God has given my wife and I a really wonderful and fulfilling ministry with young adults, both at our church, Elim, and beyond. (I’ll share more about that later in a different post.) We’ve engaged with many who are writers or who want to be writers and so they frequently seek my advice. And the first thing I tell them is: “In order to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader.”
When I think about my life as a writer, I trace its beginnings to a time in the first grade, back in Sylmar, California, when I fell in love with reading. I have a very distinct memory of sitting on a comfortable chair in our home one evening, and staring at a book. I’m sure it was some sort of starter children’s book, and while I am a great fan of many children’s books, I don’t now recall exactly which one it was. But I do recall staring at the pages and sounding out the words and trying hard as I might to “figure out” what reading was really all about.
In a sense I felt like Arthur, standing before the sword in the stone. If you could somehow figure out how to pull it out, somehow great magic would occur. But, like any person learning to read, for the moment I was stuck trying to figure out what the individual words were.
But, I had worked at it, and worked at it, and was starting to recognize many. And suddenly, as if a switch was thrown, I realized the reason behind the rhyme, and the individual words began to flow into sentences that made sense. And lo and behold, all of a sudden, I was READING! And like Excalibur pulled from the stone, the book came alive with hope and promise and meaning. New worlds suddenly lay open before me!
That book was the first of hundreds. As a child, reading became more important to me than almost anything else. I spent hours and hours discovering new books, of increasing difficulty. My favorite genre quickly became science fiction. I have always had a wild imagination and could find myself easily transported (with the help of a skilled writer) into worlds with limitless possibilities. Science fiction was about an exciting new future, limitless frontiers brimming with both danger and hope. I spent thousands of hours absorbed in books, ignoring TV most of the time. While others my age were mindlessly staring at “Felix the Cat” or “Gilligan’s Island,” I was contemplating the three laws of robotics via Isaac Asimov.
Writing as a tactile activity
In the eighth grade, I was required to take a typing class, so I learned to type. I achieved an accurate word-per-minute count of approximately 45 by the end of that class. I realize now how important that was in my education as a writer. By learning to 10-finger touch type correctly, I removed limits to increasing my speed. (I’m a little sad that this doesn’t really seem to be the case nowadays; more young people know how to write fast texts with their thumbs, which I can’t do AT ALL, than they do how to 10-finger touch type the right way on a keyboard.)
I volunteered for our local fire department in Norco as an Explorer Scout, and as one of the few people who enjoyed typing and could do it well, they put me to work typing reports. This helped me in several ways: It increased my speed and accuracy, gave me a flavor for the scope of what the fire department did, endeared me to its management, and also distracted me from doing what other volunteers and firefighters were doing: sitting around the station wasting time (or worse) watching TV or looking at Playboy magazines, while waiting for the alarm to ring. It also occasionally got me out of having to scrub down the equipment that returned after each call.
By the time I reached college my speed had increased to more than 80 wpm. Then once I was at Biola, realizing I could make some money with my skill, I purchased a used IBM Selectric typewriter and began typing academic papers and later resumes for other students. Eventually I ended up working with the giant typesetting machines (film-based) that printed out the galleys for our student newspaper. As a result of all this, I was able to increase my accurate speed to about 115 words per minute. Charging at least $2.50 per typed page for academic reports, that meant I could type at least 5 or 6 pages per hour and make well over $10 per hour, which at the time was way above minimum wage. I also charged $10 or more for a resume, which usually included some general advice about how to put it together. It worked for me.
The other benefit of learning how to type quickly was that it made writing much more of an organic process for me. I could get my thoughts out on paper nearly as quickly as they occurred, without having to worry about the mechanics of how to capture them. When I type, I don’t even think about what my fingers are doing … if you’re sitting with me in a meeting listening to a speaker, or at church during a sermon, you may sometimes see my fingers twitching slightly. What I’m doing is a little practice, typing out the words that I’m hearing. I usually can’t quite keep up with the speed at which most people speak, unless they speak more slowly; but it’s good practice.
The rub of course is that you have to go back over what you’ve written and refine it, over and over. When I wrote my first novel, I counted 14 rewrites. And even now that it’s “out there” on Amazon Kindle, I’m still finding simple mistakes! I wish I had the skill of a John Bunyan, who wrote the brilliant Pilgrim’s Progress all in one pass (supposedly no rewrites) while sitting in prison. And I’m sure he didn’t use an IBM Selectric, either!
Try as I might, I’m also not a quiet typist. I have a reputation for “pounding” the keyboard, and I’ve worn out many. My colleagues used to tell me they knew I was in my office well before they reached it, because they could hear the loud clack of the keyboard. (Me, I don’t even hear it!)
I think all this typing has had an interesting effect on my brain throughout the years: it’s made me a tactile learner. What I mean by that is, if I want to recall something, I don’t listen to it over and over, or even read it over and over: I type it. My memory is not very good in general, as my wife can attest; but having typed thousands of resumes and papers I’m always surprised at what details I can recall about what I’ve typed. In meetings, I am most effective when I bring a laptop and take notes on it; I am most likely to remember what is discussed that way. (Which used to created frustration with many managers who assume you are working on your email and not paying attention if you are typing during a meeting! More than once I was ordered to put away my laptop, which effectively restricted my ability to recall what transpired in that meeting afterward.)
Even now, if I want to memorize Scripture, I will type it out. If I want to compile and remember a list, I will type it out. If I want to organize my thoughts on a certain topic, I will type out an email about it, addressed to myself, then file it away forever or even delete it.
How my first experience as a writer changed me
I know some people desire to write from an early age. That wasn’t me. I just loved to read. My mother was the one who, about the time I began high school, somehow perceived in me a talent for writing and began pushing me to exercise and hone it. At first I resisted. I really did not have much interest in writing. Why bother writing, when there is so much good stuff to read out there?
But eventually I relented, more to get my mom off my back than anything else. She was quite persistent! She loved the Reader’s Digest (to my shame, I read many editions of this rag when a youngster) and also Guideposts Magazine, which is in the same vein as what might be referred to as the “populist/inspirational” category of faith-based publications. Guideposts had a “Youth Writing Contest” each year and she began urging me (over and over again) to write and submit an article.
I think it was the summer after my junior year when Darlene and I, who were very newly involved at that time, volunteered with our church to be junior high camp counselors at “Teepee Town” camp near Big Bear Lake in Southern California. I had such an interesting experience there (“interesting” = both traumatic and fulfilling) that I decided I could probably write something about it. I titled the article “Accident Prone” and submitted it to the Guideposts Youth Writing Contest.
To my surprise, Guideposts liked it and gave it one of their Youth Writing awards during my senior year, 1975. They retitled it “The Trials of Leaping Lizard” (which I realize was a much better title, illustrating every writer’s need for a good editor), and even had an artist create a fanciful illustration for the article, which I have used as the feature illustration for this blog. (I’ll spare you the plot details, but in case you’re interested, you can read the article on my personal website, here. At the end there’s a very cool picture of me as a long-haired teenager. It makes me laugh now, but just let me say that I was quite impressed by the female fan mail I received after the magazine went to press.)
Guideposts paid me $525 for this article, which was an astounding sum at the time, and probably more than I’ve ever been paid per-word for anything I’ve written since. The experience of having this article published convinced me of two things that instantly made me want to become a writer:
- I could surely make some decent money at this. And,
- It was a great way to get girls.
Of course the second reason was a moot point, since I already had the girl of my dreams at this point in my life (more about that in the next blog); but one can’t really discount the impact of such strokes to one’s ego when one is considering a career.
Writing my way through Biola
A third benefit to learning how to write well, I discovered, was that it gave me an innate ability to (pardon my English here) BS my way through some of the more difficult subjects at Biola. I learned to take classes where the preferred testing methodology was a final paper rather than an exam. I learned I could convincingly make a case even when I didn’t really know enough about a subject to pass a test about it. I impressed professors by turning in a 50-page paper where a 10-pager was what was requested (yes, that actually happened). I reasonably assumed they might be too busy to read all the way through, and would therefore gather from the sheer bulk of my words and the way I wielded them I must at some point know what I was talking about.
This doesn’t work for all classes, of course. The wiser professors put maximum word caps on their papers. And I still had to take a lot of exams. I didn’t have the patience or the skill to do the usual memorization and cramming that other students did, but I discovered that even if I neglected to attend or take notes in a specific class, as long as I could borrow notes from someone who did (like Darlene) and type them up for her, I then could get a reasonably good grasp on the material and could do okay on the test even if I hadn’t faithfully attended or listened in class. Actually, in some classes that Darlene and I shared, I did a little better on the tests than she did as a result of using her notes to study before a test, which naturally infuriated her.
However, I must confess that Darlene did work a lot harder at her major (nursing) than I did at mine (communication), and as a result she both got a higher GPA than I did, in the end, and more quickly got a better and higher-paying job than I did after we graduated. So justice was served, I guess.
The Third R
In case you’re wondering, and in closing, I should say I’ve never been terribly fond at Arithmetic, although I think I grasp the basics and actually scored more highly (to my great surprise) in the subject, on my SATs after high school, than I scored on English.
I do use the third R. I’m pretty much in charge of the family finances, and I learned some basic computer programming while conducting my consulting business in my late 20s. Yes, I know what a Boolean Operator is. I’ve recently learned to respect Excel and its spreadsheets as a result of being forced to do analytics in my most recent job. I say “respect” because I didn’t really enjoy the process. What I enjoy is words!
Next blog: The story of my love life!