The Buck Stops Here
Throughout my career, friends, acquaintances and even family members have asked me how I could be a writer.
“It’s so hard!” they would say. “How do you do it?”
I won’t say writing is easy, but for me, it comes easier than it does for most people because I love it.
To begin with, writing is about reading first.
I was encouraged early-on to read by my parents and smart older sisters. TV wasn’t as prevalent in the 1950’s and 1960’s and there wasn’t any Internet or video games to distract you.
The kids I grew up with all played ball together, but in the mornings and on many a hot, sticky St. Louis summer afternoon, you would find us at the Kirkwood Library.
My parents also did something very smart. They let me buy all the baseball cards they could afford.
I would pour over them to the point where I knew every player’s batting or earned run average by heart. Guys in the neighborhood would flip their’s in a gambling style game, but I found them too captivating to part with.
My clever parents realized that I was learning to read because I equated it with one of my first loves, baseball. It was also building my brain and vocabulary for speaking and writing.
They also supplied me with plenty of my favorite Curious George and Winnie the Pooh books.
I followed that up with comics, every baseball biography I could find at the library and then moved on to Sports Illustrated and war books.
So the first point is: to be a decent writer, you have to be a reader. I really don’t think there is any substitute.
You also have to like the challenge. I’ve never suffered from writer’s block because I look at writing as a challenge, not a daunting precipice.
The few times I’ve had trouble getting started, I used an old trick I learned in writing school. Just write down anything, anything at all, and it will get you out of the funk that’s stopping your hands and mind from flowing.
It didn’t hurt that my teachers started reading my themes in high school and again in college. Like anything else in life, if you get better at something, the confidence propels you even farther when the right people notice.
I don’t pass judgment on what kids and older people are reading. I figure whatever they’re reading, well, at least they’re reading.
I don’t walk around with Proust or Faulkner under my arm to impress people either. Some of the classics are not timely or enjoyable.
If you don’t believe me, have you every tried to wade through “Beowulf?”
Fortunately, that’s only one of a few books I’ve had to put down in my lifetime.
When I was in college, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was all the rage. Fittingly, I didn’t start reading “The Hobbit,” until I was laid up the hospital with appendicitis.
I realized while reading it in my recuperation that it was almost as painful as having my appendix removed.
I had exhausted all the hospital magazines but I promised my friend who brought me the book that I would drag myself through the drivel of Bilbo Baggins.
And I did until my mother mercifully collected me at the hospital with 10 pages to go in “The Hobbitt” and I could bail out.
I still have no desire to find out how it ended. It’s absolute torture, but at least I was reading something.
Writing school in college brought me into a new world of reading and writing. Short stories by European masters like Chekov and De Maupassant were real eye-openers.
About that same time, I discovered Mark Twain and I haven’t been able to put his stuff down ever since. Another plus of moving here was knowing I would have a geographic connection to my favorite author.
If you read Twain, you’ll understand the rhythm of writing and how large words are only necessary for making major points.
What really made me a writer was going to work in the newspaper business in 1975.
When you have to write something that is accurate and easy to understand with no errors on deadline or be fired, writer’s block is not an option.
Having done that now for more than 35 years, writing comes pretty easy, although I still come up with some really twisted, run-on sentences, like this one.
If I had any advice to anyone about writing, I would simply relay what my favorite professor imparted to us on the first day of class.
“Writing is rewriting.”
For me, it really comes down to this.
Writing is all I can really do for a living because that’s my only tangible talent.
I started my professional life as a failure in the tuxedo business. What else could I have turned to other than writing and journalism?
It’s what I do.