Writing Lessons

The Family Trade

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By Robert Campbell


 

I can’t think of any advice that led me to feel I should write. I’ve always thought of myself as a potential writer. I loved reading, loved poetry, excelled in English classes. When I was sick in bed at age five or six, my mother gave me three Bobbsey Twins books. I read all three, then immediately read them over again, and I still fully remember my amazed sense of opening horizons. Later in my teens I strongly identified with writers of autobiographical books, for example the novel Of Time and the River by Thomas Wolfe and the memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). At Harvard I majored in English and wrote an honors thesis on the poetry of Dylan Thomas. (It was later stolen from the university library and, for all I know, is still being submitted for credit somewhere.)

In being literary I was identifying with my mother and her side of the family, where journalism was the family business. My dad was a CPA whose work didn’t much interest me. My mom, as a teen, contributed prize-winning Amy-Lowellish poems to a children’s magazine called St. Nicholas. Later, before her marriage, she worked five years as a feature writer on a daily newspaper. Our shelves held books with titles like Printer’s Ink Is in My Blood and I Wanted to be a Writer. My mom’s father covered politics for a different paper in Buffalo, where we lived, and wrote a bio of Grover Cleveland. He possessed what for a kid was a magnificent library. Two of his uncles at different times were part owners of newspapers, the Gazette and the Telegram, based in Elmira in upstate New York.

One of those uncles, Louis Alexander Hazard, was a neighbor and pool-playing buddy of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Clemens married into an Elmira family in 1870. Our most prized possession was a postcard from him. He used a photo of himself—he’d have been 42—and scrawled on the back, “Sharpen your cue, Alex. I’m coming. March 26. Yours ever, S.L. Clemens Mch 1, 1878.” My parents lost it somehow.

My mom never stopped thinking of herself as a writer. But at that time in middle-class Buffalo, wives didn’t work. Marriage aborted her career. I myself got waylaid by architecture and didn’t write a word for publication for 10 years. But the urge eventually returned. I’m probably enabled by the thought that I’m working the lode of a family calling.

Robert Campbell is the Pulitzer Prize–winning architecture critic for The Boston Globe.

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