Having had over four hundred columns and fourteen books published, I think I can be forgiven for calling myself a writer, even if only a part-time one. Here’s how it happened.
Until 1968 the only writing I’d done consisted of memos, letters, and reports; but I’d written hundreds of those. Then in 1968 I became one of the Coopers & Lybrand tax staff who wrote income tax commentary for the loose-leaf CCH tax publications, to which virtually every accounting firm, law practice and large corporation in Canada subscribed. After the federal government released its white paper on tax reform in 1969 I joined my Coopers & Lybrand colleagues, and some lawyers from the law firm Fraser Beatty, in co-authoring, over the next five years, six books on income tax. This was highly technical writing requiring a thorough knowledge of the subject and the ability to explain it in understandable terms.
In 1965, while serving on the public relations committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario, I befriended their PR manager, a fellow by the name of Dave Scott. Dave was a former reporter for the Globe & Mail and is as fine a writer as I’ve ever known.
One day in the early1970s Dave and I were having a friendly argument about writing. I said that the ability to write fiction was an art with which people had to be born, whereas non-fiction writing was a skill that could be learned, just like skating, swimming or riding a bicycle. Dave’s position was that, though the quality of writing could be enhanced by honing one’s skills, all writing was, in the final analysis, art. I was pretty sure there was no art in the income tax writing I was doing.
I was so confident I was right that I bet Dave twenty five dollars that, within a year, I could develop sufficient non-fiction writing skills to have a non-tax article published in Dave’s alma mater, the prestigious Globe & Mail. Dave took the bet and I started to look around for non-fiction writing courses. The only ones I could find were parts of full-time university courses, which were of no use to me.
Then one day I was riding home from work on the subway and noticed an ad on the back of a comic book that a kid sitting across from me was reading. It was an ad for a correspondence course in writing from an outfit called Famous Writers School. When I got off the subway at the St. Clair station I headed right for the comic book section in the newsstand. It probably looked odd to see a businessman in his three-piece suit, briefcase by his side, looking at seemingly every comic book in the racks.
I was through almost all of them before I found the ad. It seemed to be exactly what I wanted because it emphasized that the course included both fiction and non-fiction writing, which I felt supported my position. After all, if all writing required the same talents why would they differentiate the two? According to the ad, the course consisted of a number of text books with each one leading to an assignment to be completed and sent in for evaluation and critique by a panel of well-known writers. I recall that I knew a number of those names, but the only one I remember now was the famous writer and publisher Bennett Cerf, (one of the founders of Random House, who eventually published two of my books). That was good enough for me, so I enrolled.
The texts turned out to be perfect examples of superb writing, and the critiques of my submitted assignments were incredibly instructive. So, after completing the course, which as I recall took me about six months, I felt I was ready to submit an article to the Globe & Mail and collect my bet from Dave Scott.
I wrote a column about a card game that is very popular in the Maritime Provinces, called forty-fives, and submitted it to the Globe & Mail. They liked it, titled it “Count the Cards” and ran it on the op-ed page. (If you want to read it, see my column of the same name.) I received fifty dollars from the Globe & Mail and twenty-five dollars from Dave Scott.
Flush with this success, I was trying to think of something else to write about and came up with the idea of carrying a stop watch with me for a couple of weeks to keep track of all the time I wasted through no fault of my own, such as being kept on hold on the telephone, waiting for elevators, waiting for subways and street cars, being stopped at red lights and watching commercials on TV. I turned the results into an article and sent it along to the Globe & Mail. They titled this one “Time’s A-Wasting,” published it, and sent me another fifty dollars.
An interesting little aside here. All Coopers & Lybrand partners were required to turn over to the firm any money they earned from “professional activities.” I went to our managing partner in Toronto, a delightful gentleman by the name of Robert B. Dale-Harris, to get a ruling as to whether the $100 I had received from the Globe & Mail was mine or the firm’s (I knew the money I won on the bet was mine). Bob ruled that as I wasn’t a professional writer the money was mine.
The same day that the “Time’s A-Wasting” column appeared in the Globe & Mail I received a telephone call from Martin Goodman, the managing editor of The Toronto Star. He said he enjoyed my two columns and wanted to know if I had a deal with the Globe & Mail. I told him I didn’t. He then said he’d like me to become a regular columnist for The Star. He wanted three columns a month, which he’d run on the op-ed page, and for which he’d pay me seventy-five dollars a column. I told him I’d call him back and let him know.
I thought I better get Bob Dale-Harris’ permission before accepting this deal so I went back down to his office to discuss it. He thought the publicity for the firm would be great and readily agreed. However, he said that now that I was a regular columnist the money I received would count as professional income, so from then on, while a partner with Coopers & Lybrand, and later with R.D. Manning & Co., and Touche Ross, all money I earned from writing columns, articles and books went into the firms’ coffers. However, when that change went into effect I began writing on company time rather than during evenings and weekends.
I wrote the Star column for a couple of years and during the same time, on request, wrote some articles for Executive Magazine and The Financial Post. Then for a few years I wrote a weekly financial column for the Financial Times. After I retired in 2003 I began writing an executive coaching column, again for The Toronto Star; but after a few months they decided to drop freelance writers.
There are three highlights of my activity as a columnist of which I’m particularly proud. The first was when I won a national business writing award. The second was when Star managing editor Martin Goodman informed me that one of my columns had elicited a record number of letters – all negative. I’d written a spoof column about hunting in which I said that, “anyone who gets shot being mistaken for a moose is better off dead anyway.” The third was when Reader’s Digest called and asked me to write a financial article for them.
Of the fourteen books I’ve written only three are still in print: The Elements of Great Public Speaking; How to Succeed in Anything by Really Trying; and Simple Realities (The pathway to happiness and success). The first two are available at most bookstores, but Realities is available only online at Amazon.com.
I’ve had books published in five languages (English, French, Chinese, Portuguese and Czech), and altogether my books have sold about 260,000 copies.
And it all began with a twenty-five dollar bet.