This weekend, the New York Times published a provocative article about creative writing classes written by Charles McGrath, formerly editor of the Times Book Review. The article ruminates about the cultural change which has resulted in an explosion of creative writing courses. The article's title, The Ponzi Workshop, succinctly captures McGrath's concerns in a colorful sound bite.
I think the article is worth reading, but it gave me pause, and encouraged me to review the steps on my own meandering path toward being a writer. McGrath's article talks about the profusion of creative writing programs in universities; fifty-two degree-granting writing programs in 1975 had grown to more than three hundred by the year 2004. My own path to writing was quite different.
My original interest in writing started as a reader. I read voraciously through my childhood and that pattern continued in high school when a friend introduced me to science fiction. I also had a teacher in my junior year who encouraged me to try my hand in early writing activities such as writing a journal.
In college, I majored in Engineering at Rensselaer, but my interest in writing came in handy when it came time to write up various projects in subjects like management and production engineering, where I developed a reputation for being able to put words together effectively and get good grades on the finished products.
After Rensselaer, I had a couple of years before my business career kicked off in earnest, giving me a chance to catch up on my reading. This was the time when I read books like "The Brothers Karamozov" Mailer's "The Deer Park," and Tom Robbins's "Another Roadside Attraction," in addition to a steady diet of SF. Writers like Mailer and Samuel R. Delany had encouraged would-be writers to write in a journal in their own articles on writing, so that is when I began to chronicle my own intellectual journey that way.
I got busy in my information technology career after that, but always found time on weekends or over vacations to write about my experiences in a series of wirebound notebooks. About two years into my career, I decided to take a creative writing course at WestConn, the local college. Over twelve weeks, fifteen of us gathered, participated in writing exercises and shared the results with each other. I took the occasion to finish my first science fiction short story, a 3000 word effort called "The Games." A fellow classmate, a woman near seventy, complimented me on the story and told me I was lucky to have a well developed fantasy life, unlike many of the men she had known who had no life beyond their careers when they retired. I was in my mid-twenties at the time and I mentally filed away her comment for future reference.
I continued my journal activities and branched out into other creative outlets such as songwriting, but I put my dreams of being a published writer on hold while trying to figure out the rest of my life, including what I wanted to do in the day job that consumed most of my time. I also began to travel extensively, both for business and on vacations, giving me a chance to get to places like Europe for the first time. Everywhere I went, I'd take my pen along and write about my experiences.
In 1986, I bought my first personal computer, an 8086-based model from AT&T, purchased the WordPerfect word processing program and decided to work on writing for publication. Fortuitously, Westconn introduced a much more sophisticated writing course, called "Writing and the Path to Publication," taught by published writer Joan Gozzi. Over the course of several months, Joan worked with us both on writing and the business side. We learned about researching writing markets, understanding target markets and writing query letters. During the course, I decided that I'd like to write articles on business topics that interested me.
I did some research on the writer's markets for business and developed a concept for an article that would combine my experiences in business planning with personal reading that I'd been doing on the differences between the right and left sides of the brain. I outlined the article, started to write it and prepared a query letter for a publication called Manage. Rather to my surprise, the editor at Manage, said he'd take a look at it. That meant I actually had to finish the article. I wrote it up, did a couple of edits and then had Joan look it over. She offered a few edits and then it was ready to go.
I sent it in and a couple of months later, a letter and a check arrived in the mail. In early 1988, the article was published and I had my first professional writing credit. Needless to say, I was very excited about all of this, but surprised that the road to publication had gone so smoothly. I now knew I could write at a professional level, at least in the realm of business non-fiction, which buoyed my spirits and made me yearn to do more.
That's how I got started as a writer, but I still had ambitions to write fiction. I'll say more about that in another post.