I grew up at a time and in a rural place where the communication via the written word was not valued nor taught.
I can’t ever remember being assigned an essay, asked to write a poem, or even being required to take an essay-type test.
Our only writing requirement in high school was writing six 50-word book reports during our senior year.
What I learned about writing I learned from reading. From the moment I read my first book that went beyond the doggerel of toddler’s books, I was hooked, reading everything and anything I could find. I was the town and later the high school librarians’ favorite. The idea of being able to immerse myself in a story of pirates or horses or whatever was available was manna from heaven for me.
At Ohio University, freshman composition was my downfall and my salvation. I’d read all those books so I must know how to put words together on paper. My lack of the basics of writing, let alone my understanding of the magic of expressing yourself as authors did in the books I read was horribly apparent. I struggled through the two semesters until we received one “creative” writing assignment and for the first time, the professor called me into her office to give me some small praise for my effort.
In my sophomore year I took a short story writing course and, although I still struggled, I could see progress and fell in love with the idea, at least, of being able to tell stories like those I’d read. Fortunately, due to the kindness of my professor, I was encouraged. If he had told me how awful my really stories were, I would have quit then. I tried a journalism course and once again my lack of the basics stymied me. But at the same time I discovered real literature and began to devour books with more substance.
On a whim that only a 19-year-old would understand, I pulled up stakes at the end of my sophomore year and headed for California, based on a rumor among the writing nerds I hung out with that there was a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was a genius at teaching people to write poetry. I never found that professor.
This was the 1950’s pre-hippie Beatnik Berkeley and I got a room in the midst of the “scene.” I quickly ran into the realities of an intellectually stringent school and although UC admitted me (California at that time had open enrollment. Can you imagine?), my barely passing grade in composition was unacceptable and had to be retaken.
That’s when I learned to write. My ego still burns when I think of that professor. He minced no words and insisted on a disciplined, logical approach. I hated him, sweated and learned the basics. I also began writing more and, I think, better stories. There was much that was phony and wrong about the beatniks, but I have fond memories of the creative writers who took me under their wings and added creative writing skills to the exposition skills I was learning in my courses.
My next lessons in writing came in the US Army, joined when school savings and jobs dried up. Shipped east, I became the post newspaper editor for a small post outside of Washington, DC. More a four-page newsletter than a real newspaper, I was responsible for every word, every week. It gave me the kind of experience I needed in meeting deadlines and turning out copy whether I “felt like it” or not. In my spare time, I continued to write fiction and took creative writing courses at George Washington University in Washington.
By the time I finished with my three-year military tour and a year back at Ohio University to graduate with a BA in English Literature, I had determined my path: Obtain a master’s degree and combine teaching with working toward becoming “The Great American Novelist.”
Reality again intervened.
By the time I finished all my requirements for my MA at George Washington University, I was working in The Pentagon as speechwriter for four generals and during my job search for a teaching position, learned I would have to take a 50% pay cut to obtain an entry level college teaching position. With a wife and child that was out of the question, so for the next forty years although I was a writer as a journalist and public relations counselor, my dream of making my living as a writer of stories was pushed into the background.
My stories where in the background, but they never died. I continued to write during those years--a novel, poetry and some short stories. And what I couldn’t write I recited to my kids. They still remember the bedtime stories I weaved of my exploits and even believe some of them actually happened.
I think the greatest thing I learned about writing during those years was the joy of telling or writing stories for its own sake. I spent every workday turning out copy for others. It gave me a great appreciation for the luxury of simply spinning a story or a poem for my own enjoyment without expectations of gain or accolade.
That was my main goal when I retired at 67 years old, nearly 16 years ago. During that time I learned the craft of writing fiction through seminars and courses, but mainly through the people who have made up the Downers Grove Writers Workshop. My sounding board and audience through two novels and numerous short stories and poems, they helped me fulfill my dream of becoming a fulltime story-teller, even if the audience is measured in the dozens rather than the millions I had hoped for when I was young and foolish.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “…The play’s the thing,” to bring out the truth. I say “the stories’ king,” and I don’t think Shakespeare would disagree.
Larry lives in Downers Grove with his wife, Carole and various foster dogs. He has three grown children who have produced five Grandchildren for him to brag about and spoil. He retired fifteen years ago and has been a member of DGWW for most of that time producing two novels and numerous poems and short stories.
The Writing Pond Blog is home of The Downers Grove Writers Workshop. It is a compilation of members contributions. We love to write and writing about writing is one of the many ways in which we help to each other to become better and more consistent in the craft.