Why do I write? That’s easy

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By: 

Roger VanHaren

I have been writing this column for nearly 25 years. Haven’t missed a week in all those years. People ask me how I do it; how do I come up ideas week after week? Why do I do it, anyway? I always say it’s the only discipline left in my life, but, in truth, I really like to write.

I didn’t always like to write. I didn’t do much writing as a kid because nobody assigned me to write very much when I was in grade school. Grade school English classes (they were called “language”) consisted mainly in memorizing grammatical rules and definitions and in diagramming sentences. I was probably the only kid at St. Anthony’s in Oconto Falls who actually liked diagramming sentences.

Pretty obviously, though, the memorization of definitions of parts of speech and the diagramming of sentences don’t translate into good writing. I think what makes writers write better is reading and actually writing — a lot. I used to have my students keep a journal, just so they’d be forced to write and maybe find a “voice” or a style. It’s a little like golf. You can take a lesson every week, but if you don’t get out and actually play the game, you probably won’t improve much.

As a high school student, I had a terrific freshman English teacher named Marion Felix (God rest her soul!) — fresh out of college and full of youthful enthusiasm — who made us write. A lot. We’d read something, and then we’d write about it; sometimes she’d even have us use the reading selections as models and we’d try to write in the style of Hemingway or Poe or whoever. This was a whole new concept for me and it stuck with me.

Then, for senior English, I had another wonderful teacher named Joyce Kilmer (God rest her soul!) who instilled in me a desire to improve my written English and to build a strong vocabulary. So, I consider myself really lucky to have had at least two high school teachers who inspired me.

Even before that, I had already decided I liked words. When I was about 12 or 13, I entered an essay contest for 4-H and FFA kids. Right now, I can’t remember what the topic was or what the parameters were, but I won the contest. The prize was a registered purebred holstein heifer calf. Wow! “Lochinvar Rue” something or other; I can’t remember the rest of the name. Goofy name for a cow. “Lochinvar” was the hero in a ballad, “Marmion” by Sir Walter Scott. In the poem, Lochinvar boldly rides off with his sweetheart just as she is about to be married to another man. Goofy name notwithstanding, Lochinvar was my calf.

I was a 4-H’er for many years, and Lochinvar became the foundation of my 4-H “herd.” The rest of our family’s dairy herd was not registered, although many of the cows were purebred because they came from purebred stock at Badger Breeders; we just never went to the expense of getting their “papers.”

Quite a few years later, when I was a poor college student, working 40 hours a week at a flower shop while I took a full load of classes and did my practice teaching, I met a great girl, and when I decided I wanted to marry her, I sold old Lochinvar so I could buy an engagement ring. Fortunately, the girl accepted. The fruits of my first winning essay paid for the ring she still wears. We’ve been married 57 years. How’s that for romance?

Happy Independence Day, everybody.

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.