Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I Don’t Know Anything About Writing

If you’ve been reading my Sunday blog posts on writing tips, and if you happen to have a degree in creative writing, you might have come to the conclusion that I don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s because I don’t—at least not in the collective-mind, homogenized, social understanding sense. The communication age has managed to offer mankind a huge leap forward by granting a never before known ability to share ideas. Given that the total discovered knowledge of our race can no longer be contained in a single brain the way it used to—stab to kill, fire to cook, hide from storms, don’t eat the red berries—the ability to access previously worked out problems is a massive benefit. It is also one which I am apparently too stupid to take advantage of.

I’ve always been this way.

When I was nine my father died from pancreatic cancer, and my mother moved the family from Detroit to an almost non-existent, distant suburb of Novi. Legend has it the name comes from “Train Station No. 6.” In the late sixties, that’s about all that was there too. Cornfields, apple orchards, and dirt roads made up the rest. After living on the concrete and asphalt of Detroit, I loved the country. I was a big fan of Fess Parker’s Daniel Boone series and the idea of having a forest in my own backyard was exciting. This excitement was tempered by the fact I didn’t have a backyard. We moved into a park-home condo, that had all the charm of an army barracks and a yard that consisted of a tiny patio. I also didn’t have any friends, and I wasn’t the kind to make them. Introverted and shy, the move left me isolated. I spent my days exploring the woods alone sometimes wandering as far as ten miles away, and when it rained, or snowed, I stayed inside and wrote stories, or drew pictures (no Internet, no computer games, no cartoon channels.)

I taught myself by studying what others did. I copied paintings or drawings of artists I liked, and I wrote stories emulating the authors I enjoyed. In this way, after literally years of practice, I got pretty good. Good enough to win a scholarship in art. I never showed anyone my writing except the very few close friends I finally managed to obtain. I knew my spelling and grammar was so awful that anything down that road would just be humiliating. Those few friends made a habit of reminding me of this.

I went to college on that scholarship—an art school. I discovered something about myself there. While I love the idea of school, I don’t do well in that environment. I have this crazy notion that I know more than the teachers, that they are trying to teach me things I don’t need to know and don’t know that which I am trying to learn. When I began teaching other students what the instructor failed to, the teachers didn’t like me either. I eventually dropped out and got a job as a grunt illustrator at a company that did presentations slide shows for car companies. When the Detroit economy slumped, so did my job. My wife had graduated from engineering college by then and she made enough that my staying home to raise the kids was a no-brainer.

During that time, personal computers were hitting the market along with the fear that artists would be replaced just like the factory workers. I got my first machine in the mid eighties. I had this crazy idea of seriously writing a novel and trying to actually get it published. I was about twenty-three years old and didn’t have a clue what that meant, or as it turned out, how to write. All I knew was that when you were writing hundred-thousand-word novels, typewriters sucked. It was a pipe-dream and I wasn’t going to throw any more money at it, so I never considered a class or even a book on the subject. To be honest, it never crossed my mind that such things existed. I proceeded once again to teach myself.  That’s just how I figured it was done. You can’t teach creativity, it was something you had to drag out of yourself. I spent a decade dragging.

Computer’s improved and Photoshop was born. Few people knew what it was. There were no classes in it, no books on the subject. That was okay, because I only spot read the manual anyway. I learned by playing with it—that and a few other programs like Quark and Illustrator. I made a monthly magazine for my friends—staple-bound with full color glossy cover. I did this for years. I never thought of it as a skill. Sure I could do some pretty neat stuff, but I didn’t have a degree. So I was surprised when Robin, who hated the marketing materials of the company she worked for introduced me to her boss.

“Ask him,” she told me. “Go on. Ask him.”
“How do you make your marketing materials?” I asked.
“Powerpoint,” He said.
I blinked. “No seriously.”
He looked puzzled.

I re-designed their brochure at home that night and brought it in, and I had a new job the next day. Clearly no one there could help me. No one there could teach me my new job. They didn’t even try. I was a bit bewildered my first few days when I sat at my empty desk expecting someone to stop by and tell me what they wanted me to do. Robin explained, they couldn’t do that because they don’t know. That’s why they hired me. Oh.

I never looked back. I ordered a computer and the programs I wanted. I decided what the company needed and set about making them. Never having professionally printed anything from a computer file, I went to print shops to ask what they wanted from me. Only one printer in the city (this was in Raleigh) knew how to print from files to plates. Everyone else was still using paste-up cameras. Together we worked out the bugs, and by trial and error, I taught myself my job.

I wasn’t an idiot. I assumed I had missed stuff along the way. By this time I had used Photoshop for a whole decade, but still had never read the manual, and it had gotten a lot thicker. I took a free seminar a guy gave on Photoshop basics. I felt sort of stupid being there, but I learned a handful of things I never knew, like that there were shortcut keys to switch tools. Really? That would come in so handy.

Stuff like that—the unknown knowledge that is unobtainable by observing the finished product, or by trial and error—is what I missed. I’ve often felt that the discovery of penicillin might have been like someone accidentally hitting a shortcut key and going, “WTF?”

I suppose if I had still been writing at the time I might have applied that same understanding to writing, but I had given it up by then. I had a new career. I started my own advertising agency offering better quality materials and ads to new technology start-ups, for half the cost of the big agencies, because I did everything on computer while they were still doing photography and key-lining. When I finally got tired of making my one millionth brochure, I went back to writing, but I still wasn’t serious about it. I wasn’t going to get published, but then Robin found me an agent.

My agent was the one who showed me the two huge shortcut keys I had been missing. Point of View and Show Don’t Tell. I had already been correctly doing those things, but not consistently. I had merely worked out that the story read better when I didn’t narrate the action, and that sticking with one PoV per scene made it easier to present an idea. When she wrote to me explaining these two points I was like that science fiction scientist who meets an advanced alien in human disguise who writes the solution to a mathematical problem on a blackboard and the scientist’s jaw drops. WTF?

Since then I’ve joined writer’s groups and I have looked at a few books on the subject of writing, and these have helped polish my understanding, but nothing so dramatic as those shortcut keys my agent gave me. As a result, I suspect that my writing tips are not consistent with the norm. None of it comes from books, or seminars, or classes. I don’t have a MFA or a BFA…I don’t have any letters at all after my name. Everything I write in those Sunday posts is just stuff I taught myself over a couple decades of trial and error. I’m the Photoshop guy who learned how to create drop-shadows and bevels long before the one-button filter was added to the program. Sometimes I still do it the old way.

So if you find my tips to be a little odd, or not exactly what you were taught in creative writing, it’s because I really don’t know what I’m talking about. Everything I’ve written, I’ve made up. It might be all wrong, but it’s all I know. I just thought that somewhere buried in all that you might find your own shortcut key.

Now that I think of it, maybe I do have three letters I can put after my name—WTF.


  1. Dear 'WTF'

    Your post illustrates so much and does so with honesty and offers us encouragement. I suspect many of us who went on to achieve something are self taught and better off for it.

    And your post reminds me of that funny line 'behind every great man is an amazed woman" - true for me :)

  2. Traditional methods yield traditional results. It's an old saying, but I think that is really the absolute best case scenario.

    I have never been able to claim any amount of success by doing things the traditional way. I don't believe the stove is hot until I touch it and confirm it for myself (just ask my wife).

    If someone wants to go beyond traditional results, they have to take a different route. Often, those routes are previously unexplored and filled with trial and error.

    Keep being different and please keep the lessons real based on the path you chose. That is much more valuable than a writing class for most of us.


  3. Amazed woman...that's good.

    I'm not sure I know how not to be honest. I never took a class in that either.