A Portrait of the Artist: My Development as a Writer

04 November 2014 · 7 comments

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. As a boy, I was always eager for my parents to read to me: Harry the Dirty Dog, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Millions of Cats, Tikki Tikki Tembo, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The Giving Tree, Anything by Dr. Seuss. Like most children, I enjoyed the pictures in these books, but what I really loved was the stories.

In grade school, most kids couldn’t wait until recess. Me? I couldn’t wait until storytime. I was always eager for the teacher to read to us: A Wrinkle in Time, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, TheLittle House on the Prairie series, The Mad Scientists’ Club, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Great Brain, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Eventually, I began to write my own stories. The first story I can remember writing was “The Meanest Inchworm”. To call it a story is generous, I suppose. I was in the third grade, and my creative ambition far outstripped my narrative abilities. But by the fourth grade, I was regularly writing two-page tales.

Mr. Zagyva had a clever story-generating system. Each week, we had writing time. During writing time, we’d pull story elements from a hat: place, plot, protagonist, and so on. So, for instance, I might draw “the moon” from the places, “someone is lost” from the plots, and “a little boy” from the protagonists. I’d then have to construct a story from these random combinations.

In fifth and sixth grades we wrote stories too. As I wrote (and read) more, my skills improved. So did my ambition. I remember once in Miss Bell’s class we were supposed to write a two-page story about a trip to the zoo. My story was ten pages long and I turned the topic on its head. I wrote about being kidnapped by an alien named Gloops who wanted to make me a part of his interstellar menagerie. (Geeks in the crowd will recognize this as the plot to an episode of Star Trek. My homage was unintentional.)

As I got older, I wrote more. In junior high school, I wrote stories for the school paper. (My grandest effort was a multi-part cliffhanger about Donald McRonald, a serial killer who poisoned people with fast-food hamburgers.) I also began dabbling in poetry. By the time I reached high school, I often wrote in my spare time — just for kicks.

It was in high school that I got serious about writing. The English department at Canby High School was phenomenal. Not only were the teachers supportive but they actively encouraged me (and other kids) to push beyond my expectations. Mr. Nichols pulled me out of sophomore English and had me write independently. I designed my own curriculum. Mr. Sanvitale recruited me to work on the school literary magazine, and eventually I became the editor. And Mr. Dage took on a handful of us writing nerds to help foster our development for an entire semester.

Compared to high school, my college English classes were a disappointment. Not only were they less rigorous, but the teachers seemed less practical — more, well, woo-woo. I’m sure that Willamette had some good English professors during the late 1980s, but (with the exception of Mr. Strelow) I didn’t end up in their classes. Still, I continued to write. I continued to work on (and edit) the school literary magazine. Gradually, however, my writing moved from fiction and poetry to personal essays.

After I graduated, I entered a period of hibernation. From 1991 until 1997, I wrote very little. Very little. It wasn’t until I started my web journal during the summer of 1997 that I began to write in earnest again. I re-discovered how much I loved telling stories.

To revitalize my skills, I took writing classes at the local community college. Most of the other students were kids and not serious about writing. (Many were looking for an easy class to pad their GPA.) But a handful of older folks were serious about writing and producing serious work. The instructors knew who we were and would ask us to stay after class to provide personal feedback. It was in these classes that I wrote some of my best short stories. (While cleaning house earlier this year, I found a bunch of these stories buried in the bottom of a box. I spent a couple of hours reading them and was impressed. They were better than I had remembered.)

A large part of my development as a writer has been my development as a reader. When I was younger, I mostly read fantasy and science fiction. I’m still fond of speculative fiction, but as I’ve grown older my tastes have changed. Now I like historical fiction and historical non-fiction. I like philosophy and pop psychology. And after working with professional editors over the past five years, I’ve come to appreciate carefully crafted magazine articles written for mass consumption. Writing simply is tougher than it looks!

Here’s another thing that’s helped my development as a reader over the past eighteen years: Our book group. In 1996, Kris and I formed the Elm Street Book Group with one of my former English teachers (Mr. Dage) and his wife. The group has met every month since November 1996. Along the way, we’ve read a crazy variety of books. Some of them (House Made of Dawn, Mutant Message Down Under) have sucked. Others (Mutiny on the Bounty, How Green Was My Valley) have been shockingly good. But each has helped me grow as a reader — and a writer.

This month, to celebrate our eighteenth anniversary, our book group has come full circle. We’re reading Trout Kill by Paul Dage, one of our founding members and my former high-school English teacher. It’s sort of a surreal experience, actually, to be a professional writer who is reading a novel from one of the men who taught you to write. (Not to mention that Paul has become a real-life friend over the past thirty years.) It’s even more surreal to be marking up the book with the same sorts of comments the author used to put on the papers I submitted in his class: “too many adjectives”, “too much repetition”, “this may be a crutch word”, “show, don’t tell”.

Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned during my almost forty years (!!!) as a writer: You never stop growing. Yes, you’re a better writer now than you’ve ever been. Yes, you can look back on your older work and wonder why you saw fit to publish it. Yes, your style has evolved over time. But the process isn’t finished. Good writers continue to grow. They read writing manuals. They take writing classes. They read good books (and bad) and try to figure out what works (and what doesn’t). Real writers don’t shy from criticism and feedback. In fact, they revel in it.

Kathleen and I have begun working on a joint writing project. “How do you feel about me editing your work?” I asked during one of our first meetings. “Some writers get uptight about it.”

Kathleen laughed. “J.D.,” she said. “Edit away. I’m not precious about my words. And I know you’re not either.” She’s right. I used to be precious about my words — I hated to be told that something didn’t work or that my sentences were sloppy — but now I welcome constructive criticism. My goal is to entertain and inform my readers, and to become a better writer. If I don’t listen to what my readers have to say, I’ll never improve as a writer. I’ll stagnate. I don’t want that.

I’ve loved words and books for as long as I can remember. I want other people to love words and books as much as I do. The best way for me to be an effective evangelist for the written language is to become more proficient with it each passing week. And so I’ll continue to take classes, to read books (both good and bad), to write stories, and to listen to my editors. There’s no such thing as a perfect writer — but I want to be the best writer I can be.

1 Cody November 4, 2014 at 20:02

As long as you’re exploring, I’m going to re-recommend a book that you probably forgot about. It is simply written so it ends up being a quick and easy read, but I loved it!

http://www.amazon.com/Boys-Life-Robert-McCammon/dp/0671743058/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415159206&sr=8-1&keywords=boys+life

Three things I enjoyed:
1- He paints a beautiful picture of the magic of childhood imaginations. It’s a romantic, human story that celebrates innocent creativity.
2- He somehow made me feel nostalgic for a time from before I was born. It is set more in my father’s generation but I unexpectedly felt as though he was writing about MY childhood.
3- Since the story is such an advocate for imagination, I was unsure whether I was reading a science fiction story, or a re-telling of actual events flavored with a young boy’s embellishments.

Anyway, I hope I didn’t build it up too much, but I hope you enjoy it!

2 Dee November 5, 2014 at 06:32

Another inspiring good one J.D. :) …. your words could be applied to any number of other activities as well, such as creating art, playing music, or just about any creative or intellectual pursuit where the desire for improvement or curiosity to learn more about it drives one on… and keeps us interested and improving! Re-discovering something from your youth, something that you used to do just because you loved doing it, is a great way to uncover those long-hidden passions (“talents”) that we tend to forget all about as busy life and societal expectations take over…. your personal satisfaction clearly shines through in what you’ve written. Oh how I love a story with a happy ending! :))

3 Kate Burke November 5, 2014 at 08:26

I love the book Tikki Tikki Tembo! My children know that is my favorite book to read to them. Step over Step. Step over Step!

4 Kristi November 5, 2014 at 21:01

Ah, at last someone who references “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.” Loved that book.

5 Cody November 6, 2014 at 08:52

BTW- LMAO@ “a multi-part cliffhanger about Donald McRonald, a serial killer who poisoned people with fast-food hamburgers.”

I would pay real money to read this! ;-)

6 Jen November 7, 2014 at 12:54

My husband is an editor who worked for the NY Times and Washington Post all before age 30. I am a trying to get more serious with my writing. When I have him look at my work, I end up getting angry and defensive and think his suggestions are crazy and completely off. This, despite him being very kind with his words. I think I need to learn to be less “precious with my words.”

7 Kerry McQuaide November 11, 2014 at 06:03

The Great Brain series is one of my favorites! And I agree about always improving. Unlike all the physical things that will get harder with age, thinking and writing can improve so much over time.

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