write about. Exhilarating, too, but primarily daunting. There’s a phrase sometimes used to describe the play of great athletes. They “let the game come to them” rather than try to force the action. I suppose great writers do the same–let the story come to them–but I’m a rookie at this. I confess that I forced the action for Tuesday’s entry by flicking the remote control with the hope that I’d find something to write about. Thank goodness for the cable-TV exercise shows.

Rob’s critique of yesterday’s entry was different. He accused me of shameless self-promotion in presenting the synopsis of Starbugs, a screenplay that a friend and I are working on.

“That’s what writers do,” I said. “We try and sell ourselves. Who knows, maybe David Mamet will read the synopsis of Starbugs and want to do it.”

“You’re telling me David Mamet is going to do Starbugs,” Rob said. “Is that what you’re saying?”

What I’m saying (pause), what I’m saying is that writers are observers, but we’re salesmen, too. That is what I am saying.