If you ask twenty different authors about from where his greatest strength as a writer comes, you may get twenty different answers. And most, if not all answers, would probably come from a place that you’d least expect.
I can, for example, tell you that you may be surprised to learn mine. At first, if you looked at my curriculum vitae, you might guess that my gift may have come from my education. I have a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in English education. I even have a year’s work on a PhD. During my courses of study, I took many classes in literature, writing, poetry, linguistics, and the list goes on from there. I did learn many useful things in those classes that continue to help me write today, but you’d be incorrect to believe that my education was my greatest strength.
My training as a writer continued when I sought out writing organizations and groups. I spent many years going to conferences, seminars and workshops, and I bought and poured over many books on the craft of writing. I met a number of award-winning authors and became friends with some. Their rises to the New York Times Bestsellers Lists and the USA Today Bestsellers Lists were impressive, and they shared their tips and secrets about their climbs with me. I sat in a number of critique groups with them and learned from them…but even all that would not be where my greatest strength as a writer lies.
Well, you might question, did it come from my employment as a managing editor at a publishing house? Even though I poured over many hundreds of manuscripts and ushered many through the publication process—from submission, to acquisition, through a three-pass editing process, to copy-editing, to proofreading, through creating back cover blurbs and managing the cover process and ultimately the book’s publication and marketing—you would be wrong if you guessed that my position as managing editor informed my writing the most.
Ah, you say, is it that my strength comes from my love of literature and, therefore, my love of reading? Nope. Though I love literature—especially Southern literature—and I can be a voracious reader at times—that is not from where my greatest strength comes. Maybe you would go back a little further to when my grandfather ignited my love of story when he told me countless tales on his front porch as a little girl…or maybe it began when I started writing poetry and stories when I was in elementary school because of my grandfather’s tales. Nope and nope.
My greatest strength comes from my having been a teacher. I not only learned how to captivate an audience, but I learned how to effectively convey information through inspiration. It was in that profession that I learned about people, and I applied that knowledge to writing characters.
You see, when you are a teacher, you develop eyes in the back of your head. I didn’t understand this concept at first. When I was student teaching, I didn’t have that talent. But I recognized it the first time I saw it in a colleague when I was paired with him to do “Lunch Duty.” Ken Boleman was a consummate professional. We stood together for a week in the outdoors of Summerville Intermediate High School at our station. As we talked, and he showed me the ropes, he interrupted our conversations again and again by strolling over to different groups of students. I was confused each time he left, but he had seen something that I had not. He would come back with confiscated cigarettes or other contraband. He stopped multiple instances of PDA (and more). I was amazed at his intuitive assessment of each situation—situations about which I was ignorant. I realized then that he had those mysterious “eyes in the back of his head.” He had honed his ability to read situations, behaviors and people. I wanted that skill!
It took a couple of years, but eventually I grew the same eyes in the back of my head. After watching thousands upon thousands of students try the same types of tricks, teachers learn the subtleties of behaviors. I learned to watch for the “watching of the teacher” and then the averted eyes. I learned about both sincere excuses and apologies…and the insincere ones. I learned character…and character traits. I watched as students wanted to learn from me…and I watched those who tried to play me.
I saw the characteristics in students that propelled them to go on to be doctors and lawyers and ministers and teachers, and I saw the characteristics in some students that turned them into murders, rapists, thieves and pedophiles.
Throughout my years, as I was developing my eyes in the back of my head, I still stayed positive, looking for goodness. I always hoped for the best in each student and gave each a chance. Though we weren’t allowed to openly express our religious beliefs to our students, I always lived my Christian beliefs in front of them, extending the hand of kindness and understanding, even through their issues. Many of my greatest rewards were with those students.
Being a teacher taught me how to understand one of the most important trinity concepts in writing—goal, motivation and conflict. I saw how these concepts were worked out in my students’ lives. I learned to read subtle signs of need, greatness, disrespect, compassion and corruption… I learned…people, and I responded with empathy.
From those years as a teacher that I spent understanding people, I understood what goes into characterization. I learned to write the subtleties of three-dimensional characters—their needs, their issues and how those things manifested themselves in characters’ daily lives, and how to resolve those conflicts on the page.
So, ultimately, though you may not have guessed at first, my greatest strength as a writer comes from my teaching experiences, where I grew the eyes in the back of my head.