The following is an excerpt from the book, Why I Write: Craft Essays on Writing War, scheduled to be published by Middle West Press in December 2019. The one-of-a-kind anthology from the non-profit Military Writers Guild features essays from more than 60 leading and emerging writers offering their advice, techniques, and inspirations around themes of war and the military.
A long time ago, on a university campus far, far away…
For a third-year engineering student, Technical Writing for Engineers was an obligatory, necessary evil. Quite honestly, I’d never paid much attention in English class growing up, and typically used that time to either get a head start on other homework or to catch up on lost sleep. In high school, one of my friends actually tried to teach me how to sleep with my eyes open so I wouldn’t be so obvious to our English teacher, Mrs. Thompson. Writing just wasn’t my thing.
So, when I opened my class folder to find a note from the professor that simply said, “See me”, I wasn’t that surprised. To avoid spending too much time on my first paper, I’d regurgitated the text from one I wrote on Soviet missile design for a mechanical engineering class the previous semester. Well, I’d gambled and lost. A great way to start a new semester: who knew that the English and Engineering Departments actually shared notes?
Chuck Stratton was your stereotypical English professor. Rumpled, middle-aged, with a trademark cardigan sweater and shoes that were probably older than most of his students. Wire-rimmed bifocals perched atop a mop of unkempt graying hair. I sat down expecting to receive a lecture on student laziness, but what came next truly surprised me.
“I don’t appreciate plagiarism,” he said dryly, staring down at me over the top of his glasses. “You’re either the best writer I’ve seen in 25 years of teaching or you’re a plagiarist. Which is it?”
Well, I wasn’t a plagiarist, I assured him.
“Then you’re in the wrong major,” he replied. “You need to be developing this skill, putting it to use. You should be publishing already.”
Great. Three years into becoming an engineer, I find this out. “It’s a little late for me to switch majors,” I said.
“It’s never too late. You need to start writing now and keep after it. Assuming, of course, you’re not a plagiarist.”
It really was too late to change majors, but I did the next best thing, much to the chagrin of the cadre in my ROTC department: I delayed my graduation by nearly two years to hone a skill I never knew I possessed. I added English and History classes to my schedule that forced me to write more and engineer less. I parked my Hewlett-Packard calculator and learned to work on the word processors in the computer lab. I wrote and wrote a lot.
To this day I struggle with the taxonomy of the grammar police. I still don’t know the significance of a coordinating conjunction, and honestly can’t tell you the three forms of verbs. Nor do I care, for that matter. I write the way I write, and apparently it comes out of my head in a relatively properly structured manner, through no intention of mine. But why I write is far more important than how I write. Chuck Stratton’s last lesson to me still rings true today.
“Writing is our legacy.”
You see, we’re a storytelling people. We always have been. Whether we’re telling someone about the drunk uncle who ruined every Thanksgiving dinner or explaining the nuances of grand strategy to a colleague, we tell stories. Writing those stories down ensures that our thoughts, our ideas, live beyond our short time in this life. Those stories help others to see into your mind long after you’re gone, and ensures that others can learn from those stories, those thoughts, those ideas. But only if you write them down.
So, I began to write my stories. I researched my subjects and carefully crafted words around them. I approached every story as if I was sharing it over a cup of coffee, weaving a narrative that tied the facts together like a fireside chat. I set out to publish at least one article each year and met with greater success the more I wrote. My writing style evolved and eventually overcame all those days lost sleeping in Mrs. Thompson’s high school English class.
Not every article was published, and some of my best work was rejected outright as either “too folksy” or “insufficiently academic.” But I held true to form, with the firm belief that scholarly writing doesn’t necessarily have to be bland and dry. The only thing better than telling a good story is telling a good story well.
I revisited historical debates. I told stories about life and death. I revived the memories of people long since lost to the march of time and introduced new players on the grand stage of humanity. I explored the future, the opportunities and threats that awaited beyond the horizon. But I wrote and kept on writing.
Along the way, I challenged others to write as well. In every counseling session, during those momentary lulls in action during long deployments, over a cold beer in the lobby of the Embassy Suites, I made my case for building a personal legacy of knowledge. “Tell your story” will probably be my epitaph. Most ignored my counsel, but those who accepted the challenge found a welcoming audience eager to hear their stories.
Why does a legacy matter? Because when the flag finally passes on your career, you want something lasting to mark your contribution to our profession, something that endures beyond your time in the rank and file. Most of us won’t write memoirs, because, frankly, we’re just not that interesting. But we all have experiences to share and lessons to pass on. We have stories that need to be told.
What you give back to our professional body of knowledge matters. It makes a difference. And if we’re not here to make a difference, why are we here?