Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Writer Must Write

On my last birthday, Loretta gave me a beautiful bronze pen and pencil box. The lid is covered with molded pens and pencils, and the front bears the following inscription:
The writer must write what he has to say, not speak it.
- Ernest Hemingway
It isn't a particularly useful gift—after all, who uses pens or pencils these days?—but it is a gift that I will always treasure, because it reminds me of two things: why I write, and that my wife believes in me.

When I was a third-grader at Lincoln Elementary School in Warsaw, Indiana, our class took a field trip to Fort Wayne to see the Shrine Circus. The next day we were required to write an essay about the experience. The Shriners gave cash prizes for the three best essays in a state-wide contest. My essay won third prize. Somewhere, I think I have an old, yellowed, newspaper photo from the Warsaw Times Union of me wearing a fez and receiving a check from a couple of large men, also wearing fezzes. (Unfortunately, I don't have the essay. The Shriners must have kept it.)

Years later, I wrote about this experience in another essay, this time for a college English class. The topic of the essay was, "Why I Want to Be a Writer," and the point I made was that writing could be profitable. (Ha!) My final sentence was something like, "When I received that check, I knew there was something in writing." My professor wrote in the margin, "There certainly is, and I hope you find it." I did find it, largely thanks to him.

I was a biology major at Wake Forest University when I met Bynum Shaw. I knew he was not a typical college professor when, on the first day of his English 101 class, he announced that we would not be required to write a term paper. He sat behind his desk—a small, white-haired, soft-spoken man with a beguiling smile, twinkling eyes, and the stub of a cigarette held between nicotine-stained fingers—and told us that term papers were boring—boring for us to write and boring for him to read. Their only purpose was to teach us how to use the library for research. (This was long before the Internet, Kiddies.) Instead, he gave us a long list of questions that could only be answered by using every resource in the school library, from the card catalog to periodicals to the rare book room. It was fun—like a scavenger hunt—and I'm certain we learned more than we would have learned writing a term paper. One of the things we learned was that our professor was a renowned journalist and published novelist. (The answer to two of the questions was "Bynum Shaw.")

I enjoyed Shaw's introductory English class so much that, when a friend suggested we both take his short story writing class, I jumped at the opportunity. Each student in the class was required to write two short stories and read them aloud to Shaw and the class, who would critique them. My first story was based on an incident that had recently been in the news: a young woman had been brutally stabbed to death in front of several witnesses who had done nothing to help her. I told the story using a point of view that jumped from one witness to another. I thought it was gritty, visceral, and brilliant. The audience hated it.

My second story was comic in tone—a mystery parody about a "murderer" of plants. It earned me an 'A', but, more importantly, it earned laughs from Shaw and my fellow students. It also taught me two things: 1) I wanted to be a writer, and 2) if I was going to be a successful writer, I should stick to comedy. I changed my major to English and never looked back.

I am not a successful writer. I have been fortunate enough to have had my mystery scripts performed by several acting troupes across the country,  but I have stacks of rejection slips, and I have never had anything published. (About twenty years ago, a small-press magazine was going to publish one of my stories. Unfortunately, the magazine went out of business immediately after I signed the contract.) Sometimes, I find it difficult to continue to believe in myself. But Loretta continues to believe in me. And so I continue to write—for Loretta, for Bynum Shaw (bless him!), but especially for myself. Because the writer must write what he has to say, not speak it.


  1. After decades of writing myself I have risen to the level of mediocrity. True, I self-published a book (sold almost a dozen copies!)and written many children's plays, but I've looked at like this: I'm in great company! All my close writing friends are in the same boat! We write, we film, we act, we sing, we produce, we direct, we do all these wonderful things for others, we garnish praise for our works, we get nice pats on the back and written kudos in small newspapers, but we never achieve the brass ring. Television or cable credits, a major film or book distribution, a Broadway show, an Oscar or Tony, et al. Yet, we keep writing! We don't have to, but we do! Why do we keep doing it? Because we HAVE to! It's in our DNA! "The writer must write" as much as "the filmmaker must film", "the actor must act", etc. Maybe one day, yes, we may make it to the big time, but unitl then, we write, we film, we act, we sing, we direct, we do it all as much for ourselves as we do it for others. I may not be the best writer, but I'm certainly in the best of company.