Wednesday, January 17, 2007

How I Got Started Writing, Part I

Thanks to the Crosley book making the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists, I’ve been interviewed by several newspapers. Most of the reporters were curious as to how I got into writing for publication. In case you're curious, too, here’s the story I told them:

Although I always did well in languages in grade school and high school (English and Spanish), I never gave a thought to being a writer. I admired several writers, but if I thought about what I would do “when I grew up,” I figured I would be an aeronautical engineer or, later, a rock musician.

Aside from class assignments, my writing was limited to a few songs and quite a bit of poetry. Most of the poetry consisted of typical teenage angst and social criticism, as did the song lyrics. An English teacher persuaded me to give one short poem to the school newspaper as part of a class project. It was published, but I didn’t see myself as a writer. I felt more like I was just getting something off my chest, and otherwise didn't share my poetry. (The paper was the Milford [Ohio] High School Reflector.)

My first serious thoughts of writing were inspired a couple of years later by a fellow named Cary Sunderhaus. Cary and I had been friends off and on through most of high school. After graduation I moved out of Milford and we saw less of each other. But I still picked up the hometown weekly newspaper, the Milford Advertiser. One Friday I was scanning its pages when a familiar name caught my eye. There, beneath a headline about a golf tournament was the line, "by Cary Sunderhaus." When did he start writing?

I read the article, which was well-written, and thought, “This looks like fun. I'll bet I can do it, too!”

I’m not completely sure where that thought came from, but thus was born an urge to write and be read that continues to drive me today. It was supported by my having recently bought a cheap typewriter at a yard sale. I had no idea what I would do with it at the time; it just seemed like a good idea to own a typewriter. (I had taken typing in high school for the easy half-credit, finishing with a C-.)

And now I had a use for the typewriter.

Going from idea to publication was fairly easy, thanks to the fact that the paper’s editor, Leona Farley, was the mother of another friend, Mike Farley. If I hadn’t known her, I probably would not have approached the paper; I was seriously introverted.

But having a contact gave me confidence. All I needed was something to write about. Something timely and newsworthy ...

The subject came to me almost immediately: it was May, 1971, and everyone was complaining about a proposed increase in the cost of a First Class stamp, from six cents to eight cents. I would, I decided, write a public service piece about the issue. Pencil and notebook in hand, I went to the Milford Post Office, where I interviewed a clerk with whom I’d often spoken, and asked two customers what they thought about the increase. Armed with carefully copied quotes, I went home to tap out the story on the old typewriter. I kept in mind the “who, what, when, where, why” rules I’d once read about newspaper writing, but mainly my technique was to write and rewrite until the story “felt” right.

The next day I took my two-page manuscript to Leona Farley. She looked it over, made some corrections, and told me she would see if the paper could use it. Three days later I opened the paper to find myself in print!

There followed a few more stories for the Advertiser, after which I branched out with small pieces for other local weekly papers. Leona was encouraging, and helped me improve my writing with suggestions like, "If you're not sure you have the right word, replace it with its antonym. If you do that and the sentence says the opposite of what you wanted to say, you had the right word."

All of which helped prepare me for the next step: writing for national magazines. My first editor would have a role in that chapter of my writing career, too.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks


Anonymous said...


Thanks for this post and the previous one! I am looking forward to Part II. It is great to see the story of how others have made their way. It is an inspiration.

C. Eric Banister

Michael A. Banks said...

Thank you, Eric. I'm putting together Part II now. In doing so, I'm remembering influences I'd forgotten.