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QUESTION:

Could you tell me some things about your childhood that maybe brought your interest in writing?

-- Submitted Anonymously

OSC REPLIES: - April 5, 2000

My parents read, cared about reading, read to us kids, encouraged us to read to them, and had book available all the time. They gave us favorite books from their childhood (which is why I read The Bobbsey Twins, the Thornton W. Burgess animal tales, and the Elswyth Thane Williamsburg novels). While my parents worried that I read so much -- there were constant suggestions that perhaps I should go outside more instead of staying indoors reading all summer -- they still gave me my head, letting me read whatever I wanted, and only occasionally intervening to talk about ideas that I was getting from books, making sure that I knew which ones they thought were unhelpful or untrue. In short, they made reading an important part of our family life.

In particular, we had weekly family nights, in which we would take turns preparing religious lessons (or, sometimes, useful secular ones) for the whole family. When I was six, and my turn came up, my mother gave me a book by Emma Marr Peterson, Book of Mormon Stories for Young Latter-day Saints. It was a plain-language retelling of some of the more dramatic stories from that LDS scripture, with evocative engraving-style drawings here and there -- the kind of thing to set me dreaming. I prepared a lesson based on one of the stories, but then proceeded to devour the book. Ever since then, the Book of Mormon -- for I soon graduated to the real thing -- became a very important source of memory and understanding to me. Not to mention being the source of several of my early plays and the Homecoming novel series.

When I was nine or ten, my parents bought the World Book Encyclopedia (at some sacrifice, I might add, since we were always of insufficient income during that era, due to the debts incurred when my father's back operations shut down his sign-painting business and he went back to school). I had already read large sections of a one-volume encyclopedia that we had, but the World Book seemed like a miracle. Family legend has it that I started at volume A and read through from cover to cover, but I was never that methodical. Rather I would look something up, but then keep on reading, often until I finished that volume. And I'm sure that at some point I did read every page of the set. When the new yearbook came each year, I did read that from cover to cover.

My parents also gave me books that they thought might interest me. A book about great figures in medical history so intrigued me that for years I thought I wanted to be a doctor -- and I can still tell you pretty much what Pasteur, Lister, Fleming, Hippocrates, Galen, and others did for medical history. Around that time, my parents gave me Bruce Catton's three-volume "Army of the Potomac" -- definitely not a book for children! This book consumed me. It gave me a clear picture of the brutality of war, the cost of stupidity, and struggles of presidents to lead nations and find worthwhile commanders to serve under them. It also gave me a sense of what history ought to be, and a keen eye for detecting historical biases or sloppiness, for Catton was rigorous, and having seen rigor, I was much better able to detect its absence.

When I was ten, my sister was assigned to read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in high school. I read it, too, and was devastated. While it met my Catton-induced standard of historical rigor, merely knowing that such horror was possible in the real world broke my heart, and on that score my heart remains broken. But it also makes human decency all the more precious to me, not something to be taken for granted at all; and it makes me all the more impatient with nations that tolerate indecency in their leaders, knowing that nations are responsible for the acts that are done in their names.

What does this have to do with writing? If I had not received such powerful experiences from books, such life-forming experiences, I doubt that I would have turned to writing as a means of communicating similarly with others. Also, the knowledge of the real world that I gained in those formative years was the foundation on which I have since built all my later learning. It gave me a more sophisticated eye than I would have had for examining what my teachers told me about history. It made me, not cynical, but skeptical. Not that I was without error, but I did not continue to embrace error after more reliable information had become available to me.

And that is vital to the kind of writer that I am, and the kind of writing that I do. I do not base my writing on a desire to emulate the style of celebrated fiction writers. I base my writing on a desire to explore the human soul revealed to me by the seminal works of history, scripture, and science that shaped my world preemptively while I was still in grade school. As I tell writing teachers, the best way to teach writing is not to correct the style, but to challenge the ideas the student expresses. It is the subject matter that must always be viewed as the most important thing; the students will detect for themselves where their writing was ineffective, unbelievable, or unclear, by seeing where you didn't agree with, believe in, or understand what they wrote!

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