In the classroom, I’d be the squirmy one, looking out the window or counting down the minutes until recess. Oh, there were bursts of interest in writing along the way, especially when I could get up and read a funny story to the class. But, as I got older, writing became more of a chore, something to do for a grade.
When high school graduation came, it was clear I wasn’t going to be a major league baseball player, and I sure didn’t want to fight in a war (Vietnam) that made no sense, so off to college I went. That’s where I got excited about the power of words. Reading can take you anywhere, and it can teach you anything you want to know. I graduated in 1973 with a degree in education.
Armed with my interest in words, I began teaching. The books my students read intrigued me, and it wasn’t long before I was thinking I wanted to be a writer. I just didn’t have a clue on how to go about it. So, I started small: letters to the editor, magazine articles, short stories, plays. Some of them even got published!
My interest in nonfiction came after my son, Tyler, was born. Watching him explore the world with wonder ignited my own curiosity, which had somehow cooled over the years. That’s when I started writing nonfiction. Nonfiction is about wondering, asking questions, seeking answers, and sharing them.
The curiosity I rekindled still guides me as I write today.
Here are the most popular questions I get about my writing:
Why is your website called Real Writing?
It’s because most of the writing I do is about real things. The term for that kind of writing is nonfiction, but I hate that word. Hate it! Think about it: it’s a word that tells what it’s not rather than what it is. Crazy! It’s like saying there’s no such word as females; we’ll just call you nonmales. Likewise, male is not a word; you guys are nonfemales! Instead of saying nonfiction, I’ll use other words, such as Real Writing. When I visit schools, we have contests to come up with words to replace nonf… It’s great fun!
I don’t want to be a professional writer, so why should I care about writing?
That’s a great question, since the percentage of people who earn their living by writing books is very small. The reason to care about writing is that it will help you in many areas of your life. Writing well will help you get better grades in school. It will help you get into schools to further your education. Studies show that writing helps people get jobs, and it helps them get promoted in their jobs. Best of all, though, is that writing helps you think.
Where do you like to write?
Anywhere and everywhere. I write wherever I happen to be. If I’m traveling, I write on the plane or in the hotel room. If I’m in a meeting, I often think about my writing and jot down ideas. The best place for me to write, though, is in my office at home. It is quiet there (I like quiet when I’m writing) and has plenty of pencils and paper that I use when I start a project. After I have the words the way I want them, I’ll type them into my computer and change them some more. On the walls of my office I hang framed copies of my books. These are celebrations of the work I have done. I also keep reminders from book projects: a gumball machine (The Chewing Gum Book), a giant sneaker bag as well as a signed Shaquille O’Neill shoe (Sneakers: The Shoes We Choose), and a model of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay (Hiroshima: 50 Years of Debate). In the corner of my office sits an electric guitar I play when I need a break from writing.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It’s different from book to book. The first book I wrote, The Chewing Gum Book, took two years. That’s because it started out as another book — a book about peppermint. When the peppermint manuscript didn’t sell, a local librarian asked me what peppermint is used for. After I told her “chewing gum” she remarked that this would be a great subject for a book. An idea was born! So, I went back and rewrote the book. Most of my books take from six months to a year. That time is spent coming up with good questions, finding the answers to those questions, and then writing, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting some more.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a writer?
Write, write, write. And write some more. Just like anything else, you’ll get better at writing by writing. You won’t get better by wishing or hoping or thinking about it. You will get better by doing it. Write notes and letters and e-mails, keep a journal, a blog or both, compose stories, create poems, think up songs. What are you passionate about? Write about it. That’s how you share your interests. That’s how you make sure your ideas will be remembered. Don’t forget to read, too. See what other people are writing, and how they are writing it. From them you’ll get ideas to help make your writing better.
What do you like most about writing?
I like words, playing with them, then shaping them into sentences, paragraphs, and books. Writing books provides me with an outlet for my curiosity. I wonder something, develop questions about it, seek answers, and then share the answers with readers. The best part of it all is seeking the answers to my questions. I feel like an explorer as I travel, interview people, take notes, and photograph. And when I find fascinating facts, I feel like an explorer discovering lands I hadn’t known before.
What do you like least about writing?
Imagine researching and writing a manuscript for six months to a year and then not being able to find a publisher who wants to make it into a book. This happens sometimes, and it’s very frustrating. So, you have some choices: you can keep sending out the manuscript to publishers and hope you find one who likes it, you can put up the money and publish it yourself, or you can file your manuscript in a drawer and forget about it. I have done all three of these. I don’t have trouble coming up with ideas for topics to write about, but sometimes I can’t think of the right words to write on the paper. When this happens, I just leave a space and come back to it later. At some point I will be able to find the right word. My favorite saying about being blocked as a writer is to “Lower your standards and move on.”
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I enjoy traveling, and have been to every state in the United States except one: Alaska. I love visiting Mexico, and I go there whenever I can. I have also been to Argentina, Costa Rica, Peru, Uruguay, and Japan. Besides traveling, I like to hike, rollerblade, bicycle, and swim. I have a sailboat and make great use of it during our beautiful Oregon summers.
Of all the books you’ve written, what is your favorite?
Books are like children; you’re not supposed to have favorites. Each book is my favorite as I’m working on it. It has to be that way, because it takes so much time and energy to write it that it’s necessary to direct your enthusiasm to that project if you want it to be the best that it can be. I try to celebrate each book when it’s done. That’s why every book I’ve written has an honored place on my wall. When I look back, though, three books really stand out for me: The Chewing Gum Book because it was my first, Game Day because it was such an interesting experience researching the book, and The Magic of A.C. Gilbert because I was involved in every part of creating the book (whew!).
Where do you get the ideas for your books?
My ideas come from everywhere. I get ideas for books when I’m traveling, I get ideas when I’m reading. I get ideas when I watch TV, search the internet, talk to friends, or when I’m hiking, swimming, or sailing. Most of the time the idea comes in the form of a “I wonder” question, like “I wonder how chewing gum is made?” or “I wonder what people around the world have used as money?” or “I wonder what Thomas Jefferson’s everyday life was like?” I have folders filled with ideas. Sometimes I wish I had fewer ideas because it is impossible to work on them all. So, I choose the one I’m most excited about, the one I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about, the one I can’t keep out of my mind. And then I begin.
What about mistakes?
What about them? The only people who don’t make them are the ones who don’t try to do anything. If you write, you’ll make mistakes: spelling, punctuation, you name it. Everybody does. Everybody! That’s why it’s so important to go back over your writing. And that’s why I love erasers so much. Even the old fashioned kind!
Okay, so what’s with all the question marks???
Yes, the question marks! They are here to remind you how important questions are. Questions are the key to writers and to readers. Writers use questions to explore and understand topics, including themselves. Readers use questions to stay connected to the works they are reading. I hope you will use questions to guide your writing and reading. Ask questions and seek answers!