This article could have been called learning to fly or learning to levitate because in reality that’s how hard writing can be. I’m a newspaper columnist and short story writer. It’s the newspaper gig that helps the most. Having the opportunity to write a column has been a blessing for two reasons. First it was a goal of mine to be published in a widely read publication; which my local newspapers readership is over 10,000. Secondly the column forces me to write on a consistent basis, which for the most part is good. Being a procrastinator since birth; the deadline imposed by the paper forces me to create. For those who have read my column; they should be able to spot the work that was up against the deadline verses the columns that I thought out. I know the critics are going to say being forced to write can’t possibly be what makes you a writer. We all go to work every day because we need a paycheck, that’s forcing. Which brings me to the reason for this Off the Cuff column; I receive feedback from readers most of whom I bump in to in the street, who ask, where did you learn to write? The smart-aleck in me wants to say first or second grade, but here’s the truth.
As a young child I wrote stories about aliens and comic book heroes. As a middle school child I entered contests like the Voice of America, which I placed, not sure how high but I still have that certificate. In Junior High School I had a history teacher that didn’t use textbooks, students copied the notes he wrote on the board. It was then that I realized I liked the smell of erasers and the feel of a number 2 pencil in my hand. In High School I wrote essays that brought tears to teacher’s eyes because my empathetic soul related to the emotions of the subjects I wrote about. I took Creative writing, short story reading, and research paper writing, an elective, just to write. All these experiences taught me that I liked to write, but they didn’t teach me how.
I read. I started with Dick and Jane, moved on to Archie comics that I still read occasionally. I have loved words since that first Dick and Jane book. See Dick run. See Jane run. Simple words that teach that if you read those sentences, and then close your eyes you can truly see them run; it’s pure magic. I read novels in and out of school, newspapers, and flyers and basically anything I could get my hands on. By reading you hear the voice of the writer; you can sense their mood when they wrote. By reading you find out what you like and dislike. There’s a writing exercise in which you copy a paragraph word for word of a writer you admire just so you can get a feeling for their flow, there vibe. Reading still isn’t what taught me to write, writing did.
There’s a mantra for writers, just write. That is the single most important thing a writer must do, but there’s still more. In my college Creative Writing class we used a book called The Art of Fiction-Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner. If by “young writers” he meant writers that are at least twenty-five then I can believe the title. The book is difficult and merciless on the craft of writing. From editing to style, this book made you think about what writing is. Writing is art and writers are artists. This book was the jumping off point for me. Through the exercises in this book I realized that if I worked at my art it would improve. Other important books are The Elements of Style, The Elements of Grammar and The Elements of Editing. These three books are like freshman English all over again. Magazines that focus on the art of writing like The Writer and magazines that set the bar high for short fiction such as the New Yorker; these resources feed the hunger.
No, I wasn’t an English or Journalism major in college, but I did take over thirty credits in English and Literature, which in retrospect, never take more then one Literature class in any given semester. Writers are their own harshest critics which prevents a lot of writers from succeeding. We are snobs sometimes and want what’s perfect but we must try to remember that we must fail before we succeed.
Those books, writing, reading and life is what taught me to write. The smell of a new pad of paper, the smell of ink and every error I find in what I read, that keeps me writing.