09 November 2013

Sorry, I Need to See Some I.D.

I was fortunate enough to be invited a few months ago to give a keynote address at a writers' conference, and when the time came I found that my audience included not just writers but a number of readers and publishers and literary agents. And as I stood there at the podium, I realized that I felt a little like the guy in that Hanks/DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can. I was an impostor.

Seriously, of all the folks in the room that day, and of all my colleagues at SleuthSayers, and of all the (two or three) people who might be reading this column right now, I am probably the least likely person to have become a writer. I was not an English major in college; I do not have an MFA degree; I've never had any formal training in writing; I am not, as so many authors are, a former journalist; I did not, as so many authors did, begin writing at an early age. I didn't even like English in school, or the lit classes. I liked math.

My course of study in college was, of all things, engineering. Afterward I was hired by IBM and then spent four years on a leave-of-absence to the Air Force, during which time the only writing I did was filling out performance evaluations (which, I admit, got a little creative at times) for the airmen and sergeants and junior officers in my group. When I completed my stint in the military I returned to IBM and spent my entire career there, as both a systems engineer and a marketing rep. I specialized in finance, and did actually write a technical manual once, about a remote check-processing system that I helped develop, but those words were--believe me--not a lot of fun to put on paper. I suspect that they were even less fun to read.

But that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Much later (I think it was 2009) I did a booksigning and a reading in the town where I had attended college, and during the Q&A session one of my long-lost classmates in the back row--I hadn't seen him in years--raised his hand and said, "I have a question." He then asked me, looking truly puzzled, "How in the world can someone who graduated in Electrical Engineering wind up writing fiction for magazines?" With a straight face I said, "It makes perfect sense: you have to be crazy to do either one."

I was trying to be funny, but I still remember thinking, as I sidestepped that question, that my old friend had made a good point. What qualified me to be doing what I was doing? The real answer is that I had no idea. I still don't. Here I am, writing short stories left and right, and posting columns every other Saturday at this blog alongside folks with real literary credentials, when all my training is in a completely different field. I ran into one of my former IBM clients recently who said, "Hey, I hear you're teaching night courses in computers." I replied that she was half right: I've been teaching them for twelve years now, but they aren't computer courses, they're writing courses. I left her scratching her head, and probably wondering if I was disguising myself as somebody she once knew. Who WAS that masked man?

How did I end up with this unlikely second career? Beats me. All I know is, I've always been addicted to reading fiction and watching movies--and then one day I just started dreaming up stories of my own and writing them down and submitting them to editors, and lo and behold, I found I couldn't stop. Yet another addiction. Not long ago I sat down with my records and a calculator and discovered that I have published more than a million words of short fiction, the equivalent of a dozen or so novels. But the truth is, if I were spotlighted today by a beam from Heaven and heard a James Earl Jones voice telling me that from this day forward, nothing that I write would ever again be published . . . it wouldn't change a thing. I would still continue to write stories every day. It's relaxing, it's challenging, it's fun, and it's therapy.

I realize that there are and were other, and far more notable, authors who took unusual paths to publication. I'm comforted by the fact that writers like Michael Crichton, John Grisham, O. Henry, Tom Clancy, Raymond Chandler, and J. K. Rowling wandered down the road in the wrong direction a bit before homing in on the literary life. I also like to think that their experiences in those other areas (medicine, law, banking, insurance, the oil business, education) might have contributed new perspectives to the fiction they were later able to create. But I also sometimes find myself wishing that I had discovered this intense love for storytelling when I was a kid, rather than as a grown man involved in an nonliterary career.

I'd be interested to hear from those of you (or those who know of others) with unrelated backgrounds who now write for a living--or even as a hobby. How did you, or they, get from there to here? Was it a logical, planned transition, or did it just happen?

This brings up another question, one that's received a lot of attention these past few days at the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Yahoo forum: when can a person call himself a "professional" writer? The consensus seems to be that pro writers (as opposed, I guess, to amateurs) are those who get paid for what they write. Do you agree with that? Or do you feel, as some do, that a professional writer is one for whom writing is his sole source of income? Or one who has made a profit for three of the past five years? Or should it even be a question of compensation at all? Are there other qualifiers? 

I sincerely admire those who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a writer, professional or not, but I have come to believe that the strange path I took worked out well for me. If I had known many years ago that I would enjoy writing as much as I do now, I would never have wanted to do anything else, and my family would probably have starved. Maybe Fate knows what it's doing, after all.

Now, where'd I put that mask?


  1. John, I know that feeling of, "Are they talking about ME?" when introduced. I've pretty much been writing my whole life-poetry, songs, feature magazine articles, and finally novels after early retirement due to disability.

    What touched me this morning is you brought memories of my dad. He, too, was an electrical engineer with many major accomplishments in that field. He always loved fiction and wanted to write it, but his writing success was in math and electrical text books published by the University of Texas at Austin.

    Thanks for making this first cup of coffee delightful.

  2. I think the idea that one has to take courses in writing to become a writer is a relatively new one. Over the centuries, the way one became a writer was the way musicians are told to get to Carnegie Hall- practice, practice, practice.

  3. John, I enjoyed hearing more about your journey. I actually don't agree with those who say the dividing line is getting paid, not in today's market, and I certainly don't agree about acquiring credentials. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott--not one of 'em had an MFA. I think what makes a pro is excellence in writing, the craft of it--even though I'm afraid we're training up a generation of readers who can't tell the difference. And what makes for success in writing, commercial success, is excellence in marketing and a dollop of luck. Thus hugely successful authors include JK Rowling (Harry Potter) and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games), who write brilliantly, and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight), who apparently can't even spell her own name right. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

  4. Fran, I wish I could've met your father. And I'm not at all surprised to hear that you've been writing your whole life!

    Janice, you're so right. I once heard that the only things you really have to do in order to learn to write well are read a lot and write a lot. Probably true.

    Love your comment about Meyer, Liz. And I like your "definition" of what makes a writer a pro.

  5. A couple of my old friends just made comments in the discussion thread I mentioned (over at the SMFS forum) that I thought were interesting:

    Herschel Cozine (a former chemical engineer, by the way) noted that "a profession is something you engage in for your sustenance," and Jan Christensen offered the following breakdown: amateur -- never been paid for anything; semi-professional -- paid, but doesn't make a living from it; pro -- makes enough to live off earnings.

    Jan also said (and I like this): "The easy answer is that there are no professional writers because writing is not a profession. It's an art."

  6. Funny thing is, my profession, librarianship, is another which people often come to in midlife. I have known former teachers, lawyers, naval officers, etc. who switched to library land. But I always knew I wanted to write books and also help people find 'em.

  7. Rob, I think it's a blessing to know, early in life, what you want to be when you grow up. It's also great that you're now doing something that gives you so much pleasure and satisfaction.

    My kids tell me I should've been a movie critic. (I AM, actually, except that my only audience is my wife. And she doesn't listen to me.)

  8. John, I have heard preachers say they had a calling to serve. I'm not sure how that happens--is it a voice, a feeling, a drive that you can't fight?

    I would not call what I experienced a "calling" so much as an intense interest in writing from an early age. Once I realized that the stories I was reading were written by real people, I wanted to do the same. I remember submitting a god-awful poem to a magazine when I was about 10 years old, and how crushed I was when it was rejected. But rather than give up it only served to spur me on. It served a need. I can't tell you what that need was. I can only say that writing was in my blood from the get go. How I ended up in a career where writing was limited to reports and procedures is another--boring--story.

  9. Interesting thoughts, Herschel. I wonder if rejection (or maybe I should say the fear of rejection) is less daunting to those who begin writing early on. Those who come to it later in life seem to have more self-doubt.

    I believe it was you who said earlier, at the forum, that you'd feel more comfortable calling yourself a "published" writer, rather than a professional writer. I do too.

  10. I started writing poetry in grade school and I can never remember not wanting to write. In my mind a professional writer is someone who writes technical works, while a poet or fiction writer like myself weaves words into stories the way an artist puts paint on canvas.

  11. Hey Vicki. Sounds like you were writing poems while I was probably still learning how to tie my shoes. Doesn't surprise me a bit.

    If your definition holds, I don't want to be a professional writer. "Story weaver" sounds much much more attractive to me . . .

  12. John, the fact that you came to the party late has certainly not hurt your success. But I have a feeling that in your childhood you "had the urge", but you weren't listening to the voice. If not, you are truly an exception to the rule.

  13. Herschel, I was probably listening to the Beatles.

  14. John,
    Glad you changed profession. If you had not, I would’ve missed your short stories on the Mysterical-E website.

    A writer may be compensated for his or her writing, but if he or she earns a living doing something else, the writing is an avocation, though in time it may become a vocation and the writer a professional. A professional writer is one whose sole source of income is from writing.

  15. A lot of science fiction writers (Heinlein for openers) had backgrounds in engineering, not writing. And I'm glad you started writing stories too, John!

  16. Louis and Jeff -- Many thanks, for the kind words.

    Louis, that sounds like a good definition to me.

  17. I just tell people: "I'm a writer and stay-at-home dad."


  18. Sounds good to me, Dix. There's nothing easy about either of those jobs.


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