When Did You Start Writing Fiction? She Asked
Writing has always been a part of my life. As a farm kid, I was sometimes dissatisfied with the stories my parents and other family members read to me. I concluded that resetting them in modern times and changing the endings could improve the stories. During my fourth grade year at a one-room school, I read the World Book Encyclopedia. Dissatisfied with its history of Greece and the Greek write-up in my world history book, I started writing my own Greek history, abandoned when summer came and never revived. These projects were undertaken in the winter, after the cows were milked and the hogs fed, when the days were short, and sitting by the fire with a pad of paper and pencil was a pleasant way to spend the long evenings.
In college my English literature and French classes required lots of writing. I was a better writer in French than a speaker of the language. On graduation I was admitted to Columbia University for a graduate degree in history of drama to prepare for a career as a professor. The summer I graduated I went to New York City and spent time at the Columbia Library preparing for my classes in the fall.
Fate intervened, in this case my draft board, and before classes began in September 1954 Uncle Sam decided he needed my services. Thanks to a total immersion, one-year Spanish class in high school taught by a college professor, I ended up in Panama as a special agent in the Army Counterintelligence Corps. I would have preferred the station in Paris, but Panama was better than Korea where most of my training class ended up. After graduating from college I was a high school English teacher for a semester, helping create my Panamanian CIC cover story that I was an English teacher in a private school in Panama. I wasn’t a teacher, but I learned a lot about some things I couldn’t talk about.
While in Panama I abandoned teaching as a career and decided to be a lawyer. I applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted. My classes required writing, and I won first prize in a legal document-drafting program. While in law school I was also a Teaching Fellow in the English Department at Harvard College teaching grammar and writing to foreign students.
My legal career involved a constant flow of contracts and prospectuses for securities offering and the development of firm-wide training programs that included drafting and other writing projects.
When I started writing fiction is difficult to answer. The children’s stories I “modified”? The reports about Communist and other nefarious activities I wrote as a special agent in Panama? Sometimes the “facts” needed a little coloring to get attention at Headquarters, which designated my reports as the standard for good writing. Actually, my Panamanian secretary did the first drafts, she being a better speller than I, and I was the editor. The sisters at the convent school she attended were good writing teachers. Some of the prospectuses for public offerings I worked on as a lawyer may have approached fiction, although none ever landed in court.
A couple of years ago I commenced writing a fictionalized version of my tour of duty entitled Hot Times in Panamá: What Would You Do to Serve Your Country, a novel published earlier this year. That’s when I’ll take the responsibility for writing fiction. Fiction writing isn’t easy, though. You think you’ve told the story correctly, and then a character accuses you telepathically that you’ve never understood her and demands you write another story to “get the facts right.” What does a fictional character know about “facts”? How does she know what’s “right”? Sometimes it’s like living with the enemy.