A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Literary Boxer Shorts
Saturday, January 09, 2010

When the British Navy was steaming towards las Malvinas (the Falkland Islands) in late May of 1982 a very smart Vancouver Magazine editor, Malcolm Parry had coaxed a story from me on my experience in the Argentine armed forces (in my case the Argentine Navy). The magazine was out at the newsstands before Thatcher’s fleet had arrived. It ended with an inevitable defeat of the Argentines in June of that year.

I don’t remember most of the conversation but I do remember that Mac called me to his office and told me that if I had one story in me this was going to be the one. I remember his passion in how he coaxed me into writing the story.

The first copy of the issue I saw at the magazine stand, in the first days of May, at Eatons in Burnaby’s Brentwood Mall. The cover portrait of a youngish Argentine sailor (me) stared at me. It had been taken by the peripatetic Mac, I immediately put on my sun glasses.

That first story, how odd that my first written piece would be a cover story was followed by many others and though many may not know this I wrote extensively for Vancouver Magazine, Western Living. In the latter magazine I wrote a monthly garden column for over a year. I wrote for the Straight, for the CBC’s early version of its web arts magazine and I wrote many features for the Vancouver Sun including one where I equated sex with ballet and another about female cellists not being able to play straddling the instrument until the beginning of the 20th century.

While Mac may have been the initiator of my writing career there were two others who helped me on the way.

John Lekich gave me one very important tip even though I knew I could never write the way he does. Lekich has a mastery of elegance, style and knows how to drop adjectives in the right places. The tip would be an obvious one to most except for me. Lekich said that I should mirror the beginning paragraph of anything I wrote with some sort of mentioning of it at the end of the story. It was like wrapping up a story, a way of resolving it all by the end.

Les Wiseman, an associate editor at Vancouver Magazine and a great rock columnist (In One Ear) had more details on the craft of wrting. This was his formula (a formula that has served me well):

1. Write about that which you know.

2. Unless you are Dickens never begin in the beginning but somewhere in the middle and then go back and forth.

3. For profiles get facts on the person and divide them into categories such as quotes from friends, quotes from family, quotes from publications, etc. Make neat piles on the floor and then begin here and there until you finish your profile. The built-in randomness will keep the interest of readers.

4. Do lots of research.

I soon learned that Wiseman had in some indirect way been correct even when I though he was wrong. He had often told me that I could only write about that which you know. But if you combine that concept with the idea of extensive research then you can write about that which you are completely ignorant by interviewing or consulting an expert on the matter. My Vancouver Sun essay on playing the cello involved my talking to two well-known female cello players.

I am most thankful to these three men for having helped me in adding an interesting bifurcating path from my carreer as a photographer. I owe them plenty. But I must point that it hasn't been an entirely one-way path. While Malcolm Parry never did learn anything from me (if he did, he’s not talking) both Lekich and Wiseman are eternally in my gratitude for having introduced them to the unrestraining pleasure of boxer shorts.


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