My dad was a writer. My mom was a writer. My brother was a writer. And I wasn’t. It wasn’t a conscious rebellion, but more likely a lack of confidence to have to compete with such talent.
In college I got a C on my grade-defining creative writing project, which confirmed in my little head that the writing gene did not get passed down to me. I was fine with that; it wasn’t a passion anyway.
Years later I was working at an enormous ad agency on the east coast when the creative director himself stopped by my little cubicle. He said he had noticed some of my pithy notes to the creative team and thought I had quite the writing talent, and would I be interested in helping them write an ad campaign for McDonalds. I gasped and ran for my life. What on earth was he talking about. He had the wrong person.
And so it was. Any writing skill that was hiding inside me refused to come out and be seen.
Fast forward a decade. In 1999 I left my home in Colorado to pursue a childhood dream to walk around the world. My timing was particularly lucky as the computer age had just started to sweep the planet – along with cell phones, digital cameras, the internet, and these things called websites. Because my GlobalWalk was a fundraising effort, a highly skilled web designer volunteered to design a website for me. (The first of all my friends to have such a thing!)
To keep in touch with my friends and family about my life by foot on the road, I started to write daily journals (The word “blog” didn’t exist yet) and sent them to my webmaster to post. On the road I discovered a new-found freedom with writing. Free to be myself. Free to make up words. Free to choose the silliest of topics and not give a hoot if anyone understood “my angle.” I wasn’t getting graded on it and I wasn’t being paid to write about someone else’s product. It’s as if the right side of my brain opened up and came pouring onto the keyboard.
And a following began to build.
One day while walking across the high desert plains of Arizona, with nothing but sand and sky before me, my dad called. He marveled, “How did you learn how to write like this?!” Cautiously, I responded, “Like what?”
“Your stories are silly, yet gripping, they pull me in from the first sentence and you always wrap them up in a nice little bow at the end. How did you learn how to do that?” I wanted to tell him it’s because I’ve been watching TV sitcoms my whole life but didn’t want to ruin the moment.
I always had a good relationship with my father, but the writing bonded us. We had something to talk about, to exchange ideas. “Dad, can I make up words?” “You can do whatever the @!$#% you want, as long as you’re consistent.” (Words of wisdom I use today.) “Dad, what’s a dangling participle?” “I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. That’s what editors are for.”
Three months later when I walked into Los Angeles – where Dad lived – I noticed a travel writing contest on a website. The topic was simple – to write about a unique experience you had with a foreign culture, and it couldn’t be over 900 words. I chose to write about an experience I had walking through the Ute Indian Reservation in southwest Colorado where I was invited to a Sweat Lodge Ceremony. It was a comical, fish-out-of-water, near-death story that I couldn’t get under 903 words. I handed it over to Dad, the writing master, the nationally renowned word king, to fuss with it. He did. But a new confidence swept over me when I realized I liked my version better. So I tweaked and poked and maneuvered and squeezed my version into 899 words.
Boom! I won.
As the miles and years continued, I walked across 22 countries, 4 continents, and over 14,000 miles. Every night my fingers pounded the keyboard in stream-of-consciousness thought as if this little computer was my confidant, my shoulder to cry on, to bitch and moan with no care of proper punctuation, arching storylines, or God forbid, those dangling participles. Whatever those are.
It took me five years to walk around the world, and six years to write the book about it. When I got settled back home in Colorado I dove right into a bustling American life of two jobs, friends, gym, neighbors, etc., and found it hard to sit down and write anymore. One night dad called and asked how the book was coming along. “Dad, can’t I just get a ghostwriter to write it for me? I’m busy.” Silence filled the cell towers from Colorado to Los Angeles, and finally I heard a pained whisper, “No. No one can write this but you. It couldn’t possibly have the same voice. You have to do it.”
Of course he was right.
Writing, I’ve discovered, is a discipline. You’ve got to put time aside, put it in your calendar as a time blocked event. It’s not like when I was on the road and looked forward to my nightly writing because, well, there was nothing else to do.
When Dad was diagnosed with liver cancer that threw me into a writing schedule. I would send him chapters to fuss and giggle over. He gave me direction and advice, and our writing bond was back in swing.
Dad never did see the final version of my book. But he would be proud to know it went on to win six national awards. Who knew?
Sure, that writing gene was probably swimming around the gene pool, but I knew it was something else.
I was set free. Free to be myself. Free to be comfortable with my own unique voice. Free to not give a hoot. Free to write like no one was reading. And I still have no idea what a dangling participle is.
Polly Letofsky is owner of My Word Publishing, a publishing consulting company that helps authors professionally self-publish their books. Her book 3mph: The Adventures of One Woman’s Walk Around the World has won six national awards. Polly will be a guest speaker and presenter at the Wyoming Writers Conference. She will give a presentation on her walk around the world, and will also present three publishing workshops. You can contact her at Polly@mywordpublishing.com.