I never had a teacher encourage me to write. In fact, it was the opposite. I had a teacher who would take my stories away when I turned them in. She would hide them. I never got them back. She said, you’re just weird. I had to start making copies of my stories. Hand written copies. I would take dreams and write them down for homework. They didn’t even make sense, like dreams never do. One time I dreamed I was alone. The house we lived in was two stories tall, out in the countryside, and for some reason there had been a flood. As far as I could see, there was water around every side of the house, all the way out to the horizon. Across the street where three giant trees sticking out of the water. They were there in the dream and they were also real trees. For some reason I was trying to get out of the house, trying to get to those trees. I liked to play there. In the house were angry dogs chasing me. I remember birds flying around, attacking me each time I tried to climb out a window. For this assignment, there wasn’t much of a plot, just the imagery. Who knows, maybe it was symbolic. Stress driven. I wrote it down and turned it in. My teacher, rather than encouraging me to become the next Lovecraft, wouldn’t give me the story back. Not that one, or several others.
The first novel I wrote was a story about mistaken identity involving twin brothers. It was a murder mystery about a kid who witnessed a killing and was ‘wiped out’ by the mafia. Later, the twin comes out of hiding. People are shocked to see the kid alive again, ready to tell the court the story. For some reason, I had to get to 100 pages. I don’t know why I picked 100. This was hand written on lined paper. And so I wrote really big and sometimes only put three words on a line. I had to get to 100 pages.
About this time in my life, I had a teacher who said, you know those really big letters, the capital ones, just use them. My hand writing was so bad when I wrote lower case that nobody could tell what I was saying. Even today I use upper case a lot when I write by hand.
One time I wrote a travel book. I quit my job in Seattle, took a boat to Alaska, and spent two months living in the wild, riding my bicycle across the countryside. Each day I took notes, a journal of sorts. Today, I saw a moose. Today, wolves watches me from the tree line. Today, I was chased by a bear. Real stuff like that. I was really chased by a bear on my bike. I was on the bike. Trying to keep the bear off it. You know that book, Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, about Chris McCandless? I went there. I found the Stampede Trail and went down it looking for the bus, Fairbanks 142. I never reached the bus because I got attacked by a horde of mosquitoes, one thing Jon doesn’t really explain in the book. They were so thick I was inhaling them. I was choking on them. I had to turn back. I went and got a room in a hotel and soaked my wounds. I talked to a local girl and she said they all knew the story about Chris. They planned to go there and hold a memorial. I think this is why Chris didn’t want to leave the safety of the bus, because of the mosquitoes. The book doesn’t really tell you that. I also met an old man living in the wild, a veteran from the Vietnam war, and I spent a week with him, seeing how living off the land was really accomplished. Comparing that old man to Chris, I came to understand something about the wild. I got to the point where I just knew things, like the way an animal knows things about the land without being able to say them. It’s not easy to explain. You have to be there. One time I climbed a mountain pass and slept alone on a snowy plain. I didn’t talk to anyone for days. When I got home to Seattle, I spent five years rewriting that book, a full pass through it each year. I still go back and relive it sometimes.
Today, I’m both a writer and a publisher. I feel the pain on both sides. I run several magazines and publisher stories and interviews by well known authors. Lots of well known authors. I won’t list them here. They can carry their own weight. Still, my passion is in my own writing. Whenever business slows down, I get back to my own words. I’m working on a new novel now. It’s exciting stuff.
One thing really helped me improve as a writer. Take a story of yours—let’s say it’s a hardcore mystery story—and rewrite it in another genre, such as a sci-fi action adventure. You’ll notice critical elements of story writing found in any genre.
- Keep it weird.
- Have a dream. Write it down. But make a copy.
- Write in big letters and only put three words on a line.
- Go get chased by a bear in the woods.
- If these rules don’t work, blame successful authors. What could possibly go wrong?
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