The Education of a Writer
When and How I Discovered
How the World Works
You would think, wouldn't you, given sixty plus years of continuous writing, that my writing had improved to the point of naïve self-satisfaction at least, if not full acceptance? As any writer - intent on producing the very best - would know, that is never the case. Perfection is a chimera, always....
Ignorance, though, is often bliss: and so it was, as I began writing seriously when quite young, around nine or ten, my callow mind fed by a mix of writers which included Rice Burroughs, Verne, Conan Doyle, Haggard, Wren, Ransome, Johns et al. I wasn't as early as some writers I've read about; but still ahead of others, perhaps. Not that I'm counting. I was also, as far back as I can recall, an avid reader, soaking up a wider range of pulp fiction writers (Hammet, Chandler, Christie, Asimov, Heinlein, Spillane, MacLean, Fleming, McBain, Condon, Hall etc., etc.) as I moved from my teen years into twenties, and beyond. In the days of early television, no computers, no iPads and no Smartphones, there were fewer distractions. Thankfully.
Language is the vehicle, but information is the gasoline for actual writing: about yourself, your environment in all its forms, your life-long education, your whole-of-life experiences, your philosophical and ethical principles, and your beliefs, whatever they are. All such information is obviously grist for a writing mill, regardless of how insignificant or not it seems, when acquired.
For example, I still recall vividly the moment, in 1959 at age seventeen, when I discovered the fundamental requirements for the construction of a crude nuclear fission bomb; in fact, I was completely astounded at the utter simplicity of the method. How could such a relatively small, crude device be so easy to construct, and so destructive? Forty-five years later though, that information formed the sine qua non for a thriller I wrote. Nowadays, of course, that nuclear information is freely available to read over the Internet.
Before that event though, I wrote continuously, beginning with letters to newspapers and magazines, in response to any story, article or editorial that interested me. Oh, yeah - and a novel I started to write when I was ten or eleven; my older sister provided hand-drawn illustrations. After two chapters and a few drawings, I gave up (disappointing my sister, of course): I'd found out that serious writing is difficult (to get the right words and get the words right), tiring (of mind and body), subject to random annoyances (like eating, drinking, sleeping and other necessary bodily functions) and interruptions (from family, friends, school, work and so on).
On the other hand, it was supremely satisfying to complete a piece of writing, read it back and make sure I understood it. I figured if I understood it, anybody would. Duh! Little did I know....
At that age, of course, I had no idea that communicating precise meaning to another person is arguably an almost impossible task - in the first instance.
That aspect didn't fully intrude upon my writing experience until I'd spent quite a few years in the corporate environment developing computer procedures for operations, management and auditing: any imprecise language and meaning in that milieu could have been potentially catastrophic, as you no doubt appreciate.
In addition, I continued my prolix abuse of newspaper and magazine editors - and the occasional subscriber; persisted in my attempts at writing novels and short stories (wasting much computer printout); trying my hand at poetry (and discovered I could spit out doggerels at will - a fairly common talent, though); and constructing what I thought were pithy comments on a range of topics (war, money, religion, philosophy, language etc., etc.). In short, I wrote about anything that took my fancy (All writers should, wouldn't you say?).
Until, one day, I finally realized I was ignorant about some fundamentals concerning daily life on this planet Earth....
It was late summer, 1979 as I recall. I was in middle management, employed in the computer division of a large bank in a north American city. The times were hectic. Inflation was rising all over and affecting almost everything. Salary wasn't enough any more. Personal debt skyrocketed. Work demands frequently increased, seemingly irrationally. It was a mad, crazy time and I felt I was in that clichéd squirrel cage, going nowhere, faster and faster. Something was terribly wrong in my world.
Sound familiar to you, especially in these austere days of the 21st century?
Still the voracious reader and frequent visitor to book stores on that crucial day in 1979, I was wandering through such a store on the mezzanine floor of that enormous financial institution. Generally, I looked through fiction, searching out the latest by any of the writers I liked most.
Finding nothing notable after a few minutes, I randomly turned into the non-fiction section, idly eyeing titles until I stopped, transfixed: going crazy seemed to strobe at me with its black cover and blood-orange title, all in lower case. As I reached out, mentally I nodded "Yes! I am!", pulled the book from the shelf, read the sub-title: AN INQUIRY INTO MADNESS IN OUR TIME - all in upper case - bought it and devoured it completely in the next forty-eight hours. (That book, btw, is still available online. Go sample it, if you haven't got it. The author is Otto Friedrich.)
After finishing, I realized my life had reached a turning point, a fundamental change in cherished beliefs about the world. Not simply because of the inquiry into madness, but also because that book had a long and impressive section on sources, all of which guided me to other, crucially pertinent readings.
For the next fifteen years, I read non-fiction exclusively: any topic that helped me to broaden my understanding about why my world - the world - is crazy. And still is today....
Roger J. Burke
P.S. Just in case you wondered: yes, I still read fiction - in fact, in much greater volume now than I ever did before 1979.