What Does It Mean to Be a Writer? (2)

Then in 1958, since I was about to be drafted, I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School, later known as the Defense Language Institute (DLI), for a year of intensive study of Chinese. But the army dictated that I was to study Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of. After I graduated first in my class of ten, I was assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA). Because I was close to Washington, D.C., I took night classes in Chinese at Georgetown University. That meant I was comfortable in the three languages spoken in Vietnam—Vietnamese, Chinese, and French. As soon as my enlistment was over, NSA hired me and immediately sent me to Vietnam. For the next thirteen years, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. My job was supporting troops in combat with information on the enemy derived from the intercept and exploitation of his radio communications. Along the way, I lived through more than my share of adventures and close calls. Given how much time I spent in combat, it is a miracle that I was never wounded.

After my escape under fire when Saigon fell in 1975, I was assigned elsewhere in the world doing the same kind of work. But where I went, what I did, and who I was supporting are all still classified. So I can’t talk about them.

Nevertheless, all that added to the accumulation of tales overloading my memory. Critics have correctly pointed out that my novels and short stories are fiction in name only—every event I write about really did happen. I turn the stories into fiction by attributing actions to fictional characters rather than to myself or people I have known.

Fortunately, writing comes naturally to me. And I have all these stories I want to tell about things that really happened. The words flow out of me onto the page as if I were merely a transcriber for an external voice. I understand very well how the Greeks ascribed to a muse the inspiration of the artist—I feel as though someone is dictating to me. I have to write as fast as I can to keep up.

So I am enormously fortunate to have a personality well-suited writing. And, as hard as it is, I love it.

How’s that for good luck?

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