Writers who shaped the consciousnesses, and influenced the styles, of Scholars and Rogues.
I wrote and edited news and commentary for a living for 20 years. I, as they say, “pumped out lots of copy” in two decades. That necessarily had as much of an impact on my progress and perspective as a writer as reading the well-regarded and much-honored fiction and non-fiction of others. Those people with whom we personally engage as mentor and mentee often play critical roles in our development as writers.
My first editor, John Haywood, taught me to shorten my sentences. (Sadly, after I left the news biz, that wisdom languished.) My old editor, Bob Dolan, showed me how to tell what needs telling and nothing more. My dissertation chair, Bob Trager, remains the best editor I ever had. He made me incredibly finicky about errors of any kind. Carrie Andrews, a young woman I worked with as a tutor in grad school, introduced me to “free writing” and not-so-gently helped me shed my “just the facts, ma’am” approach to writing.
Now I teach writing for a living. Again, it’s the engagement with others — particularly my students — about the craft of writing that continues to shape my approaches to putting words on a page. Some of these students — Carri Gregorski, Pete Kendron, Mike Trask, Rebecca Campana, Maddy Fitzpatrick, Leah Goodman and many others — never knew how much I had to reinvigorate my own writing skills to teach them. My faculty colleagues, too, have been wonderful teammates in the writing game.
Forgive the dropping of names you probably don’t know or care about. But they are meaningful to me — as your mentors are to you.
There are many others in my writing life. For me, developing as a writer comes from being a member of a writing community, one that’s personal and involves the people I live and work with. Many writers may find that haven in a community blog such as S&R. Here we try to collectively grow, we hope, by taking more steps forward than backward.
For the record, I have read all that John McPhee has written. I interviewed him once, about 20 years ago. I asked him the secret to his success. “Take lots of notes,” he said. McPhee teaches a course called “The Literature of Fact.” No one uses detail as well as he. So I am always prepared to take lots of notes.
From William Zinsser, who wrote On Writing Well, I took to heart his lessons of brevity, clarity, economy and humanity. From Robert B. Parker I took a sensibility for compelling dialogue. From Robert Heinlein, Rex Stout and Louis L’Amour, I learned that behind every fantasy, mystery and moral tale lies a human story.
Writers are shaped in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For me, who has been writing for a living in one way or another for more than 40 years, the passage of time and the long journey through the lives of other writers have been my wisest teachers.
Now we’d like to hear from our readers about writers who influenced you. (We’ll ask again tomorrow when the last installment of this series runs.)