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Writing Lessons

February 19, 2005

Writing, to me, is like riding a bicycle. The only way I learned was by headlong launches punctuated by curse-muttered fallings and bruised ego.

By some cosmic twist of fate, I’m now teaching news writing. By dint of persistent pedaling between crashes, I’m miraculously a professional writer. But my memory banks still flare in embarrassment over many episodes of falling on my face, pen or typewriter in hand…such as the hand-lettered Valentine card to a fellow fifth-grader…the novel that self-destructed…the short stories that unraveled into lost threads of yarn…

Besides getting entangled in florid style and wayward organization, I never fully got the hang of the fearsome rules of grammar. Maybe that’s why, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a soldier: I could always shoot my way out of a linguistic jam.

But while soldiering in Vietnam, I got an itch to describe what was happening around me. It took years of cursing to figure out how to concisely convey my view of that bizarre epic. In the end, the blockbuster book I aimed to write emerged as glass shards of poetry. Along the way, however, I mastered the persnickety vehicle of writing.

A breakthrough was figuring out where and how to start telling a story—in the middle of the action? With an historical event foreshadowing the action? With a quote, or a dramatic scene?

It dawned on me that newspaper reporters wrote fascinating stories day after day. So I got a job at a newspaper to learn that discipline. That was nearly 30 years and scores of bylined articles ago. It’s been one hell of a ride.

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