Writing Without Limits

Dickson’s Books Cover the Spectrum

Posted April 25, 2005 at 3:27pm

A note on Washington author Paul Dickson’s business card states that his writing practice is “limited to subjects of interest.”

But glancing at a list of the 47 titles that Dickson has published in the past 34 years, it is quickly apparent that his interests have never really been that limiting.

After working as a reporter with McGraw Hill Publications, Dickson became a full-time freelance writer in 1968 and released his first book, “Think Tanks,” in 1971 after undertaking a research tour of the nation’s premier intellectual institutions.

The next year, he came out with “The Great American Ice Cream Book.”

In 1989, “The Dickson Baseball Dictionary” hit bookshelves and eventually became one of several Dickson dictionaries released over the years;

others include “Slang! The Topic-by-Topic Dictionary of Contemporary American Lingoes,” and “The Congress Dictionary: The Ways and Meanings of Capitol Hill,” which Dickson published with Hill reporter Paul Clancy in 1993.

Dickson freely admits that unlike many other writers, he never really found a niche — though these days he has at least narrowed down his subject matter a bit and tries to concentrate on baseball, the American language and 20th-century history.

Having lived in and around Washington since 1966, Dickson is a founding member of Washington Independent Writers, a professional and social organization of more than 1,000 freelance writers in the D.C. metro area. The affable 65-year-old is also a familiar face at the National Press Club and the Library of Congress, his main research base for everything from his book on military cuisine to his historical narrative on Sputnik.

But the common thread that runs through all of Dickson’s varied works is his own fascination with the world around him — indeed, ask him about any of his books and his reply usually begins with, “I once became fascinated with …”

Take, for example, Dickson’s dictionary on resident names aptly titled, “What Do You Call a Person From … ?”

One of the things that always bugged Dickson when he was growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., was that his town had two main newspapers, one of which referred to members of the community as Yonkersonians, the other calling them Yonkersites.

“It was always a big debate,” Dickson recalled, adding that years later the controversy inspired him to look into other cities and towns with similar disputes.

“There was this tiny piece of the universe. I thought it’d be fun to define this one bit of the universe, to become the Websters of demonyms,” the name for people who inhabit a certain space.

In 1990, Dickson’s book finally put his hometown issue to rest once and for all. In it, he cited a 1936 article in the New Yorker which reported that three factions in Yonkers town had a war of words over the correct term and that “Yonkersite had bested Yonkers man and the tonier Yonkersonian.”

Another fascination over the years has been after-dinner toasts.

“Toasts,” a collection of some 1,500 blessings, pledges and dinner graces, was released in 1981. Dickson got the idea for the book after finding a small paperback at a flea market which included some traditional toasts from the turn of the century. The small book inspired Dickson to start collecting toasts and graces he heard at weddings and dinners on 3-by-5 cards. Soon he became known as the man with a toast for any occasion and thought it might be a collection that could sell.

“Part of it is economic,” Dickson explained of his diverse subject matter. “At one point, the largest advance I ever got was for a joke book. I could write goofy stuff and make more money.”

Despite his knack for myriad topics, Dickson said he’s not very good at games like “Jeopardy” or Trivial Pursuit.

“I don’t keep that much in my head,” he explained.

But some of Dickson’s collections like “On this Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington, D.C.” have made him popular among trivia enthusiasts and researchers around the country.

Associate Senate Historian Don Ritchie, who worked with Dickson when he put together “The Congress Dictionary,” said the book is one of several lexicons on the legislative branch that is often used as a reference tool in the Senate Historian’s Office.

“I get newspaper people calling me,” Dickson said, “because a lot of this ends up in city rooms” and news desks. “But I really want to do narratives, big-time non-fiction.”

In his latest work with fellow Washington writer Thomas Allen, Dickson uncovers the largely forgotten history of the American “Bonus Army,” a motley collection of down-on-their-luck World War I veterans who marched on Washington during the Great Depression to demand the payment of a bonus promised to them during their time in the military. The book has been well received, and Dickson and Allen have held several lectures on the history of the Bonus Army at the Library of Congress and other venues around Washington.

And for every idea he’s had published, Dickson said he’s probably had three or four others that he couldn’t sell — though that’s never slowed him down.

“There are basically three groups of people who never retire,” he said. “Symphony conductors, architects and writers.”

In the coming year, Dickson plans to start on a history of the American highway system, update his baseball and slang dictionaries and keep an eye out for anything else that might fascinate him.

Such is the life of a freelance writer, and Dickson wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If I could go back to when I was 18 and get into a time machine and visit myself at 65 I’d say, ‘Man, you got away with it. You never had to go to a job, you never had to go to a meeting, you never had to worry about whether your boss liked you or not. … You got away with it,’” he said.