Monday, July 16, 2007


"All the rest was indefinite, as the soundest advice ever is."
Herman Melville Moby-Dick (1851)

Did you take those Kuder preference tests in college? Kuder? Is that right? You know, the ones with thousands of questions, and with a number 2 pencil you had to fill in the little ovals signifying whether you would rather (a) be a forest ranger alone in the crow's-nest lookout of a national park or (b) be a nurse in a busy emergency room. Whether you'd rather (a) be at a party with a hundred strangers or (b) in a room with one friend. Whether you'd rather (a) take a vacation that was planned and with reservations all organized or (b)set off on a random adventure.

I'm probably making up the example questions, but they were like that, right?

And the point was, after answering them all, someone who could interpret all your responses would tell you--like some indisputable vision of the future--what you should be when you grew up.

I loved taking those tests, by the way, since I thought they were (a) fun (b) impossible to be wrong and (c) so incredibly transparent that if you wanted to take the time, you could make them come out however you wanted.

So Miss Laurie, our guidance counselor in high school, was the one who called me into her office to go over my about-to-apply-for-colleges answers. I had already been sent home several times for wearing skirts that were too short (this was, um, 1967) and I knew she was not optimistic about my future success. In anything. And "Slacker" (or whatever we called it in those days) was not something that was going to be revealed by that test.

I wanted to be the lawyer for the mine workers, by the way, at that time. Or a Shakespeare teacher. Or Mrs. Paul McCartney.

Anyway, she opened her test results, and said "You have very high scores in literature and persuasion."

She paused, then continued:
"Seems like you have a future selling books," she said."I guess you should work in a bookstore."

Ah yes, the good old days when my prescient mother advised me to learn to type so I'd always be able to find a job. Hey, it worked for her...actually she was a successful playwright and screenwriter and her being able to type meant my father, her writing partner, didn't have to learn.

They'd work together all morning while she took notes in shorthand on a yellow legal pad. All afternoon he'd go off to play tennis and she'd type scripts (original and two carbon copies - remember carbon paper?) on one of the first IBM electric typewriters. That thing was about the size of a Buick. It had been a gift from IBM right after she and my father wrote the screenplay for The Desk Set, a movie about a computer that can't do what Katherine Hepburn and a group of smartypants librarians can.

I can't even imagine how my mother managed it on a typewriter, electric or otherwise...I mean, have you ever seen a movie script? All the lines are centered. Today people use special software to format those suckers.
Anyway, I did follow her advice. When I was 15 years old and couldn't find a summer job, I spent weeks teaching myself to touch type. Never regretted it for an instant. The next summer I learned Gregg shorthand. It was very cool, but turned out to be a total waste. I can't read my own handwriting, never mind shorthand.

My father, who was a lawyer, really, really wanted me to be a lawyer. (I worked in his law office all through high school,)But since I was so hell bent on being a writer, he suggested I might want to study journalism. I went with it.I never took those Kuder (?) tests which sound like a lot of fun, but I'm pretty sure the results wouldn't have redirected me to say...nuclear physicist or astronaut. I snooze when NOVA is on. And I didn't get too worked up when they deplanet-ized Pluto. Or was it Neptune? There's a big hole in my brain where science and especially, physics should be.

I guess the best advice I ever got was from my mother - although I'm sorry to say I never acknowledged it during her lifetime - find a nice man who loves you and settle down! And I finally did.

BTW I've seen Desk Set at least 50 times..I love it when Spencer Tracyanswers the phone during the Christmas party and tries to name Santa's reindeer.. "uh, Rudolph, Dopey..."

HANK: Sidebar: one of my fondest memories. When we were deciding what to name this blog, I suggested "Desk Set." (It's one of my favorite--maybe my favorite--movies of all times. I love when Spencer Tracy is giving Katherine Hepburn the "test" as they're eating sandwiches. The "train to Chappaqua" scene, remember it? And she says: "I associate many things with many things.")

So Hallie, who I think was on speaker phone? said: you know my parents wrote that, don't you?

Now there's a conversation stopper for you. No, I didn't.

Anyway: advice. (Besides researching your blog sisters' parents.) Do you give it? Do you take it? Any advice on advice?


  1. Argh. My first bit of advice is to proofread. There are two typos in this post. I found them after I published, but now the blogger won't let me fix them.
    Why is there always another typo??

  2. I had lunch with a friend today, another writer who is the recipient of much conflicting advice regarding her manuscript - "take out the satanic cult...put the cult back in..." It sounds like she's changed her book 3 or 4 times on the strength of advice given to her by her agent, and various editors, freelance and in publishing houses. It's got to be frustrating. One of the reasons I don't ask for much advice is that it's only one person's opinion. Of course if 20 readers tell you to lose the bloodsucking dwarf accountants (or whatever) maybe you should, but other than's your book, right?

    OTOH, I am the same person who told a total stranger she should never wear pink (after she told me I should curb my dog.)

  3. My high school guidance counselor also gave me that test -- or one very similar-- after she told me my lifelong dream of being a vet would come to naught because I wasn't smart enough. The results suggested that since I was very good at math, I should be a stewardess or secretary. Writing? Not so much. I regularly failed math, btw. I still have those results. Glad I didn't listen. As for writing advice, I'll take it only if it's clear the person gets my story in the first place. And only if they're guiding, not directing. Hank has helped me see how to completely redraft my ending, and Hallie made sure I didn't make any missteps along the way with plotting. Now that's advice I'll take.


  4. My sister swears that when I was in college and took one of those tests, I called her up and said that, if I could have a job where I worked by myself, surrouned by books and trees, I'd be happy. She remembers being very supportive on the phone (she probably was!), but thinking, oh, yeah, like that's going to happen.

    Ta da! If I could figure out how to do the photo stuff, I'd take inside & outside pics of my office.

    Of course, still have to make some $ at this to actually call it a job, but...

  5. My mother used to tell me the same thing about typing, but she also told me from about third grade on, "Edie, you're a good writer." Hmm: I knew I loved to write, and I actually believed her - it wasn't exactly advice, but was certainly encouragement. So I kept writing goofy short stories as a child and then went on to dabble in journalism, academic writing, medical writing, and now I'm employed as a technical writer. My real struggle is finding time to write and hone my fiction. So far I've only published a couple of short stories and have had twice that number rejected, but I'm working on a new one. Four more years until younger child is out of college and the financial situation might allow me to adjust the ratio between work-for-pay and write-for-love hours!
    Thanks so much for this blog, by the way. I check almost daily for new stuff.
    -Edith Maxwell

  6. Amy: I can't wait to read your new ending. And as for Hallie, of course, we all do whatever she says. I hope you're having some happy times... And as for being a vet, part of that is taking care of and nurturing needy creatures, and you certainly do that now with all of us writer-creatures..

    Becky--do take photos! And post them here. That would be fun. And by the way, do you know how to add a photo to the blog comment section? Anyone...?

    Edith--I just burst out laughing. "Only" published "a couple" of short stories? That's great! And I bet you already write out of love. It's very difficult to take a mass of complicated stuff and make it accessible and understandable. That's a huge skill. Thanks for your frequent visits..we rely on them!

  7. Plus RO: I wish I could have been there for the "never wear pink" pink incident. I'm so impressed you could come up with that oh so perfect reply. You must use that in the next book...or maybe..I will....

  8. My career aptitude test said that I'd make a good funeral director. Just what a teenage girl wants to hear -- not! :-)

  9. Not kidding, Hank. All too true.