Friday, February 17, 2012

The First Time I Knew I Had to be a Writer

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.  Until my freshman year in high school, I was painfully shy and ill at ease around people, so I sought refuge in books.  My mother taught me to read when I was four, and I went through the first and second grade readers at my school during the first month.  Perplexed, my teacher let me sit by myself and read books from the school library’s meager collection while the other kids struggled with ‘See Spot run.’  By the end of third grade, I’d made my way through the entire library, including the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Shakespeare.  The archaic language of the Bard’s works threw me at first, but when I figured it out, the language sang to me.

Throughout my school years, I spent time reading and making up stories about mythical worlds and nonexistent people.  At the age of twelve or thirteen – after over fifty years it’s hard to recall – I won a national Sunday school magazine short story competition.  Seeing my name in print hooked me on ‘seeing my name in print,’ but it didn’t make me know that I wanted to be a ‘writer.’ 

When I turned 17, I joined the army, and six months before my 18th birthday found myself stationed in southern Germany.  I loved reading the Stars and Stripes, especially the “Pup Tent Poets” section, so I started creating poems and submitting them.  I had almost a one hundred percent acceptance rate, and again I was thrilled by the heady feeling of seeing my name in print, but still didn’t think of myself as a writer.  I was just someone who liked to write.

Over the next twenty years, I wrote frequently; contributing travel and historical articles to regional, national, and international publications, and even moonlighting as a free lance newspaper reporter in a few places.  Along with the writing, I also did cartoons and other pictures, and photography for a number of publications and organizations.  I loved doing it, and even made a little money from it, and, of course, still got a kick out of seeing my byline in a publication.  But, I still didn’t think of myself as a ‘writer,’ ‘artist,’ or ‘photographer.’  It was just something I did in my spare time because I loved doing it.  Considering myself a writer would have been a professional, and life-changing decision, so I was perfectly content to leave things the way they were.

Then, I got smacked in the kisser with a lollapalooza of an epiphany, when, at the urging of a colleague, I wrote a little book on my leadership philosophy, “Things I Learned from my Grandmother About Leadership and Life,” which was published in 2008.   It wasn’t, and isn’t, a best seller, but a few people actually bought it and read it, and one of those people sent me an e-mail that changed my perspective significantly.  She said that reading my book had changed her life; seeing what I’d learned as a child from my grandmother, and how I’d applied that knowledge throughout my life, gave her a better sense of herself and a new lease on life.  She then went on to say that she’d given the book to her teenage son to read, and it made an immediate change in his behavior, and caused him to turn his life around, from the self-destructive path he had been on.

As I read her email, I thought to myself, “So, this is what writers can do.  Maybe, this is what I’ve been working toward all these years.”  See, writing and being a writer are two vastly different things.  When you write because you love to write, or even because you’re compelled to write, it can be an exercise to just please yourself.  But, when you consider yourself a writer, you than have to consider others – the readers who will be educated, amused, or inspired by what you write.  It’s no longer just you sitting down with pen and pad, or keyboard, and spewing your thoughts onto the page.  You have to develop a professional attitude about it; learn the mechanical techniques, read with a more critical eye to learn better ways of expressing thoughts, consider the impact your words will have on someone else.  It’s the difference between being a weekend golfer tearing up the landscape for fun, or an aspiring golfer who wants to get a card for the professional tour.  You have to focus.  After finishing that email, my mind was made up.  Not only did I like to write, but I knew that I wanted to be a writer.  That meant that I’d have to do much more than just sit down and scribble my musings into a journal every day – something I’d been doing for over 40 years, but I’d have to do it with purpose.  I would have to work harder at polishing my writing; learning more about effective use of dialogue, character development, plot arc, and the like.

I no longer merely ‘had’ to write; I knew that day that I ‘had to be a writer.’