I was born on a raft on the Mississippi River, floating in naïve and adventurous abandon down that broad, brown expanse with Huck and Jim, two companions who taught me much about honor and friendship. I watched with Scout and Jem and Dill as Atticus tried to defend Tom Robinson against racism so deeply ingrained it made my soul ache. Afterwards, I read Richard Wright and James Baldwin and learned what it meant to be invisible, held down, and despised for what I was and not who I am. I hid with Anne Frank in the attic, endeavoring to remain silent while yearning to scream, and then I stood above the pit at Babi Yar and wept with each falling body, peering over his shoulder as Yevtushenko bled on paper.
I sat with Hamlet as he recalled his father’s jester and felt, as he did, the horror of our own mortality, a skull now encased in flesh, harboring all our faculties, which will too soon join eons of other skulls upon whose heap we now are perched. I had not met but knew well the dark Lady who advised Macbeth and whose ambition triumphed over fear until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane. I have felt her hubris and come to know life’s callous disregard for our fancies.
Yet I have danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings and sat with Seeger on a scarred slope of battered hill. When Spring tripped north again, I saw glassy peartree leaves and blooms brush the descending blue. I’ve been tied to the ground by Maga-hat-wearing Lilliputians, been tarred and feathered for not believing as they and not granted the freedom to make my own choices. Though I would like to believe that ours is the best of all possible worlds, I fear as Einstein did that our ingenuity will one day best our restraint and that the most we can do is cultivate our own gardens.
Still, I remain a cautious optimist. Before our era is done, we will have accomplished much, created much, and learned to shape our environment, which we should justly celebrate before humankind reaches an ignominious end. Before that passes, however, and before I pass, I will breathe, laugh with, love, and respect those around me of all stripes, colors, and dreams. It is the best I can do.
Now, isn’t that more interesting than “I was born here" and “went to school there”?
What I will share about my life is that I live in the mountains of southwestern Colorado with my wife, Debra. Completing our family are three children and eleven grandchildren. Debra is a photographer. Together, we have traveled to many far-flung places for adventure: Russia, Bhutan, Antarctica, Ireland, Argentina, Iceland, the Galapagos, Western Canada as well as Quebec and Manitoba, Tanzania, Rwanda, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Scotland, Nepal, Alaska, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii, where we lived part-time for fifteen years. My study is lined with Debra's photographs from our adventures, reminding me how fortunate I am to be with this woman and to have experienced all I have with her. She is my heart and soul.
Can anyone be a writer? Throughout my career, I’ve met many people who wanted to write a book. I’ve met people with fascinating life stories to tell. Others had developed special skills or knowledge they felt the need to share. They believed writing a book would be a special accomplishment, the culmination of a lifelong dream. Knowing that I have written many books, some have asked me how to do it.
Is writing an innate talent that some have and others don’t? Or is it something you can learn?
Hundreds of millions of people can write, of course. We learn it in school. But it is a quantum leap between those who write and publish books and the millions of people who write emails, memos, letters, texts, and grocery lists. Writing well is not something children are born with; it is a skill acquired through years of education and practice. Yet it takes more than education because many well-educated people can express themselves enough but still would not call themselves writers. Writing also requires a passion for the written word and an unquenchable need to communicate through written language even if no one reads what you have written.
Writing is not about reaching an audience. It is about writing itself, which raises an important point. Of course, all writers want to be read. We want the satisfaction of having others read and respond to what we’ve written, to be moved by it, shaken by it, or entertained, motivated, enlightened, or astonished. But we would write even if no one ever read what we’ve written because we write as much for ourselves as we do for others. Maybe more so. Writing is an act of being. It is an impulse to talk to ourselves and record those thoughts to learn from them, return to them, perhaps, and reflect on who we are and what we think about this strange, wonderful, unnerving phenomenon of our existence.
I can remember in grade school being fascinated by what other writers could do with language. I’m still fascinated by it, so discovering someone who writes well is a glorious revelation. I’m captivated by what Joyce Carol Oates can do with language and how Colton Whitehead uses metaphors and images in The Underground Railroad. To experience beauty in expression, read Edgar Allen Poe or Mark Twain. Read poetry, where language is at once economical, precise, and magical in painting word pictures that animate our imagination. I learned much of what I know about writing by reading Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, Theodore Roethke, and e.e. cummings.
I was fascinated when my English teachers diagrammed sentences. Yes, I know, that makes me really odd. It’s such a mechanical exercise. But what fascinated me was how the parts of speech came together to create thoughts, much as atoms form molecules, and molecules form compounds. I have a mind for both engineering and art, so my fascination with sentence diagramming may have been a perfect construct for me—the marriage of mechanics with the beauty of expression.
When I was nine years old, I started a neighborhood newspaper. I was curious about what was happening in our little two-square-block part of the world, so I started listening to my neighbors (a fundamental writer’s skill) and writing little stories about what I learned. My mother mimeographed my two-sheeter, and I delivered it door-to-door. My days as a neighborhood newspaper entrepreneur ended abruptly when I wrote that one of my neighbors didn’t use soap when he showered. I can’t remember how that tidbit of news came to my attention, but I was too young to recognize the pitfalls of publishing every interesting fact you hear about people—and checking your sources.
I was as passionate about reading as I was about writing. Reading is another fundamental skill for writers. You read everything you can get your hands on. As a child, I wanted to know everything about everything, so I read the encyclopedia from front to back, A to Z. I read biographies, and histories, and fiction. I loved science fiction, in particular. I read Scientific American and the Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest. There were no video games or social media in my childhood, so I wasn’t distracted by electronics. I read. I still read. I normally have three or four books going at once. I take something to read with me in the car, and I read at stoplights and while waiting in doctors’ offices (I can’t stand to be idle). When I’m driving long distances, my wife and I listen to books on tape. I am a constant consumer of language, written and oral. And whenever I can, I sit down and write. That’s what it takes to be a writer.
Are writers born or made? The answer is both. Writing is a skill that must be practiced, like hitting a baseball or swinging a golf club. But you must also have a passion for writing, an insatiable need to express yourself in writing. You can learn to be a good, productive writer if you have that passion. I doubt that you can learn to be passionate. Passion is probably innate or born of a deep need when life tosses a hand grenade your way, and you are suddenly compelled to write about the explosion.
My dreams are often fantastical and sometimes frightening. I have the typical “you’re undressed in a crowd” dreams or those in which I’m ill-prepared for a test, have forgotten where you are, or have misplaced something important before I’ll be required to produce it. Anxiety dreams. Occasionally, I’m in a large house at night and an intruder will kill me if he finds me. Or I see a sea serpent in a lake and have to cross the water to rescue children on the other side. I’m a good swimmer, but I am terrified of things grabbing me from below. Jaws was not my favorite movie.
Now and then, I have intriguing dreams. In one I had several years ago, I was in a convenience store in a remote part of the country and saw a girl whose face looked familiar, although I couldn’t figure out where I’d seen her. She was a beautiful child, about 12, and I saw her face clearly. I thought her name might be Erin. Days later, in my dream, I was eating breakfast and poured milk into my cereal. When I set down the milk carton, I saw her again on the carton. She had been kidnapped and was now missing.
When I woke up, I recalled the dream vividly and had the intriguing thought: What if you saw a girl who’d been kidnapped many years before? You were sure it was her, but you didn’t have a clue where she was now or who she might have been with. If you decided to search for her, where would you look? Imagine that you had very little to go on. She got into a white van with two adults, but you didn’t get the license plate number and don’t know where they went. What would you do? That intriguing dream was the genesis of my novel, Storm Warning.
In another dream, I was a high school boy, and I discovered a flying saucer hidden in a hill. For some reason, I was digging into the hillside and my shovel struck the hull of the spacecraft. When I woke up, I wondered, what would you do if you inadvertently discovered some alien technology? What if no one knew about it but you? Would you turn it over to the authorities? What if they took the technology away and banned from you talking about it or seeing it again? I would not want to turn it in until I had thoroughly explored it and satisfied my curiosity. What if you learned to pilot the ship? It wouldn’t remain a secret for long. What would happen once the rest of the world learned of your discovery? What would your country and other countries do once they realized how powerful the technology was? That dream became the genesis of my forthcoming novel, The Cerulean Ark.
Finally, I had a dream last year in which I saw a young woman standing on the ledge of a pedestrian bridge spanning a deep gorge. She is distraught and intends to jump. Then a man comes along. He sees what she is about to do and instead of rushing up and trying to talk her out of suicide, he remarks about what a beautiful view it is. What if he’s not who he seems? From that dream, I wrote a three-character stage play.
Some of my dreams are at night; others occur during the day—when I’m in the shower or taking a sauna or just daydreaming instead of working. Some are prompted by news stories or movies. A situation occurs and despite what’s happening in the movie, I’m thinking, “What if it didn’t happen that way? Wouldn’t it be more interesting if . . .? I was in Hawaii once, sitting on a balcony above the ocean, and I imagined a wave of terrifying creatures emerging from the surf, hundreds of thousands of them, advancing toward the shore, threatening to overrun everyone and everything. I haven’t written that story yet, and may never do so, but the image remains in my mind.
There are books of writing prompts: what if this happened or what if that happened? I find that I don’t need those books. In fact, they create noise in my mind. I’m happier with the creations of my own imagination. What if you were alone in a cabin at night and heard scratching at the windows? You thought it was the wind, tree branches scraping against the house. But in the morning, you go outside and there are claw marks on the window sill. What if your spouse isn’t who you think he or she is? That’s been done, of course, but that’s okay. I can do a twist on the idea that hasn’t been done. What if neither one of us is who we say we are? What if all of our friends and neighbors are lying about their real identities? What if nothing in our city is real? What if we all forced to reveal our true identities at once? What chaos would ensue?
What if? What if? What if?
Non-fiction book ideas are easier. I begin with what I know or have researched that other people may not know and would benefit from if they read the book. I always begin non-fiction books with a base of knowledge, usually acquired through original research or extensive research in libraries from sources whose information is based on fact rather than opinion. I strive to be accurate and practical in the non-fiction books I've written. I don't rely on pet theories, cute anecdotal tales, or personality--as I've read in many other non-fiction books. I find that approach to non-fiction far less reliable and valuable.