I look back on 51 years of writing for publication and search for that crucial moment when I could claim it as my life’s trade. When does a writer become one who is destined for the long haul? Early in my school days, I emerged as a student who creatively expressed himself in writing. I took extra pride in taking the assigned spelling words and blending them into thoughtfully crafted sentences: “Journey – The French trapper’s journey took him to river valleys with wildlife he had never seen before.”
Nascent writing must be complemented by the nourishment of lots of reading, lots of grasping how others have configured their words to produce compelling thoughts in print. Once I got the hang of reading, I devoured the Landmark children history series of books, and I took pride in getting a county superintendent awards certificate for my reading 40 books during third grade. It propelled me into a student who found reading, writing and conjuring all one discipline.
My successes as a high school newspaper editor, with an attitude, and later as a college newspaper writer and founding editor of a campus magazine gave a kind of bravado and confidence that would permeate much of my writing in the decades that followed. I believe a certain fearless insolence and audacity serve writing well.
Recently, I pulled out and reread a 7,000-word, self-analysis and autobiographical term paper I wrote in my senior year for a courtship and marriage class in October 1967 at Iowa State University where I would earn a bachelor’s degree in journalism seven months later. The instructor gave a grade of “99.” Among her written comments were: “Your writing style is wonderful.” I have never written anything more brash and candid before or since. The assignment was to take as many pages as needed to pry into one’s mind, heart and soul. Do it with candor and without restraint. Illuminate shortcomings and good traits. It was intended for only the writer and the instructor. We drew a number and taped it to the paper, so the teacher didn’t know the student writing it until after it was read and graded. I named myself, “Woody,” for the exercise.
I was 21, founding president of a 2,400-man residence hall system and back from a summer in Uruguay where I had fallen head over heels for a beautiful young lady named Nahir. I did not mention her in the term paper, but instead voiced my deepest longings for a relationship. With graduation in sight, I felt fulfilled and ready for the world.
Now 47 years later, I am amazed how much my self-examination defined my core and how well that has held up. In the introduction, I had noted, “There will be a time in the untold future when the writer will wish to look back to his sketch in these ‘backward times’ and find out how he got to be like he is.” I used a device of putting Woody on the side of the road hitchhiking — seeking to catch a ride through life with the ideal woman whom I would over-describe. Some of the text: “At this moment, I’m free, white and 21. Moreover, I’m an American, a well-fed twentieth century citizen and a free-thinking student … The globe is my stomping grounds … Previous success is my business card. Only death is my impediment. … I don’t worry. Maybe I should, but needless to say, then, self-confidence is a pillar of my personality. I’ve gradually cultivated this into a culminating realization that I have worth in this society to which I contribute my love, labor and ideas.”
And so it went for 14 pages of 8-point Roman type. I reflected on my parents’ rearing skills, my siblings, the paucity of sex education I had gotten, my early interest in politics, an organization skill teamed with a strong work ethic, my senior yearbook that tagged me as “student council, comprehensive cogitator, college-bound, assiduous” and how I wrote the class’ theme: “Success docks at the port of effort.”
When I completed that term paper, I felt, in every way, special and destined. I had my manifesto for life.
My point: Words, when acquired early through robust reading, foster the power of compelling writing. The facility of effective writing comes as an extension of thought. Confidence to harness words’ power feeds a writer’s self-worth. There will always be a mystery as to why the mind conjures that next word to place in the sentence to further enrich the unfolding message. The writer should be excited always to learn what the next word will be as the message takes greater shape.
How I wished I could find my courtship and marriage instructor from 1967 and tell her how everything turned out in my life.