When I was ten years old my father gave me a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. It soon became my close friend and constant companion. I would look up a word, then get sidetracked by others, revealing words and worlds I never knew existed. I didn’t know it then but language had me in its lure. It still didn’t click when I won prose and poetry prizes, or an Alliance Française award, in school. By the time I reached university, the world was in such turmoil that I felt drawn to subjects that might help me understand the radical changes taking place around me. Literature or writing courses didn’t make the cut.
Upon graduating, I turned down offers from two professors (anthropology and history) to do postgraduate work. I felt compelled to do something more hands-on to help address some of the crises the world was facing. My parents and others had me destined for a career in the diplomatic service but I chose instead to join an American-based organization — the Ecumenical Institute (EI) and its offshoot, the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) — that was like a cross between a religious order and the Peace Corps. What began as a six-month internship stretched into a 30-year commitment that gained me nothing financially but taught me many skills, from facilitation and fundraising to consensus-based decision making and team building. It also introduced me to a diversity of countries and cultures and immersed me in life at the lower rungs of society.
What it didn’t teach me was how to write. The only kind of writing the Institute did was called “corporate writing” where teams of people were assigned to produce a document on a certain subject, usually heavily laden with in-house jargon and newly minted language that was only intelligible to those who operated within the Institute’s framework. Some of our productions were more like a Communist manifesto than finely crafted journalese. It took me years to unlearn this doctrinaire style of writing and allow my own creativity to emerge.
Some of our productions were more like a Communist manifesto than finely crafted journalese. It took me years to unlearn this doctrinaire style of writing and allow my own creativity to emerge.
A turning point came in 1987 when I was working at the ICA’s international headquarters in Brussels and was asked to edit a volume on rural development. Although I knew nothing about editing, I quickly slotted into the job and my love of language was rekindled. During this period I signed up for a correspondence course with a British writing school. Three years and 20 assignments later I was publishing everything I wrote, in popular magazines, professional journals, newspapers and more. I was tempted to call myself a freelance writer but that didn’t seem right and certainly didn’t provide the fulfillment I was seeking.
After my initial editing effort, the ICA asked me to undertake another volume on civil society. This challenged me in new ways, working with 20 contributors from 10 countries, whose education levels ranged from that of university professors to second-language English speakers who hadn’t completed secondary school. The finished product was well received and reprinted by a second publisher. It remains a seminal book on the subject today.
While working on this, I also edited the ICA’s national newsletter in the USA and wrote numerous articles about its groundbreaking Technology of Participation® for external as well as in-house publications. It wasn’t until a colleague pulled me aside and asked “John, when are you going to write your own book?” that I seriously contemplated doing that. It was as though everything up to that point was an apprenticeship for the real thing, but what was that?