How I Learned to Write
May 14, 2022 | 814 words | Personal History
In recent months I have struck up a close friendship with a fascinating, age-appropriate woman who has never stopped learning, never stopped taking classes and acquiring certifications. This perpetual student is dumbfounded by my never having signed up for a writing class, or been part of any sort of writers group that could provide me with regular feedback on my work.
How, she recently asked, did I learn to write? My first answer is to invoke that old chestnut “practice makes perfect.” And at the risk of sounding glib and slightly annoying, that’s pretty much the long and short of it.
Not that I’m any great author, mind you, since all I can manage is the odd short essay, seemingly about the same three or four subjects, ad nauseum. But I remember always wanting to write, at least since high school, even though I never did much actual writing. I did, however, dabble in poetry ever so slightly in my late teens and early twenties.
Back them I remember showing my best little pieces to my college French professor turned friend and mentor. By way of encouraging me he said something to the effect that, yes, that’s a good little poem you’ve got there, Bob. But one poem doesn’t make you a writer. You have to keep doing it.
Even though I wasn’t writing, I was always reading. So maybe I fall into the category of someone who learned how to write by reading people who were already doing it well. I can also tell you I’ve been reciting Shakespeare’s 29th sonnet for about fifty years now, ever since my high school French teacher turned friend and mentor first introduced me to it. (Yes, I had two cool French teachers in my youth.) He also introduced me to a short poem from W.B. Yeats that I’ve also been reciting in my head for just as long (“Speech after long silence, it is right…”) There is a lot to be said for cadence and word choice.
Don’t worry, though, I’m not going to drag you through an excruciating review of my nascent amateur writing career. I do remember wanting to write during my early married life, and vowing to write once I got home from work. But I was always too tired to concentrate. And there was always so much to do on the weekends, with kids to raise and a house to take care of.
Then a major shift occurred in just the last decade. The kids grew up. And things took a major turn for the better at work. Not only did the business enter a period of pronounced prosperity, but some young staffers began to come into their own, taking a good deal of pressure off my shoulders. I had a little free time during the course of the work day that I never had before. I began to jot things down. Those seeds got developed at night, on the weekends, whenever. Pretty soon I was actually writing on a regular basis.
When my father had a stroke in the Fall of 2012 and died shortly thereafter, I was just starting to hit some sort of stride. Of course, nothing I was coming up with was any good. I thought I wanted to write a book and find a publisher. Oh, how naïve I was. Plus, I was trying to do elaborate footnotes as part of my attempts at a manuscript, imitating my favorite authors. Sure, I had a little free time at work, but not that much free time. And let’s face it: I’m no scholar, and it’s way too late in life to try and become one.
Eventually I settled on the short form essay, geared to the average reader who is grappling with current events and the meaning of life. I decided to try and make ‘practical poetry’ my calling card. Lo and behold I kind of found my niche, and found my voice. That was maybe five years ago now. And I’ve been having tons of fun ever since.
But back to the original question: How did I ever manage to learn to write anything that is actually readable? Mainly I think it’s a matter of just paying close attention and developing a good ear. It also requires a lot of editing and re-writing, as everybody knows. In most cases this can only happen in solitude. More than anything else I would say writing has put my natural inclination for solitude to the best possible use.
Writing also helps me process a good deal of previously swirling, unresolved emotions. And it’s helped me organize a lot of previously random, disjointed thoughts.
I like to think writing has made me a better person. More in tune with myself, and more in touch with the world around me. And all the different types of people in it.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr
May 14, 2022