How Did You Learn to Write?

By Howard Means

Learning to write (I now realize) was largely a matter of unconscious imitation. I had been in an English honors program in college. A lot of voices were pounding around in my head, vying for attention: Donne, Hemingway, Whitman, Milton, Faulkner, Mann, Kafka, Marvell, Red Smith (I was a baseball nut, too), the collective geniuses of Mad magazine, Greene, Twain, Nathaniel West, Eliot, Yeats, the King James Bible — the list goes on and on, and there’s an argument here for sheer memorization.

I never rose to the level below the level of any of those models, but eventually all that exposure and intracranial warfare settled into a writing style that, however derivative, was pretty much my own.

Bottom line: I learned it from books, but I never could have learned it from a book.

Howard Means was a Washingtonian editor and writer. He’s the author or co-author of ten books, including most recently Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth, the American Story, and he’s had a hand in another 30-plus books over the past two decades.
From Jack Limpert: I’ve asked about a dozen writers the “How Did You Learn to Write?” question and will post their answers in the coming weeks. If you have a story to tell about how you learned to write, send it to [email protected] along with a line or two about your writing background.



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