I have told my writing classes many times that if you are serious about writing, you never stop being the student. And it’s true. My students think I am the Writing Master, but I am the first to admit that I still have a lot to learn about writing.
And that, I think, is one of the the things that has helped me become “successful.”
I remember being in the middle of the pack as far as talent when I was in college. My placement exam told me I should have taken pre-med. Heaven knows, I would probably be a lot richer than I am today if I had. But instead, from the time I was in high school I had a burning desire to be a writer.
Multiple teachers told me I didn’t have what it takes to succeed. I was surrounded by students who had more talent than I did. But I had one thing they did not: the willingness to learn, to grow, to do whatever it took to get published. I had one friend, Jeff, who I idolized for his writing abilities. Trouble was, he had a big problem with people telling him that something needed editing. When he wrote it, to him it was perfect. And that was, as far as I know, the end of his career.
I continue to meet and know students who have difficulty with criticism. They invest their ego so thoroughly into their work that it is tremendously painful to see it taken apart by an editor. But believe me when I tell you that unless you accept that step, you will never, never succeed as a writer. For a writer–every writer–needs an objective editor.
Knowing that I still had miles to go as a writer, I longed for a mentor. I wanted someone not to just encourage me (although that input wasn’t rejected by any means), but to be tough with me and teach me what I needed to know to grow as a writer. My first unofficial mentor was a man named Arthur Milward. I was fresh out of college and took my first job as managing editor of the Pacific Union Recorder, an eight-page weekly newspaper for 50,000 Seventh-day Adventists in the western United States. Art was proofreader and line editor for the publishing house where the Recorder was printed.
Art Milward was an unassuming British gentleman who had a fascinating life and an uncanny ability to write short stories. He had been published several times in Reader’s Digest, Redbook and many other well-known magazines. He lived in a small house with no phone, didn’t have a driver’s license, and watched only public television. He told me that he would sit down to write a story only after he had completely written it, word for word, in his head. After he had written it out, he rarely changed one word that he’d written.
I asked him one time why he didn’t write books. “Why?” he asked me in return. “I get $2,000 to $4,000 each time I write a short story.” And that was his focus. Every story that he wrote was true, even those that were often published as fiction.
He gave me many pointers about writing in general, as well as my own writing, during the five years I worked shoulder to shoulder with him. Later, when I was a book editor at Pacific Press Publishing Association, I invited him to be a guest speaker at a writer’s workshop. Once again, he was the least assuming person there, insisting on walking the mile from his hotel to the publishing house, since he had no driver’s license. I laughed when he gave advice that was in direct opposition to our senior editor. But he was totally honest, all the time.
It’s people like Arthur that have made me not only the writer I am today, but the writing professor I am. Because I take pride and enjoyment in seeing my students–my proteges–succeed. Not every student who has come through has had the burning desire to write that I could identify with. But when I do see that fire in someone, I smile to myself. Maybe I will do something, say something, that will help them along the path.
That’s what turns me on.