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.