How I Became a Writer
In which a journalist gets his own story wrong
March 24, 1978
I am appalled to be reminded how easily I resorted in this piece to cliches about boyhood, the more so since the boyhood they described was not mine. I wish to set the record straight. “Like most students, I produced many works of fiction for the classroom, most of them term papers on subjects I hadn’t the time to properly research [and]reviews of books I’d never read . . . .” The journalist in me is offended by this casual allegation of lying in print, which I never did about anything other than myself. Or that I wrote “essays about how I spent my summer vacation from which I left out all the good stuff for fear it might get back to my parents.” I only wish I had I spent a summer vacation doing things I feared might get back to my parents; in reality, I never dared.
The bit about Julius Caesar on the dock is true, though.
Now that I am old enough to be considered a model for the younger generation, I occasionally am asked, how I came to be a writer. I'm asked the question often enough to have a stock answer—“Because I failed at everything else that required more talent than writing"—which is, like the biographies of most writers, only half true.
I certainly did not intend to become a writer when I was a boy. My parents expressed no firm preferences about how I might make my future living, so long as I didn't try to shoot the President or run for public office or do something else that might shame the family name. Given so wide a range of choices, I suffered an understandable confusion over the career question. The family, only a few years off the farm, did not envision a future for any of their children so grand that it would require more than a bachelor's degree from a state university, so medicine and the law were out. I thought for a while about becoming an astronaut, but I didn’t like crewcuts, The only things I did well as a child were walking fences, riding a bike, and taking orders from adults—a combination I now realize qualified me for a career as a Wehrmacht acrobat and not much else. I got good grades, but only because I kept my mouth shut and didn’t throw things at the teacher, good grades being then as now the agreed-upon reward for passivity in the face of age and a stout wooden paddle.
I did not then wish to be a writer. Well into my adolescence I flirted with the notion of becoming an engineer, but I can't remember why. Everything that one must be good at to be one—math, applied science—I was not good at. The father of a friend of mine heard of the choice, and with a patience I only later appreciated quietly expressed doubt as to the rightness of it. What he really wanted to say. of course, was that engineering w as a stupid choice for someone of my gifts, but he was willing to let me see that for myself, which, in time, I did.
Still, I suffered through a great many upper-level math and science courses in high school before deciding that my future lay elsewhere. The turning point came when we were asked to compute the force with which a rubber ball, dropped from a height of three feet, struck the table beneath it. The exercise struck me distinctly as one of the angels-on-a-pin variety, and with it came the realization that even the most sublime of engineering achievements—a bridge, a moon flight, a set of false teeth—are merely the result, figuratively speaking, of thousands of rubber balls bouncing on thousands of tabletops.
I can't remember when I was first praised for writing. My penmanship got good marks in my early years (it has deteriorated considerably since) and for awhile I thought writing and penmanship were the same thing—a mistake also made by many English teachers. Later, like most students, I produced many works of fiction for the classroom, most of them term papers on subjects I hadn’t the time to properly research. These were in addition to the reviews of books I’d never read and essays about how I spent my summer vacation from which I left out all the good stuff for fear it might get back to my parents. I understood even then why English teachers, more perhaps than any teachers, need the summer off.
The rest of my family regarded books the way some people regard flu shots, being something you did not for plessure but because it was good for you. I enjoyed reading them, though, but like most kids gave no thought to how or by whom they came to be produced. Later I was escorted through the then-basic repertory—Dickens, Shakespeare. Scott. Twain. Hawthorne, others—by a succession of teachers. They were the best the system had to offer, put in charge of upper-level English courses where for an hour a day they could spend more time on teaching and less on guard duty. Their names were Rappel. Body, Leslie, Lott—future biographers, please note—and I owe them the fact that they didn't kill a blooming affection for the language. [That is ungenerous; I apologize to them all.]
The question of when I decided to become a writer is easier to answer than why. I think it was during the summer after I graduated, when I lay sprawled on a dock off Forest Park at Lake Springfield trying to read Julius Caesar with sweat dripping into my eyes, dripping even off the end of my nose onto the pages,, on a bright, squinty day that for all its brightness and warmth failed to illuminate the dark ambitions laid out tor me in the play, or to keep cold chills from running down my back.
It was then (or so I recall) that I first looked at works not just as bearers of information or makers of sounds or players of parts but as all three together, as language, as art. I don't mean to say that I sprang to my feet, dizzy with the sun and full of resolve to beat the poet at his own game. Nothing so melodramatic. I mean only that from that day I looked at words a little differently than I had before, and wit measurably more respect for their potential. It still left me a long way from being a writer. But it was as good a start as any kid could hope for. Or deserve. □