However great a man’s natural talent may be, the act of writing cannot be learned all at once.
My writing journey began when I was a teenager, spawned by my older sister’s love of poetry and her natural talent for expressing her thoughts in elegant poetic verse. I experimented with the genre which helped me tap into my imagination. Later, when my brother formed a musical band, he let me write lyrics for some of his songs. None saw the light of day, but I had lots of fun writing them.
Then came books. I devoured them. The stories and their authors were teachers, subconsciously whispering into my ear how to craft a story. The Old Man and The Sea; I, Judas; Gone With the Wind; Atlas Shrugged; The Godfather; The Lord of The Rings; Disgrace – the list is long, as is the journey in honing my skills.
My favourite authors of the time were Ernest Hemingway and Taylor Caldwell. For the longest time Caldwell was presumed to be a man. There was even public annoyance when it was revealed the author was a woman. Imagine that. Yet her emotionally charged historical novels captivated readers around the world.
Some books have held a special place for me. While I lived for a while in Siena, Italy, I vividly remember reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, the story of the life of Michelangelo. During one of my several jaunts to Florence, I stopped at the Piazza della Signoria. Sitting at a café, reading about Michelangelo, while drinking one espresso after another, I knew I was at the very place where the political and social life dominated fourteenth-century Florence. A place where great triumphs were celebrated and protests occupied the public square. I looked up, across to the Palazzo Vecchio, where next to the entrance stood a replica statue of Michelangelo’s David. I imagined the original – gigantic and impressive. Even from where I sat, I could make out the veins that Michelangelo painstakingly carved to bulge out of David’s right hand.
It was as if time had placed me at this very setting, just as I was reading about a rebellion against the Medici, where rioters occupied the Palace. The rebels threw furniture from inside to stave off soldiers. A bench tumbled down and struck the left arm of the David breaking it off in three pieces. Good thing the original statue was eventually moved to the Accademia Gallery, to protect it from further damage.
But my experience with reading the story of Michelangelo didn’t end there. Back in Siena, I was fortunate to have met and had tea with Ginevra Bonelli Chigi Zondadari Colonna, also referred to by Irving Stone, in his credits, as a descendant of Vittoria Colonna. While we sipped from fine China cups, sitting across from each other on antique divans in her salon, adorned with Renaissance artifacts and paintings, Ms. Ginevra Collona recounted her meetings with Stone and how she helped him with his research about the Marchesa di Pescara, Vittoria Colonna.
The Marchesa, an Italian noblewoman ranking above a countess and below a princess, developed a close relationship with Michelangelo. The well-educated Vittoria Colonna had become one of the most popular female poets of sixteenth-century Italy. Michelangelo and Colonna were united by poetry. Some of his finest sonnets were about the Marchesa and he made drawings of her too. In turn she gifted him with a manuscript of spiritual poetry. During that time, she was 50 years old and he was 65.
I still hold dear to me the original paperback of Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, signed by Ms. Ginevra Collona.
So, you can see that I gravitate towards historical novels. Nonetheless reading from a wide genre has nurtured my interest in learning how writers write. Of course, graduating with a history degree also explains my inclination to write historical novels.
When I eventually challenged myself to write a book, I had little knowledge about the craft. I had studied Journalism, which helped. I wrote newsletter and magazine articles. But this wasn’t the same as writing a novel. I wrote organically, letting my imagination write the story. Soon I delved into books on writing, even re-read them in case I missed something the first time. Even today they are a valuable resource by my side, a plethora of knowledge to guide me through my travails. Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel, The Fire In Fiction and Writing 21st Century Fiction; Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey; Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages; John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story; Jack Hodgins’ A Passion for Narrative; and, Jane Friedman’s The Business Of Being A Writer are my best friends. As the circle grows, so do I as an aspiring author.
The English poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Networking with colleagues is so important. Through writing workshops, presentations, writing groups such as WCDR (Writers’ Community of Durham Region), etc., I have drawn on the experiences of others to help me on my quest.
As for the other passion, during my younger days, basketball became the anchor to my growth as a person and has given me the drive the never give up. From my days playing at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, to York University, to playing professionally in Italy (now you know what I was doing in Siena besides reading and drinking espresso), those with whom I crossed paths, coaches and players, all added to me becoming me.
The greatest reminder in forging ahead, no matter your goal, came from Jim Valvano, the exuberant coach of North Carolina State University, whose team won the National Basketball Championship in 1983 against the most improbable odds. In 1992 Valvano gave an inspirational speech – a memorable and motivational one about the importance of hope, love and persistence. His key message, in his words, “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.” Sadly, two months later Jim Valvano had succumbed to cancer, diagnosed earlier that year.
And so, my journey continues, with Valvano whispering in my ear, whose words of never giving up are added to the voices teaching me how to craft a story. I venture to unleash the lessons of life experiences, woven into stories to inspire, to inform and to see the world in a different way.
Join me on my journey.