Wooddell Through time-1971

Where we end up as writers does not always have any correlation to where we began. It is all too easy to imagine, when one is young, the career path. All too easy to believe that one’s work will inevitably be celebrated, awards will flow, and wealth will result from that million dollar sale.

Wooddell Through time-1978

But I would hazard a guess that most don’t imagine the years of sitting solitary, in front of a keyboard and computer screen, doing the writing itself. Or of sitting with a pad of paper, or a notebook and pen, or pencil, and cramping one’s hand while writing word after word, endlessly, then revising them, and then, at last, sitting down to put it all into a computer’s word processor. That part of the dream is boring, and will be glossed over by the unimaginative.

Wooddell Through time-1-2

 

But what if that dream of great success and riches doesn’t happen right away? Does that mean one’s writing has no validity? When I was at university, I knew a young man who was my own age. He was determined to write novels in such a way that his genius would be recognized by the time he was 21 years old. Because his hero had done so. And when that didn’t happen? He was shattered. He declared he would never write again. I lost touch with him soon afterward, and don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he learned that stuff runs downhill and became a plumber. He probably made more in his career than most wanna-be writers ever will. He might own a vacation home, and a boat, and maybe even can afford to send his kids to college. I don’t know.

Another friend from the same period was a serious pianist. He’d been groomed from age 3 to be a concert pianist. His mother poured money and hopes into private lessons, piano camps, tutors, and a first rate piano in their home. He was astonishingly good when he performed. He went off to college, studying piano, and he became much better. But his goal was to be world famous by the time he was 21, because his hero did that. And his mom said to do that. And when he didn’t succeed in reaching that level of fame?

Wooddell Through time-2004

I lost track of him for many years, but through the wonders of the internet some few years ago, was able to briefly connect. He’d gone on to get a master’s degree in conducting, and then a doctoral degree. He as teaching college symphony band, conducting, and playing piano, and was still pretty good. They always asked him to play at parties. He knew all the songs. He married, had children, bought a comfortable home, and made a very good life for himself. Was that not worth the doing, simply because he didn’t live up to the dream he’d had when he was young?

I seem to meet a lot of young writers these days, and I try to be reserved in giving advice. I’m not Gandalf: I don’t have magic dust up my sleeve. If I did, I’d be famous and rich, instead of relatively obscure and on the poorer side of middle class. The only solid advice I can give is to keep writing. Write more. Then write it again. And then again. Write more than one story. Write many stories. And then more stories.

Wooddell Through time-2014-2

How do you learn and know what you don’t know? Ask a lot of questions. Write down the answers, and find your stories in the answers from others. Ask: What do you do? How do you do it? Why do you do it? What do you think about when you garden? How did you meet your spouse? Why did you want children? In the answers from those people you meet, to whom you ask question about their lives, you will find answers for your writing. No one is born with answers within them. But good writers are born with lots of questions. Writing is answering the questions you ask. Ask good questions.

You might want to read this essay from a speech given by a writer, Andrew Solomon, in which he discuses Advice for Young Writers by Rilke. It is more brilliant than anything I could say.

I mostly did other things in my career than write. I worked with photographers, and artists, and eventually became a photographer. I learned to be a careful researcher, and writer of reports read mostly by senior editors. To get there, perhaps the most important part was learning about the world. In my youth, I worked construction, in a steel mill, in stores, in factories, in restaurants, in libraries, and occasionally for my grandfather, learning to take care of a historic 19th century farm on a mountain. All of that was grist for my word mill, for my word farm; learning to ask questions, and find answers.

  • David W. Wooddell

Last man to leave the ship

Some years ago, when I worked for National Geographic magazine, I was assigned to do pre-research for a fun story being written by Priit Vesilind. The Steamship Republic had been found in extremely deep water by the treasure hunting company, Odyssey Marine Engineering. The ship went down in a mighty storm after the steam engine stalled. Despite the storm, most of the passengers and crew survived the shipwreck, as did the gold that she was carrying for the banks in New Orleans. One of the heroes who helped passengers survive that day was a young, Union army officer named Louis Caziarc.

I have a love of quirky people. I guess in that regard, I’m like all writers and photographers. We tend to be attracted to the ones with interesting stories. But a problem with that approach to story telling is that such people are not representative of the population at large, so one must be careful about drawing generalized conclusions from the tales of such men or women. That was a corollary of something I’d discovered when I was an art researcher for the magazine: when choosing reference photos of animals, artists tend to pick the photos that show anomalies. That is probably because the animal looks distinctive, or different, and artists, like writers, tend to appreciate the unique. Problem is, those anomalies make poor reference for the population in general. I discovered that on a story about lions in the Ngoro Ngoro crater. I had passed to the artist some photos of lions in zoos, to use as reference, but hadn’t considered that lions in zoos are an inbred population, and they do show unique, or non-representative physical traits.

As I researched the passengers on the Republic when she sank, I came across Caziarc, a young Union Army officer from Boston who was returning to the south from a long, well-deserved leave after the Civil War had ended. He was a lieutenant, and aide-de-camp of General Canby, who was in charge of the Restoration of Louisiana, South Carolina, and North Carolina.

The editorial researchers at National Geographic were responsible for writing a short article for the magazine’s website, to bring to light something extra that didn’t make it into the feature article. I chose Lt. Caziarc because he had some real depth as a person, and as a military officer in the post war years. It helped that he was credited as a genuine hero after he saved lives as the Republic sank. In that regard, he was singled out for praise. Telling his individual story was a way to shed extra light on the story of the shipwreck itself. Was he representative of Union officers who helped the restoration of government and commerce in the South despite the ravages of war? You tell me.

Here’s the original Did You Know (scroll down the page)

 

– David W. Wooddell

 

 

 

 

On Assignment for National Geographic: Normandy Invasion and D-Day

As a magazine research editor, I was occasionally fortunate enough to have a special assignment for National Geographic magazine. I had developed military stories as one of my specialties, along with marine archaeology. Sometimes, I helped pre-visualize artwork, and turned up locations for the magazine photographers to include in their coverage.  Tom Allen’s story, “Untold Stories of D-Day” sent me to Normandy, France to look for the wrecks of the sunken craft that went down during the invasion. The magazine was kind enough to give the readers a glimpse of my work in the On Assignment section.

A D-Day Mosaic; France; (Brief Article), National Geographic, June 1, 2002, Copyright 2002 National Geographic Society, SECTION: No. 6, Vol. 201; Pg. 142; ISSN: 0027-9358

Peering out of an old German bunker, now part of a museum on Normandy’s Utah Beach, senior researcher David W. Wooddell scouts out the sites where ships sank and men died. “You know people have paid a terrible price for something that was vastly worthwhile,” he recalls thinking.

David began his research for our D-Day article by reading every book he could find on the subject, surfing the Internet, “looking for the best documentary sources available.” Then he spent the equivalent of two weeks in the National Archives looking for maps and aerial reconnaissance photographs. “I was a photographer before I came to the magazine, so I shoot my own copies of historical photographs,” he says. Finally, he went to France for a week, visiting museums devoted to the invasion, seeking artifacts and other visual material.

David at St. Vaast
On assignment with underwater mapper, Bertrand Sciboz and his crew.    Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, Normandy, France

While in France, David worked with Bertrand Sciboz, a French diver who owns a company in Normandy that maps wrecks of all ages off the coast. “At NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC we have the resource of time to develop information in detail, a luxury few other magazines have,” David says.

David’s research greatly aided our photographers, as well as author Tom Allen… Tom, who has written several articles and books about World War II and the people who fought in it, set out with the goal of covering the part of the invasion that has received minimal attention over the decades, the delivery of men and materiel to Normandy’s beaches.

“I’ve had the privilege of talking to people who helped win the war,” reflects Tom, 73. “You find a survivor and you find one little piece of the mosaic of that day, of the memory we’re all supposed to have of D-Day. I put my story together from their remembrances.”

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