Why Am I a Writer? (Part Deux)

So, why am I a writer? In introducing this question in my previous post, I made two points: (1) by “Writer,” we usually mean someone who writes books for the purpose of getting published, and (2) although that is certainly true for me the over-riding reason why I write is that I simply enjoy writing—very much so, as a matter of fact. But as I also said, most of my writing during my career years was of a technical nature. It wasn’t until retirement that I got into “real” writing. How’d that happen, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.

It was much like a story I read recently about a youngish man who had become a published poet. I don’t remember his name, but he said that because he was a sickly child, and spent a lot of time in the presence of pediatricians, he decided he wanted to go into medicine. So, he got himself into medical school, where he had to take an anatomy class. After the third time of fainting during some of the stuff they had to do on cadavers, he got tired of dropping to the floor and dropped the class.

In looking for a replacement class, curiosity got the best of him and he joined a poetry class. The first assignment was for the class to write a poem, which the professor planned to distribute to other classmates to read and appraise. He had written his poem, and was waiting in class for his review. A girl came in, sat next to him, and began to gush over how much she liked his poem. Soon, another girl sat down next to him and did the same and others joined in the praise. “And that,” he said, “is how I became a poet.” Praise will do that to you.

I’ve known since high school that I can write well. I know my subjects from my predicates and have a decent vocabulary. My papers in school always received good grades and my technical articles were well received. But college girls don’t gush over “The Role of Airport Surveillance Radar in Weather Avoidance.” By the time I had left the technical arena behind me, I began to feel a need to be more creative, more personal, in my writing.

During the latter years of my business career I had taken to writing in a journal (I mean real writing, with a fountain pen and ink, on paper). But as time passed, an itch began to develop to do some creative writing—something, anything, just to see if I could express myself the way I would read in Steinbeck, or Fitzgerald or Hemmingway. As I attempted to scratch that itch, a strange scene came to mind. Where it came from, I have no idea. That’s a topic for later.

In this mental image, I saw an old man sitting alone at a crude wooden table in a run-down, nineteenth-century tavern. The man looks beat down, defeated. As the cowboys say, he looked like he’d been “rode hard and put away wet.” There’s an anemic fire in a nearby fireplace. As a creative-writing challenge to myself, I decided to try to describe that scene the way it might appear in a novel written by some of the well known authors I had always admired.

It didn’t go well, at first. I would write well-crafted sentences, read the result and think, This just doesn’t seem like the way Steinbeck or Hemmingway would write it. What’s wrong, what’s different? Over many drafts, the imagery improved. I had a much better picture of the tavern and the context. But still—it just wasn’t interesting. It didn’t grab me.

Finally, it hit me. In a talk to the TED group, Oscar-winning filmmaker Andrew Stanton told the audience that if you want to write a good story, “Make me care! Make me care about your character, make me care what happens.” I finished reading yet another technically well-crafted draft and realized, “I don’t care why the old man is there, or why he is so despondent. I don’t even know him. Why should I care about him?”

I knew then what was wrong with my writing. Until the reader knew something about that old man, why he was so disconsolate and lonely, why he looked so defeated, there was no story. I had to make the reader care. Stanton added, “Story telling is like joke telling. You have to know your punch line.” He went on to say there should be some “truth” to your story, something that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings. And that was my fundamental problem with my creative writing experiment. There was no story, no punch line, no reason for the reader to be interested. If I wanted to be creative, I had to create a story. That old man had to come alive in my pages.

And that’s when my first novel, The Old Man, was given birth.

There will be more about creating The Old Man in future posts. But suffice here to say that after completing the story, Orwell’s “sheer egoism” got hold of me. I wanted to see it in print, so paid to have a so-called vanity press publish it for me. I gave copies to several friends, and nervously awaited their response. In not long, I began to receive very flattering—gushing, even, in one or two cases—praise for my “sweet love story.” And that is how I became a writer.

PS: I have recently cancelled the contract with iUniverse, and am in the process of re-releasing The Old Man under Del Hayes Press. It won’t be available for ordering for a bit, until I can get that all done. I’ll post when it’s available.

Why Am I a Writer? (Part 1)

Why am I a writer? Interesting question, that. Probably a little like asking why I went into engineering, or am obsessed with flying and airplanes. George Orwell, author of  1984, his disturbing look into the future that has become a disturbing assessment of the present, said he knew by the age of five that he wanted to be a writer. I can barely remember being five, so I can’t make that claim. He also claimed, in his 1946 essay Why I Write, there are four reasons why people are motivated to write: (1) sheer egoism, (2) aesthetic enthusiasm, (3) historical impulse and (4) political purpose. I imagine we can all relate to reason number one, but the others require some navel gazing.

As is often said, words have meaning and the most challenging part of answering my title question is the meaning of the term “writer.” A person who paints, we call a “painter.” One who plumbs, we call a “plumber.” I write—quite a lot, actually—so I guess that would make me a writer (in truth, few of us “write” nowadays—to be literally correct, we are all “typers”). But I don’t know if I would claim to be a “Writer,” with capital W. That is, one whose motivation is to be successful at selling what he writes, and presumably to make a living doing so. My observation is that most of the people who say they are, or are attempting to become, a “writer” mean by that they are or hope to be successful at getting published and selling their books.

I confess to being subject to Orwell’s “sheer egoism” when it comes to my books. Of course I would be ecstatic if they sold by the jillions and made me disgustingly rich. I would also be ecstatic if I lived to be a hundred and retained the body of a thirty-year-old. But none of that answers my question. That answer, I believe, was stated most simply, and best, by a comment I read in a blog post by Jimmie A. Kepler where he stated “I’m a writer because I enjoy writing.”

And that’s pretty much it. I write because I enjoy writing. I can’t remember a time when writing didn’t interest me (when I was old enough to remember much of anything, that is). In high school I entertained the notion for a while of following in my favorite uncle’s footsteps, and going into journalism for a career. But I enjoyed my math classes more than I did my English classes, and engineering won out for a career. The closest I came to journalism was to author a “Moments to Remember” piece that was published with our Yearbook when I graduated from Iola Junior College.

Even in the arcane world of engineering, my interest in writing was evident. At Bell Labs, my first job out of college, I published two technical papers. At Texas Instruments, we had to win all our government business by submitting huge, multi-volume technical proposals showing why we were best in the business. My talent for writing became quickly evident to my bosses, and I soon became responsible for creating those proposals. That involved a lot of technical writing, but it also involved editing (where we would “cut and paste” with scissors and Scotch tape). We published our proposals internally, so I also got a lot of experience at layout, printing and the merciless master of a drop-dead due date. And, along the way,  I also published some more technical articles.

Still, little of that is what people have in mind when they talk about being a writer. Real “Writers” have their names on the front of books. For me, that came much later, as I was approaching retirement age. How that came about, what lead to my first novel and how I decided to get into self-publishing are all the subject of future posts.


Missing Mrs. Miniver

 I miss Mrs. Miniver. She was much older than I. In truth, I didn’t come to know how much I missed her until many years after her passing. Mrs. Miniver was the movie, released in 1942, that won the Academy Award for Greer Garson, who played the title role. I was six years old when the movie was released. I was seventy one when Colleen and I watched it for the first time. Now that I have come to know Mrs. Miniver, I have become acutely aware of how much I miss her.

Mrs. Miniver was a simple, yet profound movie. The movie was profound, in the way it portrayed the quiet courage, resolve and character of the British people, and of the Miniver family, as they were drawn into the maelstrom of Britain’s desperate struggle to survive Hitler’s bombs during the crisis months of 1940. The movie was simple, in that it was done in black and white, relying on light and shadow and the skills of talented actors to play on our every emotion. The hell of war was shown us not by violent battle scenes, but by the emotions evident on the faces of the people who were living it. The physical realities of war, the bombs, blood and destruction, were largely unseen. Few special effects were available to a movie director in 1942, and few were required. We understood well what was happening. Graphic scenes would have been less painful than the look in the eyes of Mrs. Miniver as her life as she had known it was being destroyed.

I miss Mrs. Miniver, the movie, for what has been lost as movie making has substituted dramatic special effects for drama. We knew that Vincent Miniver, the twenty-year-old son who in a matter of weeks was transformed from idealistic Oxford student to embattled RAF fighter pilot, was facing death each time he took to the air to combat the overwhelming Luftwaffe. But we never once saw him in his Spitfire.

We knew the middle-aged, successful architect, Mr. Miniver, was courageous. We saw him leave his upscale English home in his small cabin cruiser, joining dozens, then hundreds, of his fellow citizens to help rescue the hundreds of thousand of soldiers facing annihilation on the beaches of Dunkirk. For five days they made countless trips across the forty miles of open sea in the English Channel, under the guns of the German armies and aircraft, ferrying those soldiers home in boats intended for leisurely cruising about on inland waterways. But we only saw him leave, then return to his home and wife, bone-weary and his lovely boat smoked and damaged. We didn’t see the epic rescues, or need to. Our imagination painted the pictures for us in vivid detail. We knew what he must have braved, and endured.

We saw Mrs. Miniver stare out a window at outnumbered British fighter planes climbing to join the battle, knowing that some of those planes would not return and that one of those pilots was her son. We saw her, with her husband and two small children, cringing in a makeshift bomb shelter as her beautiful home was heavily damaged by enemy bombs. And we saw her cradle her daughter-in-law of two weeks in her arms, watching helplessly as life drained from her young body after being hit by the bullets of an enemy plane. The irony of her son surviving combat with those enemy planes, while his new bride lay dying from a stray bullet from one of them, was as stark as the black and white of the film. We saw Mrs. Miniver melt the iron heart of the aristocratic mother-in-law. We saw the smile in Mrs. Miniver’s eyes as a friend named his prize-winning rose for her.

That’s what we saw. What we did not see was gratuitous violence shown only because technology makes it possible. We knew Mr. and Mrs. Miniver loved each other. We saw that in the way they looked at each other, and in the quiet way they smiled and talked and strengthened each other. We did not see them in bed together, nor was there a reason to. We  did not hear a profane word. We did not have to cringe at the “f-word.” We did not hear expletives fill the air as Mr. and Mrs. Miniver stumbled over the bombed shambles of their once-glorious home.

That’s why I miss Mrs. Miniver. I miss movies that end with me feeling uplifted, and not in the need of a shower. I miss adult conversation not laced with vulgarity. I miss movies where we can know that two people love each other by the look in their eyes, by the way they act, and by the way they talk to each other. I do not need to be a spectator to more than that. I miss movies that don’t insult me with banality, where everybody over age twenty behaved as an adult.

In 1942, when I was six years old, that movie depicted my world. It was a world where adults would have been mortified to be seen in public not appropriately dressed, where “please” and “thank you” were commonly heard, and swearing was not. It was a  world where every failing of human nature was as present as it is today, but those failings were not paraded or celebrated in public. As I grew, the grown-ups in my world guided me, educated me, corrected me and set examples for me. Theirs was a world I wanted to join, but I had to first earn the right to do so. I wish that I could know Mrs. Miniver again.