Monday, February 8, 2010

The Written Word and Me

Since my earliest memories, I've been an avid reader. I've  I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t – didn’t – read voraciously, insatiably, and almost constantly. Writing came as a natural offshoot of this involvement with words, and while it didn’t begin with the same intensity as reading, it became the centerpiece of my professional life as an adult.
As a child you might catch me reading anytime, anyplace: in class while Teacher was talking, at the dinner table, book hidden on my lap (I was forbidden to read at the table), in bed with a flashlight under the covers -- stories, poems, encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspapers, comic books. Two favorite books were Mother Westwind How Stories and Tanglewood Tales. By fifth grade, I’d read every book in the school library and every child’s book in my local library, and consequently began sneaking (not lying, but not telling the truth about exactly which library was my destination) on my bike to the Elliott Creek Library five miles away.
By seventh grade, every birthday and Christmas included a gift of the biggest and fattest book that a parent or sibling could find. Consequently, I read some rather “adultish” books as a young adolescent, including Hawaii by James Michener and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. As an adolescent, my habit expanded to include both literature and some not-so-literary fiction, along with books on all manner of topics such as philosophy, history, music, art, and physics. Adult fictional favorites are Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, all of Charles Dickens, and nearly all of Ivan Doig. These authors are masters of description, and I find myself reading favorite passages over and over again, in awe of the creative intellect behind the words. The Path of Least Resistance, by Hans Fritz and various historical biographies are top non-fiction choices.
Unlike reading, I do remember the arduous process of learning to form letters and words with pencil and paper, awkwardly trying to recreate Teacher’s examples with a very fat writing instrument held in a very unsteady hand. After mastering the basics of the craft, though, writing quickly became second nature. In elementary school I began writing poems and stories. By junior high school, I kept a journal of of poems and ponderous thoughts. In high school I helped found a literary magazine of students’ work. I also wrote many songs.
Then came college. It did not occur to me to major in English, and I managed to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree without having taken a single English or writing class. To my mind, the purpose of college to the study difficult and obscure things, such as philosophy and physics, not what came easily and naturally.  In the years following college I often found myself with writing assignments at work: letters; newsletters; articles; business plans, marketing pieces, and so forth. This gave me a lot of practice in the writing craft, which I turned into a career as a freelance technical writer. The attraction of this career was the freedom to accommodate the needs of my children, with a flexible schedule and the ability to work at home.
As a technical writer, I’ve turned out product documentation, book chapters, articles, white papers, technical specifications, marketing collateral, business plans and proposals, presentations, and case studies – publishing a total of two or three million words over 18 years. My favorite types of technical writing is case studies, books, and opinionated articles because these give me the most creative latitude and are the least structured. They also take the most time because I cannot just crank out the words; they require more thought and creativity.
Now I hope to spend much more time writing creatively, and not about business or technology, hence this blog.
*As a post script, Jim Molnar, the writing instructor who gave me the assignment to write this piece in my creative nonfiction writing class last year, encouraged everyone in the class to start a blog. I wrote in this for a couple of months initially, and now and committed to posting regularly.

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