As the son of a Presbyterian minister, I attended church almost every Sunday, though I rarely listened to my father’s sermons. It was the one hour every week I didn’t have to listen to him. But there is one snippet from his vast store of Sunday wisdom that still sticks: “Do something you do well and that you enjoy,” he said. “The rest will take care of itself.”
As far as I remember, my first accomplishment as a writer came when I was in middle school. There was a yearly competition to write an essay about “What Reading Means to Me.” One of my best friends who lived up the street won the contest. Throughout school he was an intellectual rival and always a few points ahead of me. I thought his winning essay sounded contrived, whereas I wrote mine purely from the heart.
The contest arrived the following year, and I was determined to win. This time, instead of focusing on what I felt, I wrote what I thought would win. My idea was that the judges (adults) had preconceived notions of the ideal essay, and I knew—based on my friend’s winning entry—exactly how to fit into their ideal.
I don’t remember what I wrote, but I did win the contest. Parents, teachers and fellow students were all impressed. I went to a banquet where I read my essay to a group of strangers and received my accolades. The recognition was thrilling.
But it was all a fabrication. I didn’t know what reading meant to me. I pulled the wool over the eyes of all those grown-ups, made them believe I felt all those things. In hindsight, I realize what I really did was to create a character who is swept away by words (also my first creation of irony). The essay was a work of fiction designed solely to win the contest. I felt somewhat guilty, perhaps even dirty, because it was all made up. It was my first lesson that truth does not always lead to success, lies do not always lead to failure, and writing can be and do both.
This small success showed me I could write reasonably well, and I certainly enjoyed the challenge of trying to write a winning essay. It wasn’t until I won that I realized just how powerful words could be. Even words used to conjure false feelings, both mine and the reader’s.
I still attempt to manipulate with words. It is my job to have an effect on the reader by finding the right words and to put them in the right order so they achieve the desired effect. The differences between now and then are these: I don’t write for approval. I don’t write for money or fame. And I don’t write for power. I write with power, and I write for me. The rest will take care of itself.