Monday, February 8, 2010

The Written Word and Me

Since earlier than my earliest memories, my world has been enmeshed with the written word. 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 my 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 could 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, awkwardly trying to recreate Teacher’s examples on my paper with a very fat pencil held in a very unsteady hand. After mastering the basics of the craft, though, writing quickly became second nature. I started writing poems and stories in elementary school. By junior high school, I kept a journal containing quantities of poems and ponderous thoughts and in high school helped found a literary magazine to publish students’ work. I also wrote many songs for voice and guitar.
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 to do 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 craft of writing, which I was able to turn into a career as a freelance technical writer. The attraction of this career was the freedom afforded me as a single parent 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 are case studies, books, and opinionated articles because these give me the most creative latitude and are the least formally structured. They also take the most time because I cannot just crank out the words; they require more thought and creativity.
I don’t struggle with any aspect of writing itself, creative or not. I do, however, want and need to practice creative writing and hope to improve my skills though exercising them and receiving coaching and critique during this class. My biggest obstacle is setting aside time to write creatively. Now that I’m taking time off from technical writing, this should be easier because it won’t seem so much like a “busman’s holiday.”

*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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