Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Accidental Venture into Writing

By Chester Campbell

How authors get started in writing is a fascinating subject. I've read countless stories of people who wanted to be an author from the time they learned to hold a pencil. Others knew it would be their fate on reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew as youngsters. I'm not one of them.

I've told a bit of the story on the F.A.Q.s page of my website. Although I was a dedicated reader of short stories in The Saturday Evening Post and other weekly magazines as a teen, I never considered writing them myself. My closest connection to the printed page was as co-business manager (make that advertising salesman) for my 1943 high school annual, The Grey Eagle.

After graduation, I volunteered for Aviation Cadet training in the Army. My World War II military career did not consist of air raids on Tokyo or Berlin, however. I was shifted about from base to base waiting for openings in the next phase of training. I wound up in the summer of 1945 at Randolph Field in San Antonio, a legendary base with permanent buildings. I was assigned as a clerk in the VOQ, Visiting Officers Quarters, located upstairs above the Officers Mess.

I had a partner on the job, another cadet named Wolfson, who had spent a year at Yale before going into the service. While chatting one day, he told me that if he had it to do again, he would study journalism. For some reason, that idea took root in my mind. The more I thought about it, the more intriguing it sounded.

We had a typewriter in the VOQ office. I had used it to hunt and peck letters and such. After news of the atomic bomb exploded across the front pages, I sat down at the typewriter and began punching out a story involving a nuclear weapon. I don't think I got too far with it as the war quickly came to an end, and we began to consider what would happen next.

A lot of the guys who had volunteered for Cadet training came from families in high places. I heard that some of them had lobbied the War Department (now Defense) to release us, rather than put us in other Army units for postwar occupation assignments. Whatever happened, orders came down in the fall giving us the option of taking a discharge. I was ready to head home and resume my education, so I split.

I wanted to study journalism. I learned that the big J schools were upper class programs, meaning I couldn't get in until I was a junior. So I enrolled at the University of Tennessee in January of 1946. I considered transferring to Wisconsin, one of the top-rated J schools, but I learned that UT would have a reporting course in my sophomore year. I signed up for that one and enjoyed it immensely. The following year, a full journalism program was established.

I had worked on the student newspaper, the Orange and White, and was tapped to be managing editor of one of the semi-weekly editions. However, my reporting course teacher returned to his post as executive editor of The Knoxville Journal and offered me a job as a reporter. I skipped the student assignment and became a cub reporter at the morning daily.

I quickly found my forte was writing feature stories, finding interesting twists to make articles come alive more than with a straight news treatment. After reading two mystery books by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and No Pockets in a Shroud), I decided to write one of my own. Going to school in the day and working nights didn't leave a lot of spare time, but I sat down in my basement room at the fraternity house and banged out a mystery novel on my little Smith-Corona portable.

The manuscript was rejected by a publisher, and I was too much a neophyte to know I should try others. I was hooked on mysteries, though, and on writing in general. I've been at it now for more than sixty years. Who knows what I would have done if it hadn't been for Cadet Wolfson?


Carola Dunn said...

I'm an accidental writer. I had a lot of part-time and temp jobs (from child care to construction) while my son was small. Then came the dreaded moment when I had to think about getting a Proper Job. To postpone it, I wrote my first book. No one was more surprised than I when I actually finished it, and then sold it.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I came up the writing ranks much the same as you did, Chester, although I didn't serve in the military. Rearing five kids was enough battle for me. High school and college journalism had me hooked for newspaper reporting but I really wanted to write novels, which I finally did after seven nonfiction books.

Bill Kirton said...

My bet, Chester, is that you'd have ended up writing with or without Cadet Wolfson's intervention. I know there are lots of people nowadays who are writing because they think it's easy and a quick route to fame, but many of them just aren't writers and never will be. That's not me being patronising, it's me reacting as a normal reader to dull, badly written material.

Chester Campbell said...

You may be right, Bill, but I've no doubt the prompt to study journalism gave me a jump-start into the writing game. I think it's no accident that so many ex-newspaper folks are writing mysteries these days. Fortunately for them, they made the switch to fiction much earlier than I did.

Jaden Terrell said...

Chester, we are all fortunate that Cadet Wolfson put the writing bug in your ear.