How I Started Writing
What is the probability that someone with a Ph.D. in physics, someone who dropped out of one course in creative writing because of poor work and who later signed up for a correspondence course in writing but never finished it, will someday write a first novel which will become a regional best-seller?
The probability is not zero because it happened to me.
I was born and raised in Montana. I graduated from Billings Senior High School and went to college at Montana State University in Bozeman, where I graduated in physics. Then I served a mission in New York and Pennsylvania.
After my mission I attended BYU as a graduate student in physics. I enjoyed physics then and still do today. It is, after all, what I spend most of my time doing.
One semester while at BYU I signed up for an elective course in creative writing. Within a few weeks it was apparent that I was in trouble – mainly because I didn’t write very well. The one time I ventured to tell my instructor I wanted to write LDS fiction, he said, “You’re not serious, are you?” Certainly a fair question based on what he had seen of my writing.
I became discouraged and dropped the course and didn’t think about writing again for several years.
Time passed. I married my wife, Sherry. We had a daughter Barbara, left BYU , and moved to South Dakota, where I worked as a physics teacher at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. We gained more children (Dan, Brad, Jed, and Josie). We acquired a house complete with mortgage and lawn and garden and appliances which kept breaking down. We were given Church callings.
In the summer of 1971 I had the opportunity to work at BYU doing high-pressure research in the Physics Department.
While in Provo that summer, we had time to spare – no lawn to mow or water, no garden to tend, no Church callings, no appliances to fix, and no TV in our off-campus apartment. I decided to splurge and take a correspondence writing course from BYU. Especially I wanted it to be by correspondence. Never again would I tell anyone face to face that I wanted to write.
The course cost me, as I remember it, $37.50. In addition there was the typewriter to rent. Feeling guilty for spending money so lavishly, I decided to try to write a short story for the New Era magazine. Maybe they would accept it and send me money to cover my expenses for the course.
I wrote a story, and they accepted it. I wrote a second story and they accepted it. I wrote a third story and they rejected it.
That’s it, I thought. I’m through being a writer. It’s a tough life.
But the next summer found us at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, doing research – again with no lawn, no garden, and no Church callings. I wrote a fourth story and it was accepted.
Enough’s enough, I thought. Are you going to be a physicist or are you going to be a writer?
There is a good chance I might never have written again except for one unforeseen event: I was called to be a bishop of our ward in Rapid City, South Dakota, the following December.
How, you ask, does that relate to writing?
In my job at the School of Mines, I was paid on a nine-month basis. At the end of every school year the problem became, How do we survive the summer? Previously we had left town to do research, but as a bishop that seemed impossible.
How else could I earn money?
I wrote Brian Kelly, editor of the New Era, and asked if I might submit more stories. He was very encouraging. So each summer for the next four years I wrote stories for the New Era.
Soon after I had been called as a bishop, our Young Women’s president kindly explained that I was supposed to interview the youth once a year and talk about their personal goals.
A nice idea, I thought. Youth should have goals.
As the months rolled by and the youth of our ward came to my office, I learned much more about goal-setting. I became converted to it myself. I learned that goals should (1) be measurable, (2) be specific, and (3) have a definite deadline for achievement.
I became a goal fanatic. Anytime I was asked to speak in public it ended up being a lesson about goal-setting.
Never will I forget the time a young man, having heard me preach setting goals and achieving them, asked, “Bishop, when are you going to do something?”
A fair question.
After four years I was released as bishop, totally grateful for the experience. I learned more about the Savior in those four years than at any other time in my life.
The next year I was asked to teach early-morning seminary. This meant getting up at five in the morning every school day in order to meet the class at six-thirty.
The following year I was called to be a stake clerk and didn’t have to teach seminary, but since I was already in the habit of getting up early, I decided to continue getting up in order to write something other than stories for the New Era. (By this time they had a ten-year supply of my stories.)
For the next year I got up early every morning and wrote. I wrote a screenplay and tried to sell it, but I was told that in order to sell a screenplay you need an agent. I tried to get an agent, but I was told that in order to get an agent you should have already sold some screenplays.
One January I went to New York City for a physics convention. While there, I saw a play by Neil Simon. That doesn’t look so hard, I thought. So I wrote a play.
My play was rejected by some of the best play-writing contests in this country.
Screenplays didn’t work, plays didn’t work – maybe I should try a novel.
In May of 1979, I sat at my desk and wrote, “I will write a novel this summer and will send it to a publisher by October.” A good goal – measurable, specific, and with a deadline.
That novel was Charly.
What if I had turned down the call to serve as a bishop? Where would I have learned what I needed to know about goal-setting? What if I had not accepted the call to teach early-morning seminary? Would I ever have decided to get up at five every morning to write without that year’s seminary experience? (No way!)
My experience has taught me this: When we accept a calling, we often think how much of a sacrifice it’s going to be and how noble we are to donate our time and talents. But when we do serve him, there is no sacrifice. He blesses us well beyond what we deserve, and when we finish we are more in debt to him than ever before.
He blesses us richly for any service we give. He helps us discover talents we never know existed within us.
That’s what happened to me.