On Writing

The urge to write has always lurked in the recesses of my brain, and at various times manifestited itself in different, even unusual, ways. My first writing outputs were of the write-on-command type. You know the kind. Five hundred words on the Ural River Valley, or an essay on the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. The subject, form, and length determined by someone else. I wrote because I was required to in order to satisfy some other requirement, such as a class assignment. Indeed, I got pretty good at it… not only for myself, but for others as well. I found I could knock out a paper on almost any topic (typed, double-spaced, with one carbon copy) at five bucks a page. Footnotes were extra. That may not seem like much, but then again it didn’t take much time, and very little thinking, and as a struggling college student, I needed the money.  BTW, it didn’t hurt that I was an enthusiastic, if not great, typist.

I didn’t write much during my time in the Army.  Hell, I didn’t even think very much.  One of my buddies was the head of the Officer Records Unit and, as such, had responsibility for awards and citations. One little known fact is that almost everyone who serves time in the military as an officer gets some kind of medal for something, whether or not it is deserved.  The key is finding someone who can write the request in the way and the vernacular the Army demands.  My buddy had been a football player in college, so you can understand why he needed help getting these things written using the militarily approved words and phrases which would virtually assure approval.  That’s where I came in.  I could, and did, pitch in to write Requests for Award that would almost certainly result in the approval of award for, say, a Good Conduct Medal.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t even charge for this writing (if you can call it that) service.

In the early years of my business life, the only writing I did was technical documentation of computer programs or systems.  This was truly a horrible experience.  If you have ever read any of this genre, you’ll agree that the only worse form of writing is that contained in small print in insurance polices or directions on how to set the time and date on a Japanese digital watch.

Thankfully, I wasn’t a very good technician so I was moved into sales and thereby my first introduction to writing fiction.  I guess it really wasn’t fiction except in the sense that very little written in most sales reports or proposals is fact based.  Ultimately I found myself in the lofty environs of the executive suite, and my writing began to take on a different, more serious form.  I was, for the first time, expected to communicate matters of some business import in a clear and concise way.  Something, which I was, at this point, wholly unprepared to do.  I wrote memoranda by the bushel, business letters, strategy documents, and assorted other matters of little consequence.  Remember now, this was in that long ago era before Twitter and even before email, and although Al Gore might not admit it, it was before the internet.  Stenographic ability was one of the primary attributes that I sought in hiring for my office.  Does anyone do shorthand anymore?  I guess you could call this writing from need.  It was part of the job.  I still have some of the letters I wrote during this period of my life, and they are indeed, perfect specimens of the ilk.  One of the principles of business writing, I was taught, was to avoid adjectives at all costs, and never, never allow a superlative the light of day.  Try writing anything without adjectives and see what you get.

Writing because I wanted to write came upon me slowly, and the urge tended to be stronger on a long airplane flight after a couple of glasses of wine.  I experimented with haiku on the fourteen-hour flights to Tokyo, and sonnets on the DFW-LHR run.  I even struggled to emulate e.e. cummings on my periodic coast-to-coasts.  Nothing quite stuck, although I still have some notebooks with evidence of my puerile efforts.  I tinkered with descriptive writing for a while.  You know, How to Pour a Root Beer Without the Fizz  Overflowing.  In vain, I tried character sketches.  Yikes!  And finally I wrote, ad nauseum, numerous, mostly boring, monologues about business meetings.  Yep.  A very odd subject, but that’s what I did then.  I attended business meetings.  Wow.  That had to be high on the list for the most uninteresting stuff ever written.  It was not fun to write and certainly wasn’t fun to read.  So you can see that my writing resume was more than a little spotty.

I had always traveled a lot.  Business and pleasure.  Alone, with colleagues or with family.  I usually kept a sort of travel journal.  Nothing formal, just notes on my observations and questions.  I still have them all, taking up most a shelf in my home office. But when Darling Wife S. and I undertook our long delayed trip to the Golden Triangle of India in January of 2007, I sought to memorialize my observations and to inform friends and family about our travels there.  I published a series of ten pieces about various aspects of this wonderful journey.  Frankly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing them, and delighted that they seemed to be appreciated by those who read them.  This reaction caused me to attempt my first non-travel blog in February of 2007.  At the time, I was using a standard piece of software from Apple, which only required that I select a template and start typing.  And type I did.  Only later did I migrate to the more sophisticated realm of Word Press, themes, and plug-ins.

As I now look at those early pieces, I can see that I was searching for a style that fit both my interests and capability.  It turned out that I loved the research required to write about a location or a subject of interest about which I knew little.  And it seemed my best and most interesting writing was not straight prose, but prose with a strong dose of satire with a lot of tongue-in-cheek.  I found that when I tried for humor, humor eluded me.  It only came when I wrote as I felt.  At one point I started to worry about grammar and sentence structure.  Perhaps the best writing advice I got was not to worry too much about split infinitives or beginning my sentences with a conjunction, but to write more or less as I spoke.  I also developed some of my own rules.  Always double-check sources.  The tendency today is to rely solely on Wikipedia or other such web-based, free-content, collaborative sources.  Unfortunately, I found they could be wrong or misleading too.  I also became a stickler on attribution.  Oddly, it’s okay to steal someone’s idea, but you just can’t steal their words.

I’ve wondered if I could write if I had too.  You know, to earn a living.  I doubt it.  I write because it gives me pleasure. I love the process of winnowing ideas to find the ones I want to write about.   I love the research to get my facts. I enjoy the struggle to present the facts in an orderly, but interesting way.  I love setting the historical context.  And finally I love the idea that I’m communicating with people who may or may not know me, or I them, about things that have meaning to me.

And finally, I think, I love to write because it is a time-tested way to leave a personal record of what I thought about and how I thought about it.  Those of us in the final quarter (if not the two minute drill) of our lives, often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy seeking to rationalize our existence.  To justify our time on this planet.  For me, writing is the perfect remedy.

I think I’ll start on another blog right now.

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