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When and How Did You Learn to Write?


Do you remember when and how you learned to write?

Most of us learned by reading and imitating the writings of others. We may have been guided by parents and teachers, but we had to practice on our own. What many of us would readily admit, I suspect, is that we're still learning how to write.

To spark your own thoughts on the subject, read these reflections from four authors on how they learned to write. Then respond to the question at the end of this article.

  • Benjamin Franklin, American statesman and scientist
    About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. . . . I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With that view, I took some of the papers, and making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by for a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. I then compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults and corrected them.
    (The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, 1789)

  • Frederick Douglass, a slave in Maryland until the age of 20
    With playmates for my teachers, fences and pavements for my copy books, and chalk for my pen and ink, I learned the art of writing. . . . When my mistress left me in charge of the house, I had a grand time; I got Master Tommy's copy books and a pen and ink, and, in the ample spaces between the lines, I wrote other lines, as nearly like his as possible. The process was a tedious one, and I ran the risk of getting a flogging for marring the highly prized copy books of the oldest son.
    (The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845)

  • Robert Louis Stevenson, Scottish novelist, essayist, and travel writer
    I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in. As I walked, my mind was busy fitting what I saw with appropriate words; when I sat by the roadside, I would either read, or a pencil and a penny-version book would be in my hand, to note down the features of the scene, or commemorate some halting stanzas. Thus I lived with words. And what I thus wrote was for no ulterior use; it was written consciously for practice.
    ("A College Magazine." Memories and Portraits, 1887)

  • Penelope Niven, American author and teacher
    I needed to learn to write now. There was no time to waste. I found paper and a pencil and a favorite storybook, and sat down at the kitchen table to teach myself to write the letters of the alphabet. Once I mastered them, I thought, I would be well on my way to being a writer. When my parents saw what I was up to, they listened patiently to my explanation, and began to give me writing lessons. I was enchanted. . . .

    Yet I was in my forties, wearing those braces and struggling in that swimming class, before I made a serious, full-hearted commitment to writing. "How did I get to be this old?" I asked myself. "Just a moment ago I was five, resolving to be a writer. In another moment I'll be eighty, and full of regret, if I don't dive into the writing." I knew too many older people who seemed eaten up with regret. Intimidated by the prospect of a bitter old age, I threw myself into the writing. Walked to the edge and jumped in feet first, scared to death to do it, but more afraid not to.
    (Swimming Lessons: Life Lessons from the Pool, from Diving in to Treading Water. Harcourt, 2004)

Now it's your turn: let us know when and how you learned to write.

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