How My Pen Became Mightier Than My Sword

10:02 PM

After this week's series of articles I have written for AOPA.org about their Favorite Aircraft Challenge, I've received a few nice emails, including one who asked how I developed my writing style. So in the interest of introducing myself a little more to my readers, here's a few words on how this blog and my articles are produced, and some backstory about the guy who produces it:

After a flight at age 10 in what I sort of remember to be a 707 from FAT north to Seattle, I was so jazzed about flying, my mother, Joan, suggested I write United Airlines a letter to thank them for the awesome flight. My mom was a very creative woman, an artist, a real "zany" lady. If you can imagine Carol Burnett crossed with Lucille Ball, that was my mom. I knew nothing about writing letters at age 10, but did know that mom had a way with people. Through her tenacious gift of gab as well as her insane ability to sting together the right combination of written words, she could make anyone ask "how high" whenever she wrote the word "jump." She helped me write that letter, and after stamping the envelope with me, we sat back and waited.
Now you would think that even back in 1966, United was getting flooded with letters, so naturally they would ignore one from a 10-year-old pup in Fresno. Not so. A few weeks later, I received a thick Manila envelope from the Office of the Chairman, United Airlines. Inside was several 8 x 10 black and whites of historic United planes, a booklet containing every shred of available data and trivia on them, and a gigantic brochure announcing the hottest plane in the sky, their new 747! On top of this monster pile of airplane stuff was a personalized letter from the CEO himself, thanking ME, a 10-year-old snot-nosed brat, for allowing THEM to fly ME in THEIR jetliner! It was that day that Jumpin' Joanie proved to me that compared to a sword, the pen is a far mightier instrument.

From those early days when I pecked away at an old family Smith-Corona, I progressed without even trying to a point in 1980 when I was covering Central California auto racing stories for a gaggle of regional and national papers. From Indy cars in Portland, Oregon to World of Outlaws sprinters in Knoxville, Iowa, you could find me with my bag of Minolta film cameras out there deep into the apex of turn one, so close to the track I'd scare the hell out of the ambulance drivers.

That freelance career turned into a real newspaper job in 1984 when I took a Sports Editor's position at a small weekly in Reedley, CA. My favorite part of that job was my weekly "Sports Insight" column, which was sometimes pretty far out there for my ultra-conservative readership. But the paper's owners leaned right and I've always leaned left, so that full-time gig ended two years later. At that point, I met my wife Julie, it was 1987 and we began what is now 25 years of wedded and business bliss. In 1998 we opened our ad agency, and now, just about 16 years later, here I still am, busier then ever.
During these "typewriter" years – including my first electric, bought by my sister Mary to jump start a career she knew was inside me – Jumpin' Joanie always pushed me to write, and to read newspapers. It was always a treat to find a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle, and prompted by words from those often green pages, I developed a writing style that has been called "Herb Caen meets Dave Berry." I don't try to be high brow, and I don't aim my work at low brow readers either. I just plunder through a story, hoping my fingers move just slightly faster then my brain. If the letters string together something readable, I publish it, and usually have no regrets.
I still pound away at my articles and blog posts, only now using a Macbook Pro instead of a worn manual typewriter. The vast majority of what you see on this blog comes directly from my heart, and is written first time through in one sitting, with the prerequisite time taken to keep the typo police off my back. Writing about flying is not work for me, the words are already hard-wired into my soul.
But these days, I often meet young people who can only write with their thumbs on a cell phone. Yeah, sure, there are lots of brilliant young people who publish brilliant blogs on seriously relevant topics. But for every one brilliant young blogger, there are many "writers" who have never cracked an AP Stylebook, or even know what that is. Many cannot spell without a spell checker application, and few of them know how to form a business letter. I find this trend disturbing, as writing is the very core of this country's existence. Try writing the Declaration of Independence on your cell phone sometime.
So for the future of the U.S.A., if you have 'tweenage' kids in the house, encourage them to learn creative writing, the fine art of stringing words together to get a point across. It is not that hard, any kid can do it because I did. I've made a career out of writing, and I've only had six DAYS of college. I always encourage young people to attend college, but the skills needed to write clearly are available to school kids long before they sit down to take the SATs.

But first, we have to tear them away from their video games and text messages long enough to teach them the most important skill I believe they can learn...the ability to communicate with the written word. When they learn how to do that, anything they can dream is attainable. If they neglect to learn creative writing and basic English and composition, I believe their chances of developing a serious professional career doing anything beyond burger flipping will be nil.

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