A Lot to Learn From 500 Words

I like to read obituaries. I think there is something to be learned from studying the lives of others. But I also think there is often some really good writing involved in telling a life story in 500-800 words.

I read the New York Times obituary for Donald J. Sobol this morning. Mr. Sobol wrote the Encyclopedia Brown books, a series of 28 detective novels featuring the young detective Leroy Brown, nicknamed Encyclopedia because he is so smart. The series began in 1963 and ended only upon Mr. Sobol’s death a few days ago. It also spawned a TV show and a comic strip.

Personally, I don’t know the books well. I don’t think I ever read one—my childhood was not a literary one. But in Sobol’s obituary there is much to consider.

He dropped out of Oberlin College in 1942 to enlist in the Army. During the war he served as a combat engineer in the Pacific theater, rising to the rank of sergeant. Post-war, like millions of others, he returned to college.

Sobol credited much of his ability and success as a writer to a single professor, John Singleton, who he said gave him a personal course in advanced creative writing.

According to his son, John, Mr. Sobol never got rich off of his writing. “My father was not a businessman.” Sobol sold the rights to Encyclopedia Brown and later, believing he had been swindled, went to court to change the terms of the contract.

These are interesting points.

First, going to war didn’t doom Sobol to only writing war literature. He got his start as a newspaperman and only then moved to writing detective stories. We’re often told, “write what you know,” or, “write what interests you.”  It’s good advice. And although you might have spent 25 years in the military, I’ll still bet you know more than close order drill and that you’re interested in more than the short, bloody history of the Sixth Marine Division.

Sobol saw the value in taking time to study his craft, and noted that one teacher’s influence made a significant difference. Face it, some things (and some of us) simply aren’t intuitive enough that we can just sit down and be instantly competent at them. You had to be taught how to effectively fire an M16, right? You had to learn how to do a parachute landing fall—and you had to practice to get it right. Don’t be afraid to take a writing course, to join a writers’ circle, or to read a book about the craft.

He learned somewhat the hard way that there is a business side to writing that requires attentiveness and expertise, too. There are reasons that we have specializations in the service and in life. Throughout military service we are taught to be individually competent but always work as a team. Carry this lesson forward into the rest of your life. No one can be expert in all things. If you’re a writer get help with the accounting and the contracts, the marketing and the layout of the books. Stick to what you do.

RIP, Sergeant Sobol. Thanks for your service, your writing, and the lessons we can learn from your life.

–Ron Capps