Wednesday, February 18, 2009

How Did I Get Into Writing? It's a Story. Once You Get Itchy Fingers, You Have to Write!

Yup. These folks should have found a "Frien" to proofread their banner.

Okay, I admit it.

My Mom and Dad were both English grammar and composition teachers--and I wasn't too wild about putting up with "grammar and composition" lessons tossed at me over the dinner table every night.

I fought it... but in the end, it trapped me. And I discovered that I love fooling around with words. And those words don't even have to be in English!

I fooled around with writing probably as far back as the 4th grade... my 4th grade teacher was really big on writing "reports" on things--and I remember some of mine included the Aztecs, Roman Soldiers, Roadrunners, and Gila Monsters. The 4th grade teacher let us draw/color pictures to accompany our reports--and maybe that was one of my favorite things: illustrated documents. I continued being particularly fond of artwork more than writing until we moved overseas when I was in the 9th grade. We lived out in the boonies on the remote island of Guam--literally in the boonies. With virtually no neighbors, I amused myself by learning how to play guitar and attempting to write my first novel (with illustrations, of course)--got about 140 pages into it before I found *girls* and lost interest in my novel.

It was my exposure to other languages--a year of Spanish in the 9th grade, three years of Japanese in high school, a year of Russian in high school, three more years of Japanese in college, another semester of Russian in college, and a semester of Mandarin Chinese in college...(and then, to top it off, a class in formal linguistics in college!) that I discovered that grammar wasn't so bad.

It was grammar, I discovered, that explains how a language works. It was grammar that could relate the differences between one language and another (and provide the means for translation)!

In the beginning, I was so adverse to English grammar and composition that I worked at getting instead a B.A. in biology with a minor in chemistry. But my background (inherited from my folks, obviously) had me also acting as the editor-writer-publisher of the campus student newspaper and writing science articles for the local newspaper. At the university marine laboratory, I worked as a "work-study student" as a research aide and photo-lab technician/photographer. I soon found out that my photos could help sell my articles to the local newspaper.

A classmate showed a friendly newspaper editor one of my poorly written term papers (she worked at the paper and volunteered to take my term paper in). Thank God I had some decent pictures to get the "article" accepted. The editor did something that most editors would not (in addition to actually publishing the article!)--he sent back the edited manuscript. (The check he sent as payment for the article was also very nice!)

I studied this editor's markup (in those days, they used a blue-pencil on the manuscript pages to provide instructions to the typesetters). I saw what the editor liked... and what he didn't like. So, a few months later, when I had another brilliant idea for an article, I typed it up on my manual typewriter--this time trying to avoid doing anything that the editor had marked out on my previous submission. This editor was cool--he published this article as well. And sent back the edited manuscript along with the check.

So, each time I got an edited manuscript back, I was learning what editors like and what they don't like. And learned how to write newspaper articles. Soon, my articles were being regularly published and my manuscripts were being returned with very few marks. A great learning experience.

So, when I applied for a science teacher position at a local parochial school.... the principal said, "Well, we have good news and bad news."


"The bad news is, we've already hired our science teacher."


"The good news is, we've seen your articles in the local newspaper... and we'd like to offer you the English grammar and composition teacher position."

Well... I needed a job... so how could I say 'No'?

She said, "Here's your textbook. You start on Monday."

It was Friday.

I spent the weekend cramming--studying the first few chapters of the book on English grammar and composition.

Thank God my Mom and Dad were English grammar and composition teachers. I had been watching them for the first 22+ years of my life... so I understood what happened behind the classroom scenes for teachers--English teachers in particular. And, since kindergarten, I had many, many years of watching other teachers in the classroom. I knew which teachers appealed to my opinion of what teachers should be like.. and knew what I didn't like about certain teachers.

So, I walked into that classroom on Monday... and taught my classes the way I'd want a teacher to teach me. It seemed to work--these kids had already chased away two other teachers. I taught with a passion for my subject, a sense of humor, and a willingness to learn. The kids seemed to appreciate this. (And I've since found out that I had the future Governor and Lt. Governor in my classes! Totally weird.)

Teaching that semester of English grammar and composition is one of my fondest memories. I kept one chapter ahead of the kids... and learned about the parts of speech, techniques in composition, how to diagram sentences (this is a really COOL concept!), and the more subtle ways to work with words. I LEARNED my grammar that semester--and it was weird to be able to sit at my folks' dinner table and "talk shop"... about how to use a gerund in a two-word sentence (it can be done!) or using gerunds as objects of prepositions. Predicate nominatives, predicate adjectives. Infinitives. Phrasal verbs. And other jargonese of the English teachers.

While on Guam, I wrote and published freelance articles in newspapers and magazines both nationally and internationally. I had managed to get my work published by the Pacific Daily News, Pacific Sunday News Islander Magazine, Glimpses of Guam, New Pacific Magazine, Pacific Islands Monthly, and other smaller publications before returning to the U.S. mainland.

This article experience got me a job as a staff photographer, then writer, at a daily newspaper in New Mexico. I had more "reinforcement" about my writing here. My City Editor was a stickler... he'd say, "Dave, we're not paying you for the size of the words or the number of words.... KEEP IT SIMPLE!" Under my City Editor's direction, I learned how to cut the fluff from articles... how to make an article get to the point--the news in the journalistic style. (Of course, I'm not doing that here, am I?)

I learned more about what editors want. And managed to get articles published in the Anchorage Daily News, Alamogordo Daily News, Los Angeles Times, New Mexico Wildlife Magazine, California Homeschooler Magazine, Tri-Valley Herald, The (Fremont) Argus, The (Hayward) Daily Review, and The Oakland Times.

After leaving the daily newspaper, I got a job as a technical editor-writer--and have had jobs as a technical editor-writer ever since. But I have always kept playing with doing freelance articles and freelance editing on the side. This freelaning on the side has been helpful--because, with the current economy, I now find myself out of a regular job with new jobs seemingly all dried up.

So, I'm now making myself available as a freelance editor or writer. If you know of anyone who needs editing or writing, please feel free to send them in my direction.

Writing and editing has allowed me to learn and play with new technologies in all sorts of fields--whether it be space station operations, DNA synthesis and genome analysis, computer networking, telecommunications, pharmaceutical development, environmental regulatory compliance, laser safety, hazardous waste management, marketing and sales letters, or supermarket retail operations procedures. Writing requires that you be a quick learner--especially if you've never written about a particular topic before. Before writing about the above topics, I had never written about them. Funny how that works.

What am I doing now? I just got through editing a fellow's 150,000 word novel (he says he has two more of equal size on their way to me), and a book on new marketing techniques for Search Engine Optimization. And, I'm working on a marketing brochure-package for a sprint-car racing team. Strange stuff. All in the life of being a writer.


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