Why I Started To Write

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I’ve seen this quote all over the news lately. Funny thing, but I remember the quote and not the news story that prompted its use. The quote is from Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises. In it, Bill asks how Mike went bankrupt. Mike responds with the now literary meme, “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.”

It turns out this “gradually then suddenly” concept applies to a lot more than bankruptcy. Think about how the Roman Empire fell. This applies both to the OG empire centered in Rome and its successor centered in Constantinople. Both cities’ defenses eroded gradually, then suddenly, when the Visigoths/Ottomans stormed the gates.

Gradually then suddenly also helps explain how people become addicted to something. It starts with a simple “I’ll just try it once,” then moves to a “Hmm, that felt good and another one won’t hurt.” Pretty soon it becomes a habit and suddenly it’s an addiction.

It’s not just people or psychology, either. It extends to the physical universe, too. The whole point of achieving “critical mass” is to initiate a nuclear reaction (whether we’re talking about power plants, bombs, or even the stars in the sky). For example, to start a nuclear fission chain reaction, atomic collisions produce neutrons. This production grows gradually until the number of neutrons produced exceeds the number of neutrons absorbed. Then, suddenly, critical mass is achieved, and a self-sustaining chain reaction begins.

Last weekend I was honored to have been asked to make a presentation in the Erie County Fair Museum about my research into (and subsequent book about) the origin of the hamburger. During the Q&A portion of these talks, I usually get asked about how to be a successful writer. (If you’re interested in this, see my answer in “How To Be A Successful Writer In Five Easy Steps,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, February 3, 2022)

This time, however, the moderator asked, “When did you start writing?”

I immediately thought of Hemingway. I didn’t think the crowd would appreciate that literary allusion. Instead, I relayed one anecdote and made it seem like that triggered my writing career. In truth, it really did happen gradually, then suddenly.

Here’s the real story…

It may be hard to believe, but it all started in first grade. Specifically, in the spring. More specifically, within a few days after March 12th.

How do I know this? Because that’s the day my sister was born. Here’s why I remember it so vividly.

Miss Jackson had called me up from my desk to stand in front of the class. I thought I was in trouble. Then she told me I had a special announcement to make to the entire class. I thought I was in big trouble. I looked at her and said, “What is it?” She said, “You know.” That did it. I was in really big trouble.

I stood silent. So, Miss Jackson took the lead and announced my mother had just brought home a baby sister. Now I was really confused. “How did Miss Jackson know?” We were taught to never talk about family outside of our home.

But that wasn’t the reason Miss Jackson called me in front of the class. She gave us an assignment. I don’t remember what the exact assignment was, but I know what I did for it. I wrote a short story called “Herbie the Helicopter.” It was a helicopter version of the train that said, “I Think I Can” with a twist of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Miss Jackson liked it, and she asked me to read it to the entire class.

Then she sent me to the second-grade class across the hall to read it. I thought, “Wow!” I’m sure the second graders thought something else.

Flash forward nine years. By then I hated English class. Every class, every teacher since middle school had been a constant rebellion. I was the science guy. Fiction was the antithesis of non-fiction. And poetry—feelings—well, that was simply out of the question. (It wouldn’t be until college that my inner Kirk would take over. During high school, I was Spock all the way. Friends even signed my yearbook “Dear Mr. Spock.”)

In tenth grade, we were told to read a novel and write a literary analysis of it. Well, that was one step too far. Read! No way. Then write about it! Double no way. I convinced about half the class to join me and boycott the homework assignment.

The teacher, Mr. Clauss, who would later become an attorney, listened calmly to us rebels. He paused before responding. Then matter-of-factly decreed, “OK, you don’t have to read a novel and analyze it…”

You could see the smiles beam among my classmates.

But then Mr. Clauss added, “…all you have to do is write a novel instead.”

Those smiles turned upside down with a collective and incredulous, “What!?!”

Everyone did the original assignment.

Except me.

I refused to give up. I wrote a novel. Got an ‘A’ for it. Mr. Clauss even suggested I might be like Isaac Asimov, a trained scientist who was a best-selling sci-fiction novelist. I scoffed at the idea, then. While I was proud of my “novel” in 10th grade, when I look at it today, the writing embarrasses me.

Still, the battle with English class continued. Eleventh grade featured a daily repartee between me and Mr. Harvey. Twelfth grade had me “unionize” the class one day and go on “strike.” I regularly turned in Mr. Polito’s daily quizzes with blank or irrelevant answers. Somehow, and quite surprisingly, I passed. And with grades high enough to maintain an honor roll standing. I never understood that. But I am thankful for it.

My war against English continued as a freshman in college. Where distribution requirements demanded I take at least one course in English Literature. With delicious cynicism, I drafted my first paper comparing a novella by Joseph Conrad (The Secret Sharer) with an episode of Star Trek (“The Enemy Within”). Rather than startling the professor, she startled me with an ‘A’ saying it was the first time someone used a pop culture reference.

Befuddled but undaunted, I continued my quest to challenge my English professor. But it was the term paper at the end of this class that finally showed me something I never before realized.

Next Week: The rest of the story and when I finally knew I was a writer.


  1. […] things just happen. And not all at once. What’s my story? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Why I Started To Write,” to see what it has in common with Ernest Hemingway, atomic bombs, and the fall of the Roman […]

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