Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Ability to Write - Nature or Nurture? Part II

By Pete Klismet


In Part I of this article, I explained how important a person’s writing ability is to the eventual solution and prosecution of crimes. Having seen a lack of this over the course of many years, I decided to explore it in a more systematic manner.

Since research on the ability to write would be helpful, I decided to start mine by asking my wife a simple question. “Was your mother a good writer?” My wife and her sister both are excellent writers, more than able to convey their thoughts, whether in an email or some other form of written communication. For the record, my wife’s answer was “Yes.” I thought that was an excellent start to proving my theory that the ability to write is inherited, thus genetic.

Believing this topic deserved more extensive research, I asked myself, “Was my mom a good writer? How about my dad?” And the answer to both questions was an unequivocal “yes” for both, despite the fact that my dad had only an eighth grade education (the required standard for the time he was in school). Then I asked myself, “Are your kids good writers?” Again the answer was yes. So I quickly advanced my theory ahead a few more spaces on the board.

Then I asked myself, “Am I a good writer?” And the answer was “I think so.” I know when I was a police officer in California, some of my reports were deemed to be “legendary.” And I always enjoyed writing them. I enjoyed doing research papers in college and graduate school, seeing these as an opportunity to think outside the box. In the FBI it is said that only about ten percent of all agents can put together a complex investigation, explain it in reports, and then write a wiretap affidavit (which is basically longer than the worst term paper you ever did, and has to be reviewed by tons of lawyers). In twenty years, I wrote about ten of them. So apparently I was capable of writing at a high level while in the FBI. 

But, did being able to write good reports, search warrant and wiretap affidavits predict a good writing career? Those reports are generally narrative, and that type of writing doesn’t necessarily translate directly to an ability to write a novel. I found that out with the first book I wrote, which was deemed “horrible” by a literary agent after she read only part of one chapter. I was floored. Result: Writer’s block for about five years. I was a hopeless case. My self-esteem plummeted. My hopes and dreams of someday becoming a best-selling author were dashed. 

Or so I thought. I was living in Cedar Rapids, Iowa at the time, and about twenty miles down the highway was the University of Iowa. Somehow, I found out about their famed Writer’s Workshop, and decided to see if I could attend. No problem. Pay the tuition, attend for two full weeks, and hopefully come out a better writer on the other end. And so I paid and attended. We did a lot of evaluating of each other’s work. When my chapter came up for review, it prompted an extensive lecture by our instructor. And finally the light bulb went on and glared brightly. I remember him saying, “You build a story by using action and dialogue.” You mean narrating won’t work? Nope. But I was really good at writing police reports and stuff like that. Doesn’t matter, that was narrating, and it doesn’t work if you’re trying to advance a story in a novel. Oh, now I understood why I got that scathing rejection – I can write great police reports, but that doesn’t translate to writing a book someone will want to read and which will hold their interest.

It was just the jolt I needed, but then came the problem of adapting my writing style to my newly-learned knowledge. You can’t tell a story with dialogue only, and if you revert to action, you’re back to narrating. This caused a significant paradigm shift for me. I had to see if I had the ability to blend both of these concepts together. And quickly learned it wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. There was going to be some work involved. I had to ask myself if I had the commitment. The only way to find out was to start writing again. But, don’t write fiction. I didn’t need to do that. All of my years in law enforcement, about fifteen by that time, gave me enough experiences to write more than one book. In fact, I now have about eight in my head. It’s a tight fit, in case you were wondering. 

I continued my research on the Internet and found there was no shortage of information about the ability to acquire language as an innate ability. But what most of that referred to was people being more able than others to learn new and different languages. I knew that didn’t apply to me and was not what I was trying to discover. I did, however, find some short articles about the ability to write being an inherited trait. Which I was very excited about, except that the answers were clearly maybe or maybe not. That didn’t advance my theory a whole lot, either.

I found a somewhat compelling blog by someone who calls himself “Rodismay.” The blog had a ton of advertising links, so his goal is apparently to teach people to be better writers and make money in the process. There were a number of comments by various people who said they felt their ability to write was “God-given.” Mr. Rodismay also commented, “When I am in the mood, one word heard or read can be expanded into more than 1000 words.” Hmmm, I thought, that sounds a lot like me (and surely some of you). It’s almost like being an alcoholic, by way of analogy: Once you start, you can’t stop. Maybe that’s not the best analogy. A better one might be getting the so-called “Runner’s High.” I’ve had all of these things happen, so maybe writing is akin to an addiction? And maybe, just maybe, I’m onto something here. Research on addictions shows a high degree of predisposition, such that if one is an alcoholic, someone above you on the food chain, whether mom, dad, grandpa, etc., was or is an alcoholic as well. So maybe this guy Rodismay has me headed in the right direction. And maybe I was starting to think outside the box as I wanted to be.

And I continued my research. I’ll explain that and how I tried to connect the dots in the third part of this article.


About the Author: About thirty years ago, a small cadre of FBI agents were hand-picked by the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) to receive training in what was then a highly-controversial and ground breaking concept: Psychological Profiling. Pete Klismet was fortunate enough to have been chosen to become one of the original FBI “profilers.” He received additional training, was temporarily assigned to work with the BSU in Quantico, Virginia, and put that training and experience to work in assisting state, federal and local law enforcement agencies in investigating violent crimes. 

He was named National Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 1999, the same year he retired from the FBI. For the next 13 years he taught in colleges, and is now retired as a professor emeritus. He and his wife Nancy live in Colorado Springs.


Pete’s award-winning book FBI Diary: Profiles of Evil is available at www.houdinipress.com and www.amazon.com. He plans to release ‘a couple more books’ in 2014.

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