brad birzer on writingWhen I first read a book about the meaning of liberty by Robert J. Ringer, my freshman year of high school, I knew that I wanted to be a writer. Indeed, I had suspected this for a long time. As early as fifth grade, I was that ultra weird kid who asked his teachers to be assigned research papers. Formally, the school system I attended did not present the ideas of research to students until junior year of high school, unless one elected to begin the debate program in one’s freshman or sophomore years—which, of course, I did. Still, I craved research and writing projects as early as age ten. Thirty-six years later, it is still my favorite thing to do outside of normal family things. For better or worse, I could live my life in front of a screen, armed with a keyboard, as long as I could take breaks to hike, play legos with the kids, and watch some science fiction every now and again.

This declared, I must also state that I have always looked for models of writing. My models beginning around age ten included J.R.R. Tolkien, Arthur Clarke, Ursula LeGuin, and, especially, Ray Bradbury. Later, I found T.S. Eliot and Russell Kirk.

I’ve tried my hand at fiction a number of times in my life, even writing a full-length but rather poor and pathetic science fiction/alternate history novel set in 1870s Kansas in a America that divided rather than waged a Civil War. I’ve had much better luck with some short fiction for young adults and a science fiction story (really, imaginative vignettes rather than full-fledged short stories with distinct beginnings and endings) here and there. I’ve even written some poems—mostly prose poems—that I have kept almost entirely to myself, though I’m fairly satisfied with them. I have, however, always felt called to write and to write and to write. The only time I’ve been recognized for fictional writing, however, was back in first grade. I felt so much in love with Beverly Cleary’s Ralph the Mouse that I wrote a short story about Ralph meeting Santa Claus and getting a new motorcycle. The sixth grade teacher at my grade school liked it so much that I was asked to present it to the entire sixth grade. I was on cloud nine reading that as a seven-year old. My older brother, Todd, a member of the sixth grade that year, looked utterly embarrassed.[1] Regardless, I was still proud. In seventh grade, I didn’t like too many of my teachers, but I did quite love our school librarian. I shared my fantasy fiction—all based on Tolkien, of course—with her and she gave me really positive feedback.

One of my favorite fictional writers, J. Michael Stracsyznski, has stated on several occasions that if you don’t want to spend your days living and breathing words on the typewriter or word processor (or equivalent writing technology), you’re not really a writer. A writer knows with absolute certainty what he is.

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted this, and I’ve felt called to do it.

I’ve looked for writing tools whenever and wherever possible as well. When in fifth grade (1978), I forced myself to begin typing on a manual typewriter. I was a wretched horrible typist, of course, but, importantly, I figured out the keys and all of the various parts of the typewriter. In 1982 (my eighth grade year), my family bought a Commodore 64. I spent countless painstaking hours typing in the code for a word processor, one provided by one of the many computer magazines available in the 1980s. Amazingly enough, I didn’t miss a keystroke in that elaborate code, and the word processor worked perfectly. I began writing a series of short stories about a boy sucked into a virtual fantasy world through his keyboard. Somehow, modern technology mixed with the faux medieval settings of my imagination. As far as I know, that inquisitive boy still resides somewhere in a sword and sorcery Commodore 64 alternate reality. He’s probably an emperor by now and maybe even a demigod. Wherever he is, I wish him well.

In the spring of 1984, my family bought the first Macintosh. Like many others of that year, I quickly mastered the computer, but especially MacWrite. When Microsoft Word launched its first version of Word for the Mac, I bought that as well and have used it off and on since it first came on the scene.

The best course I took in all of my public education was a course in typing. The teacher was an absolute nut, but I learned a number of skills beyond what I’d already taught myself. Again, I forced myself to type whenever and wherever possible. In particular, I typed every single piece of evidence used for debating over four years. I became and remain lightning fast as a typist. This skill came in very handy during my first year at college. Not only was I one of the only students with a Macintosh (within a year or two almost every student would have one—Notre Dame was a Macintosh campus), I hired myself out as a typist and earned some necessary money. After that year, though, I learned that I didn’t want that job again. Perhaps this is a deficiency of soul—as I love creativity in nearly every medium—but I find it very painful to watch the creativity of another if I’m doing the grunt work to make that happen. Since 1987, I’ve refrained from employment as a typist, though I’m thoroughly loving typing for my kids.

Perhaps another deficiency of soul is that I almost always type with very loud music playing in accompaniment. While I can type in the quiet and still, I very much prefer not to. Not only does the rhythm help with the speed of my typing, but I find that I think best when having several things going on at once. I realize how counter this is to most understandings of thought and contemplation. But, at age 46, I can’t imagine anything else. Such habits, of course, create potential problems when I’m in my campus office, as my music would be rather disturbing to those on my floor. While I prefer long, complicated rock songs (of the 20+ minute variety) when writing, I’m also more than happy to write to classical or jazz. At home, I’m pretty unconcerned of the loudness of my music—in part because of where my office is situated, but also because my kids are used to and even think it quite humorous, teasing me about the clicks of the keyboard and the raucousness of the music.

Another deficiency of soul, perhaps related to the other two, is that I am incapable of writing with another person. The only exception to this rule is my wife, as we write comfortably together. Otherwise, writing is a solo art to me.

My undergraduate years at Notre Dame helped delimit my lack of imagination in formal writing, but my years earning my M.A.—under the fabulous Anne Butler—taught me the rules of writing and when and how to break them. Butler was, without question, the greatest writing teacher I’ve encountered in my own life, and I could never thank her enough for what she gave me. At least, what I hope she gave me. I know she offered it as a gift, though I’m not sure I’ve always lived up to her greatness of soul and imagination. Certainly, it was under Butler that I learned that the writing I love most and crave is scholarly writing. Not academic writing—which I despise—but serious writing, the writing of a citizen of a Republic of Letters.

I’m still waiting for citizenship papers.

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  1. Todd, it should be noted, became one of my closest friends when I was in seventh grade and has remained as such since. He’s also proud of what I’ve written since that time. And, he has much to be proud of with his own writing and illustrations—as he is incredibly talented in each.

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