My father was a man’s man. In World War II he served as a drill instructor in the United States Marine Corps. He went to law school and passed the state bar exam on his first attempt, despite being ill with a high fever and hands swollen from hives.
He became an administrative law judge, deciding multi-million dollar cases. He wore a crew cut, had a deep voice, embraced pragmatism and was a veritable polymath. In contrast, I was a sensitive kid with long hair who loved to draw cartoons and write creative stories. Not exactly Marine Corps material.
When I was sixteen I worked up the courage to tell Dad I wanted to be an artist and writer. He sat back in his reading chair, closed his book and said, “There’s a fellow in town named Jack Wilson. He’s a palette knife painter. I like his work. But here’s the thing, Johnny. It’s a tough life. Jack is on the road a lot, going to different art shows. A career in the arts can be hard.”
Where dreams confront reality
Dad’s response was not what I wanted to hear. But then he added, “There’s no reason why you can’t be an artist and writer. But get an education first and find a career that interests you, to pay the bills. Then, in your off time, you can paint and write. If the art takes off, great. But you’ll always have the other profession to fall back on.”
“So pragmatic and predictable,” I thought to myself. “The perfect recipe for selling out and settling into an unremarkable life of mediocrity. Nope, not for me.”
Of course, I folded pretty quickly.
After all, the old man was footing the bill for college. I put my art dreams on hold and declared a major in criminal justice administration. My thought was to become an attorney or police officer to pay the bills.
Between classes, I drew editorial cartoons for the university newspaper, which fed my creative appetite. After graduation, Dad talked me into graduate school where I obtained my master’s degree in criminal justice administration. I was clearly on the pragmatic career path.
Everyone has something they’re waiting for
In Jeff Goins’ book The In-Between, he writes, “Everyone has something they’re waiting for…” and “[t]he irony is that when we think we are standing still, we are actually growing the most. What gets us to our destinations are the pauses, the breaks, the in-between.”
I accepted the fact that my art would have to wait. I enrolled in the police academy after graduate school and in short order was hired by a local police department. Six months of field training later and I was released to solo patrol. Just a young artist trapped in a policeman’s uniform.
I was firmly ensconced in my in-between. What I couldn’t have known was how the roller coaster that followed would change me.
There would be a fatal police shooting in my rookie year. High-speed pursuits, death notifications, and the suicide of a close friend. I would bear witness to heartrending tragedies involving abused children and forgotten seniors. But there were also inspiring moments of true grace.
I saw the best and worst in people. And all of it was teaching me volumes about life and humanity. The kind of stuff that gets into your soul, sharpens your insights, and equips you to be a better writer.
Seven cop tips for better writing
I spent 26 years in law enforcement and the last ten as a police chief. I enjoyed my career but felt like it was the long interruption — keeping me from becoming an artist and writer.
What I didn’t realize is that police work was an investment in my future, creative self. As Jeff espoused in The Art of Work, “Nothing is wasted. No job, no task, no obstacle is useless, if we are willing to see how it can fit into our calling.” To that end, here are seven tips on better writing, gleaned from years of police work.
1. You have the right to remain silent
If you want to be a good writer, you need to be a good listener. That means shutting up and paying attention to everything that’s going on around you. What people are saying, how they’re saying it, and the environment they’re in.
Look closely at most cops and you’ll spy a small notebook in their breast pocket. It’s where we record everything.
Do yourself a favor and start carrying a small Moleskine notebook and pen. You’ll discover they come in handy to record thoughts, quotes, wisdom from overheard conversations, and more.
They also teach you to listen and write down details. And real life details are what make your stories and articles more relatable and interesting. There’s a reason writers like Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson and Alexis de Tocqueville all carried pocket notebooks. To remind them to listen, observe and record their ideas.
2. Summon your courage
It takes guts to put on a ballistic vest, uniform, badge and gun belt. Doing so immediately marks you as a potential target. What’s worse, when the excrement hits the fan, most people are running away. Except cops. We get to run towards the disaster. Doing so requires courage and a willingness to confront your fears.
Maybe you’ve been hesitant to pitch that guest post idea or finally start your writing blog. No one likes rejection and criticism, but they can help you grow as a writer. You can’t rely on family and friends. They’ll just tell you you’re brilliant. Strangers, however, will give it to you straight. So, summon your courage and put your work out there. It’s the only way to become a better writer.
3. Never a cop when you need one
Doesn’t it just burn you to go into a Starbucks and see three cops sitting around, sipping their lattes on the public dime? Shouldn’t they be out protecting and serving? The reality is that tons of police departments run 12-hour shifts. To stay fresh and alert, it’s important for cops to take breaks.
Writers need to take breaks, too. Face it, writing is a sedentary and often solitary pursuit. You need to step away, go for a walk and recharge your batteries. Exercise will reinvigorate your mind, keep you healthy and more focused. You’ll return to the keyboard refreshed and with new insights. And besides, nothing beats a pumpkin spice latte to ignite the creative process.
4. Adopt the K.I.S.S. principle
People like to talk, and they often include endless details. As a cop, you learn to listen intently and separate the wheat from the chaff. It takes experience and an intimate understanding of the law to know what’s important for a police report, and which details are superfluous.
Many experienced sergeants over the years taught me how to write better police reports. What I learned was the proverbial K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, stupid) principle. Judges and prosecutors want the facts, relevant details, and elements of the crime. Similarly, you need to learn how to edit and get to the essence of your article or story. Editing and simplifying is a big part of effective writing. So kiss those nonessential details goodbye.
5. Once upon a time
Since we know why cops hang out in coffee shops, let me tell you what they talk about. Stories. Everyone enjoys a good story. We all want to know what happens in the end. A good police report tells the story of what happened so that juries and judges can make informed decisions.
As a writer, you need to tell a good story so your readers can envision exactly what you want them to see. This means you need to read both deeply and broadly. Pick up Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces to understand the craft of effective story arcs. Learn how to hook readers with enticing lead-ins. Study a little copywriting. Tell a good story and people will listen.
6. Continuing professional training
California police officers are required to have 24 hours of continuing professional training (CPT) every two years. Beyond their department training, officers attend approved courses, seminars, webinars and conventions. Why? The law is constantly evolving, best practices change, and there’s always more to learn.
To be a great writer, you need to keep training, too. That means taking advantage of the best classes, webinars, and on-line courses available. Tribe Writers is a good place to start because it provides a comprehensive education for online writing.
Continuing professional training is an investment in yourself that will improve the quality of your work, your stories, and their impact on your readers. This, in turn, is what leads to writing and publishing opportunities.
7. If you want a vacation, check the schedule
One of the downsides to a law enforcement career is shift work. Your whole life revolves around your work schedule. As a sergeant growled to me once, “If you want a vacation, Weiss, check the schedule!” Shiftwork taught me the importance of good time management. Beyond family and close friends, I learned to say no to distractions and time wasters.
Our calendars tell the real story about our lives and priorities. How are you allocating your writing time? Are you getting up early before work to write? Or, are you on the couch watching NCIS reruns, checking Facebook, and playing video games? Remember, we are what we do.
You say you want to be a successful writer? Take a good hard look at your calendar. It never lies.
End of watch
Looks like my tour of duty is about done here. Let’s return to The Art of Work for one last nugget of wisdom: “In the journey toward our callings, there will be roadblocks and inconveniences, setbacks and slowdowns that we may mistake for distractions when in fact they are as much a part of the calling as the job itself.”
I thought my law enforcement career was a long distraction from becoming a writer and artist. Except it wasn’t. It was the in-between. It moved me forward.
Dad was right. A career in the arts can be hard. But no one wants to reach their end of watch with regrets. May your own tour of duty bring you closer to the person you always wanted to be.
How is your day job contributing to your creativity? How are you living in the in-between? Share in the comments.