A cropped view of Bret Easton Ellis and Rick Lenz looking at the camera.

What I learned from Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis and Rick Lenz looking at the camera.

At the age of fifty-three, I began spending most of my days writing. I had written about a dozen plays and three novels. A couple of the plays were okay, but the novels, were bad (“bad” is too kind).

But I kept at it. My acting career, which had come so easily for about thirty years, was not easy anymore.

My wife, Linda, ran into an old friend, Dale Ellis. She told Dale what I was doing, slogging away at my latest attempt at a novel.

Dale said, “I could show it to my son. He’s a novelist.”

When Linda told me this, I said, “Yes!” I’d read at least three novels by Dale’s son. It seemed lunatic to me, the notion that Bret Easton Ellis would take a look at a 300-page stack of my ramblings, but it turned out that he was willing to do that and he did.

By now, Bret and I have had a sporadic correspondence for close to thirty years. He is a dark literary figure in the minds of many because of what he writes. In one of his first letters to me, he said, “Not a lot of people would take my advice, considering how I write and what I write, so you should get other opinions.”

I have done that and more than ever I value Bret’s assessments, especially in regard to the craft of understandable writing—saying no less and no more than you mean to say. (unspoken in all of his advice was something close to what Marlon Brando said about acting: “The only thing an actor owes his public is not to bore them.”) I should add that Bret’s critiques have always been meticulous and blunt. There is no time [cliché coming:] to beat around the bush when you’re trying to help another writer clean up bad habits or the tendency of a lot of beginners to try to sponge up a lifetime of neurosis between the covers of their first novel.

Bret told me he had thrown away his first three attempts. In fact, that may be about the magic number. Richard Russo (“Empire Falls”) says “you need to write a thousand shitty pages before you can hope to get good.” Stephen King has said words pretty close to that.

Before I decided to write this piece, I came across an interview with Bret about writing. This is probably close to being his credo, if he has one, or at least it was on the day he gave this interview to the Los Angeles Times.

“Do it because you love it. Don’t do it because you think you’re going to get published or you’re gonna sell the movie rights or you’re gonna get some money for it. Do it because it gives you intense pleasure, and do it because it relieves yourself of pain. And do it because it’s super personal. Don’t just try to write like a murder mystery that you think you can get published because it’s a murder mystery like “Gone Girl” or whatever. Write something that really means a lot to you. That is the process that has always meant the most to me. The rest of it — the publication, the editing, the promoting of it or whatever — is a completely separate thing from the actual writing [of] the book, which is always done for very personal reasons, at least it has been for me.”

I don’t write anything close to the kind of thing Bret does. I couldn’t if I wanted to. He has never tried to influence what I write. His concern as my mentor—which he didn’t set out to be, but for me that’s the way it worked out—is that I write as well as I can. He has never gone out of his way to be kind, but he’s been kind. If you’re trying to be a better writer, the best sort of kindness you can hope for from someone qualified to give you advice is a combination of honesty and clarity and a total lack of bullshit.

PS: Most of my writing has the entertainment business and the profession of acting as a backdrop. Once, early in the editing of one of my novels, Bret scribbled a note in the margin: “Actors—Eeeew!”