What my dad taught me about writing

My father, Jim Milliken, didn't leave his work at the office and never hesitated to discuss it, resulting in valuable lessons for a future writer.

My father, Jim Milliken, didn’t leave his work at the office and never hesitated to discuss it, resulting in valuable lessons for a future writer.

Frequently on Fathers Day and Mothers Day, we’ll see pieces about the most important thing a parent taught the writer. I’ve always thought those were a little bogus — after all, every moment between a parent and child teaches the child something. Interaction between child and parent is what forms the future adult. For better or worse. So how can you possibly pick out the most important or a lifetime of lessons?

I’m a newspaper editor; so were my father and grandfather.  So of the zillion important things my dad taught me, I’d have to say what I learned about newspapers, editing and writing in general are right up there at the top. More importantly, though, the foundation of the newspapers, writing and editing part, is the thinking part. That’s a lesson both my parents taught us.

One of my earliest newspaper-related memories is my father and some of his newspaper buddies sitting around our living room, drinking beer no doubt, and debating whether the word “dildo” should have been used in the newspaper. If memory serves, a county sheriff either called someone that or otherwise used it in a quote. I don’t know if it appeared in the paper or almost did. I don’t even know if it was the paper he was working for at the time, the Dayton (Ohio) Journal Herald, or its arch-rival, the Dayton Daily News. What I do remember is asking “What’s a dildo? What’s a dildo? What’s a dildo?
over and over.

This was before parents repeatedly interrupted adult conversations to indulge every question from a kid. Not that, at 7 or 8 years old, I would have gotten an answer anyway. When no one answered my question, I looked it up in the dictionary. I don’t remember if it was there, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.

The episode is burned into my memory not so much because an exotic word was used, but because of the intensity of the discussion, the differing opinions. The fact that this one word could be debated with the same passion that the Vietnam War was being debated in living rooms at the time. I’m sure it’s the discussion, rather than the word itself, that has made that memory endure for more than forty years.

A year or so later, I was home “sick” from school the day after the Kent State shootings. As my devastated mom and an equally devastated neighbor discussed it  over coffee in the living room, I devoured that morning’s Dayton Daily News. I can even remember the layout — head and shoulders pictures of the four dead students at the top of the page. No one toned down the discussion because a child was present. No one stopped me from reading the newspaper.

What does any of this have to do with writing?

One thing I’ve found as both a newspaper editor and an editor of manuscripts — many by first-time writers — is that critical thinking is something that isn’t even part of the discussion when people are taught writing skills. The technical aspects of the craft are taught or self-taught to writers of everything from news to blogs to sci-fi novels. But few take it a step farther and talk about what the writer’s brain ought to be doing.

Writers must understand that their laptop isn’t an automatic writing machine. Once they gather the facts, they must go farther. Critical thinking is like having a debate with yourself and the facts. What do they mean? How can I dig deeper? What am I missing? What am I not being told? How can I shape this to actually SAY something?

When someone isn’t asking these questions it shows in the writing.

I’m not saying my parents never did our thinking for us.  Whether we were jumping off the garage roof with an umbrella to use as a “parachute,” lighting fires in the back yard, drawing on the walls, or whatever other mayhem we inflicted growing up, we were told in no uncertain terms we weren’t thinking. Believe me. But the biggest lesson about critical thinking came from simply being around them, listening, and not being shielded from things that kids “shouldn’t” see or hear.

Mom would read columns from the newspaper out loud to Dad at the breakfast table on Sunday mornings. When Dad wasn’t pounding at his typewriter or having long beer-fueled newspaper discussions with his buddies, he was reading Newsweek, Time or the variety of newspapers that were delivered or mailed to our house.

No one ever sat us down and said,  “You need to read, discuss, debate and think for yourself to be a productive member of society.” Not that I remember, anyway. But we saw it happening in our house every day. We grew up in an atmosphere where questioning was accepted and welcome. Where issues were debated and argued, nuances were parsed, facts were questioned.

On a long ride home from visiting relatives one year, my two brothers debated whether the mountains of western Massachusetts were volcanic or glacial, all the way from Pittsfield, Mass., to Augusta, Maine. I didn’t enjoy it, but it beats the hell out of kids wearing headphones or staring at Shrek III on the in-car DVD player for the fifteenth time.

No question was off limits. Even the dildo question, I’m sure, was ignored more because my father was deep into the debate rather than it was being asked by a small child. While the answer wouldn’t have clarified it for me, I’m sure, no one stopped me from asking the question or listening to the debate.

Last week I wrote on this blog about the lack of context in writing and the lack of care writers take to choose words that mean what they want to say. Those are two offshoots of the bigger issue — thinking. Deeper thinking means better writing.

Thanks, Dad.

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About Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at @mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Notes from a Cranky Editor all by herself, as well Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.
This entry was posted in Craft, Editing, Maureen Milliken, Writers, Writing, Writing lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What my dad taught me about writing

  1. Nice approach, Maureen — and critical thinking can make a huge difference in how a plot develops, too. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Jim Milliken says:

    And don’t think parents don’t learn a thing or two about critical thinking as those little innocents start practicing their developing skills on the old folks. It has been — still is — an invigorating experience. Mo and her sibs are still among the most thoughtful and interesting people I know. Wish I could take much of the credit, but I know better. Thanks, though, Mo.
    Dad

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