Thomas: Why I write (why I don’t)
‘Punt” is, as a nonfootball term, something I think I learned in Tahoe, where I was a sportswriter the first time. On the editorial-production side of journalism, at least, it means using something that might not be ideal to solve a problem of limited time or space, or both, and stay employed to probably get laid off another day.
When I started writing again, I had a few things I wrote for school that I could use as punts, including my first piece for my last class, “Masterworks in Creative Nonfiction.” What I didn’t count on was my schedule changing for the fifth time in three months and having to use my best punt the first weekend of NCAA football, before the NFL regular season started.
Our prompt was “Why I Write,” (to which I added “(And Why I Don’t)” for my assignment), which isn’t as profound as the column on “the meaning of life” that a guy who used to be a really big deal here wrote for a paper on the other side of Lake Tahoe.
While a few of the facts surrounding my essay have changed from March, when I wrote it, I think it remains exactly 700 words.
Why I write
I write for academic credit. I used to write for money. I don’t write for anything less.
Even though this is an essay for a class on nonfiction, only two of the previous statements are true. I don’t write because it’s my job: It used to be but not anymore. I haven’t gotten paid to write in a decade: laid off April Fools’ Day 2009. I might write more now that it’s “fun,” not “work.”
Writing, though, is always work. One of my favorite books is William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well,” which stuck with me more than others I read around the same time, such as William Strunk and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style.” Zinsser described writing as solitary drudgery. He was a funny guy.
It just occurred to me that many talented writers have been named William: Zinsser, Strunk, Shakespeare, Styron (from eastern Virginia), Faulkner (U.Va.) and Gibson (Wytheville). William is also my first name.
But I don’t write because I’m talented. I might write because I’m not: I cannot sculpt, paint, draw, dance, sing, play an instrument or compose music, but I read and know how to spell words, what they mean, and how to put them together into sentences and even paragraphs. I also know what punctuation marks mean; I know the difference between a semicolon and a .
Sometimes I write to be funny.
Sometimes I write to be serious. Sometimes I write because of where I’m from. Annie Dillard called Roanoke home, and some writers have passed through southwest Virginia, but there is no Bard of Blacksburg: Our chief cultural touchstones are two massacres, a serial killer and college football.
I write just because I can; I couldn’t always.
Growing up in Blacksburg, I learned to read when I was 3 but never thought about being a writer because I made bad grades in handwriting. I really started writing when I was 16. At 17, I learned to type at New River Community College and could do about 35 words per minute; now, after journalism school and 15 years at seven newspapers — two of them twice — it’s about 90, and I don’t write anything by hand but compose at the keyboard.
My mechanics were always OK, but J-school razed my writing and rebuilt it into inverted pyramids of 25-word ledes, nut grafs and pullquotes; they didn’t tell us why journalists deliberately misspell journalism terms. They required us to buy Associated Press stylebooks and told us they were our Bibles, so I write mostly in AP style.
When I was a copy editor, one of my credos was “Read it ’til you like it.” Reading helps me understand things, but I get a better grasp when I write about them. Perhaps this is why teachers assign so many papers and reports in classes that are ostensibly not about writing. I liked movies more when I wrote reviews and stopped going when I didn’t. I have plaques saying I was the best critical writer in Nevada for two years, even though I never lived in Nevada.
Like other writers, I might write because I have “big ideas” about writing. Sometimes I use “air quotes” because I frequently make fun of myself, even when I’m being “serious.” I believe that many writers have studied and written enough to write about the craft (although the term “craft” sounds pretentious to me) and they have a ready-made audience in other writers. I think most writers must be experts on other stuff to have something to write about or to make a living until their writing careers take off — or in case they don’t. Writers usually don’t get to write about writing until they have written enough about something else.
I write about writing and get academic credit but not money. I like writing, but I don’t write when I don’t need to.
I like writing with precision and pop, tight and bright. I like assonance, consonance, rhythm and rhyme. I like writing you can read more than one way and more than one time.
I write until I run out of time — or words. And then I don’t write anymore.
Dan Thomas is the copy desk chief at the Vail Daily, a former sportswriter for the Vail Trail and a master’s degree candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Denver. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.