If I ever had a ‘calling,’ it’s to write. It’s one of the few things I’ve known with absolute certainty from a fairly young age.
When we were little kids, my cousin Rich and I would while away our summer afternoons sitting outside at the backyard picnic table with a pad of paper and colored pencils drawing stick figure battles of ancient Greeks and Romans inspired by some B&W Steve Reeves sword ‘n sandals movie we’d seen on Saturday matinee TV.
Drawing led to writing. Though fun to make, stick figures had limitations. Rich and I wanted to create Greeks and Romans who had names and families and did heroic deeds, so we started writing stories about our drawings. While our stick figures stood stationary, unable to speak or move, our scratchy printed stories allowed them to leap into action. Words gave them life.
For a while, I continued to draw pictures first and write about them afterwards. The initial attempts were a single sheet of handwritten ramblings done with a pencil on lined paper. Eventually the pictures weren’t necessary. The pictures were in my head. Instead of trying to draw images, it became infinitely more satisfying to describe them in words. Now our only limitations were our knowledge about Greece and Rome, which led us to do more reading.
Rich and I discovered reading and writing together, which made it all the more enjoyable. I had someone to share my passion with. I’d picked a good partner. Rich’s mom and my mom are identical twin sisters. Our moms remain close to this day, they are gifted artists and maybe even more importantly, we’d never seen them argue about anything, which made them good role models for Rich and I. With our families so close, I thought of Rich as my best friend or my twin, rather than my cousin.
Before the invention of the PC, before we discovered typewriters, Rich and I hand wrote stories and mailed them back and forth. As we grew, so did the length of our stories. They evolved into short stories, poetry and raggedy-edged mountains of paper we called books that had names like “The Travels of Pothinus,” (Rich) and “Spartan Blood” (me). Talk about a geek, even as a juvenile I was reading and writing about the Spartans.
Thinking we’d invented the idea ourselves, Rich and I began writing stories together. I’d write a single page, mail it to Rich, he’d add a page, send it back, and so forth. We called them ‘Trip To’ stories. A Trip to Rome. A Trip to New York. A Trip to Paris. Rich would take our secret agent character somewhere exotic and leave him in a near-death situation, I’d rescue him and find a new cliff to leave him hanging over for Rich to pick up the story and figure out a way to rescue him to keep him alive for the next ‘Trip To.’
Over the years Rich and I continued to write. Our handwritten letters and stories turned into typewritten ones. We graduated high school and Rich pursued his calling by going into the seminary and I pursued mine by looking for a writing job. My father told me I was wasting my time. “There isn’t any money in writing! Writers are known as ‘poor, starving artists’ for a reason. You’re dreaming!” My father thought I should wake up and work for him in his insurance business. Now there was money. Unfortunately I had no interested in writing insurance policies, and as an idealistic kid, had no great desire to store up piles of cash. As the old saying goes, ‘You can’t take it with you.’ I didn’t care what I got paid, so long as i got paid to write.
So at nineteen years old, I walked into our local newspaper office with a file folder of poetry and short stories and tried to parlay them into a reporting job. The managing editor, Tom Edmunds, sat there with his flat-top haircut and bow tie flipping through my folder. Finally he said, “Son, I have college graduates coming in here every week with journalism degrees. I just don’t need any more reporters right now.”
At that point I blabbered, “Look, I’ll do anything to get a job on the paper. I’ll wash windows, I’ll sweep floors, I’ll clean toilets…”
Tom laughed and said, “I like your enthusiasm. Well, come to think of it, I do have a position open for a typist. It doesn’t pay much. Can you type?”
I’d had typing in high school, so said yes. I grabbed the job and was soon typing 60 words a minute. Once I was inside the paper, I got to know the reporters in the newsroom and like a faithful puppy began following them everywhere. Thus began an unofficial apprenticeship. The seasoned reporters allowed me to tag along with them when they went out to cover township and school board meetings, and afterwards told me to write up a story on what I’d witnessed. They’d write the actual story for the paper, and sit down with me later and go over my story, giving me pointers. From them I learned skills, like how to write a lead sentence and how to create a news story (most important fact to least important fact), that I still use to this day.
When the reporters were out I’d hang around with the editors and learned something about newspapers that I hadn’t expected. The reporters wrote the stories, but the editors wrote the headlines based on how much space they took up in the layout. When the night editor was busy, he’d get me to help him write the headlines. “All right, read this story about the fire at the mall and give me an 18-character headline.” When I saw my first headlines in the paper I was as a giddy as parent looking down at their newborn child. My words were in print!
A month after I’d started at the paper, one day Tom called me at home. He seemed rather frantic. He had a huge story on his hands concerning an incident that occurred in Washington D.C. where Muslim terrorists had held a group of people hostage for a week in a Jewish synagogue. The hostages had just been released that day and one of them was a local man. Sounding somewhat desperate, Tom said, “I need someone to interview that hostage and all my reporters are out on assignment. Do you think you can handle it kid?” I did more than handle it, I interviewed the man at his home in Southampton, banged out the story, and it landed on the front page in the lead spot. Nor did Tom edit a single word, a feat I’m not sure that I’ve ever duplicated since. No bad for my first effort. Anyway, that started my writing career. The rest, as they say, is history.
During my brief stint as a high school English teacher I told my students, “Each of you is special in your own way. Each of you has a gift. There’s something that comes easy to you. It could be math or science or painting. One of your goals in high school should be to figure out what your special gift is, and pursue it. It could lead you to be an artist or an auto mechanic or a nurse. But the important thing is, you’ll be getting paid to do something you enjoy, and that should give you a happy life.”
Listening to my calling has paid off in ways that go far beyond any monetary gain or temporary fame: working as a writer has given me more satisfaction than I could have ever received working as an insurance agent as my father wanted me to do.
Are you following your calling?