Commentary: A writer is who I am

One night over dinner, my good friend Craig, a terrific photographer, asked me why I write so much. My immediate reaction was to say, "Because I can." My measured reply was more to the point: "Because I have to."

This wasn't always the case when Craig and I attended USC.

Forty years ago, I was a young congressional staff assistant on Capitol Hill. In those days, Richard Nixon was trying to bring an honorable end to the Vietnam War. He also was fighting with the U.S. Civil Rights Commission — a fact I could not ignore. So what did I do? Uncharacteristically, I wrote my first letter to the editor. To my surprise, the Washington Post printed it word for word.

Buoyed by this success, I found myself writing another letter the following year when Lyndon Johnson died. I had moved back to Laguna by then, so reading my letter in the Los Angeles Times was a big thrill. Having neighbors respond to my thoughts was equally exciting.

From 1972 to 1979, I was lucky enough, or clever enough, to have nine letters to the editor published in various newspapers and magazines around the country. Despite the fact I had no formal training as a writer, I was beginning to find my voice in print. I admit it was squeaky at first; still, it was mine. It was about this time I decided to raise the volume a bit. I tried my hand at writing commentaries.

The first few came rather easily. An anniversary tribute to the Beatles, an opinion piece about Jimmy Carter, thoughts about young voters and more rolled off the page like water from a spout. Then, without warning, I lost my voice. By the mid-1980s, I couldn't write to save my life. More to the point, I couldn't get anything published.

During this literary dry spell, I was spending the bulk of my time changing diapers or looking for work. Either way, I voluntarily gave up the pen in favor of being a father and making a living. I don't regret the choices I made. I just wish I could have figured out a way to write some editorials late at night.

Then, in 1992, as quickly as my voice had faded it came roaring back. Before I knew it, I had written features on teenage gangsters, the Internet as a fundraising powerhouse, turning 50 and other topics of interest. Unlike before, readers responded to my pieces with letters of their own. With my voice back, my commentaries took on a completely different meaning. It was during this period that I first began to feel like a bona fide writer — someone who wrote not just for himself but for a much larger audience.

Over the course of the past decade or more, I have bounced back and forth between writing opinion editorials and letters to the editor. For lack of a better description, I refer to this as my golf-as-literature period. To me, my commentaries are like booming tee shots and my letters like delicate chips to the green. Each shot requires a different club and mindset. Each article requires a different language and word count. Both require a significant degree of finesse.

I think it's safe to say the 9/11terrorist attacks in New York and at the Pentagon fractured our national psyche. In an effort to recover, I have been writing nonstop ever since. My topics have ranged from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to port security; from steroid use in baseball to Barack Obama and more.

Sometimes I sound like a Democrat, other times like a Republican. Every so often, I feel like a Republicrat. Partisan leanings aside, I have learned to write from my gut. While some old friends think I have lost my liberal compass, I don't. Like winds that blow in all directions, the topics I have chosen to write about have taken me places I never could have imagined a decade ago.

Writing all these years has proved to be good therapy. When I started out in Washington, I wrote infrequently. Today, my hobby has become my passion. I'm not ashamed to admit it: I'm addicted. I don't jog like some of my friends do, nor do I cook to relax like others I know. I don't have season tickets to the Trojan football games either. I write. I write because I am inspired. I write because it's what I do — and who I am. I write because, after 40 years, I truly have found my voice.

Denny Freidenrich first moved to Laguna Beach in 1970.

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