My classic advice to would-be writers

Altogether too often somebody will sidle up and ask how it happened that I write. Because it sounds smart-alecky, I don't often give the best answer, which is, "It beats working!" And which, also, is an untruth, for writing takes time and energy to equal an arduous work week in the mines, and you'll find me seeking gerundive alternatives when men who shovel are happily asleep. "You write so easily!" a lady said, and I said, "Eyah."

Flint Johnson used to birl logs in a tank at the sportsmen's shows, and the manager told him he should roll off the log into the drink now and then to please the crowd. Flint said he'd try, "but it won't be easy."

The first thing a writer needs to know is to double-space and leave margins so the editor can make corrections. Horace Greeley had a horrible scrawl, and only one hand-type compositor could read his copy.

One day the boys dipped a chicken's feet in the ink pot and let the chick run about on a sheet of paper. Then they wrote "must go" on the sheet and hung the copy on the hook. The comp never hesitated and set the type, "Today's weather: Local showers and continued fog over the Sound."

A good writer gets printed. There is no instruction one can give another that will nurture a Dickens or a Julia Moore, but Bill Nye did suggest a curriculum for a school of journalism that would require close application for 99 years. He urged the importance of learning to spell.

Once a loving mother dragged her little boy, who was reluctant, into my presence. She said her son would be a writer when he grew up, and what should he study in school to prepare him? I could see the brat was more likely to wind up as a sorter of top-quality sawdust, and I told the lady to have him read Homer in the original Greek.

That's not a bad answer, because by the time he'll admire the surge and thunder of the Odyssey, he'll have a noggin of knowledge useful in any newsroom and consequently acceptable at any publishing house. The lady whisked the boy away, and I have no further information at this time.

My own studies - some at great expense, some self-taught - lead me to believe a smart writer needs to know something about what people want to read. I suppose as popular a piece of literature as was ever penned is grandmother's recipe for molasses cookies, but you'll not find it in Palgrave or Bartlett. I think Fanny Farmer is still in print, if you crave nourishing stories.

A writer should meditate on these things and strive to meet his readers halfway and respect them like all get-out. If you catch a reader, hang onto him. Early in my scribbling, I learned that when a story lacks an element of general interest, the writer must find one. There always is one, although sometimes it is hard to find and often it must be dragged in by the ears.

My first newspaper story was about a fire. There are fires every day, and one is about like the others, so it takes something unusual to get a routine fire on the front page. Somehow I got the idea it was my job to find out what was unusual. Take, for instance, the time Looie Van de Nooky's pigeon loft burned. Nothing much unusual about it.

The next morning, the Boston Globe, Herald, Journal, and Hearst's American had the usual fire summary on inside pages, but I, myself, was on the front page of the Post with a byline and a two-column headline: THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE HOME! I was 11, going on 12 that fall.

Looie Van de Nooky was a Belgian not too long in America, and he raised homing pigeons to sell to his pigeon-racing countrymen in suburban Boston. Among the Belgians, racing homing pigeons was a passion, and each Saturday, big money was imponed on the Sunday-morning race.

Each Belgian would send his entry to Springfield, Mass., or another city about that distance, and the competing pigeons would all be released in a flock. Circling once or twice to get a bearing, each bird would then head for home. Back home, each sponsor would wait in his dovecote. When his bird came in, a leg band would be inserted in a time clock to attest the split second.

Looie got fat prices for his carefully bred racers, sending some back to Belgium, even. So the fire in Looie's dovecote was not just another fire. His flock was worth thousands of dollars! The story was not a fire story, really, but "What happened to Looie's pigeons?"

Looie never knew. He managed to get to his dovecote before the flames did, opened the little trap doors, and pushed the birds through to outdoor safety. The fire was licking their tail feathers as they went, and things were nip and tuck. Looie was fortunate to get out himself.

Looie said the flock circled to get a bearing, then flew away as if headed for Mongolia. My story said he hasn't seen them since. It also said Mr. Van de Nooky surmised that the homing pigeons knew their way home all right, but they didn't want any part of it.

Three days later, I had a letter from Edward J. Dunn, city editor of the old Boston Post, who would become the last of our great American city editors. He thanked me for thinking of the Post when I had a good story, and he enclosed a bonus he hoped I would find useful. A fire is a fire, but homing pigeons that don't come home make a story.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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