HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU’RE A WRITER?
I personally know or have chatted at conferences with several hundred authors during the last twenty years, long before my first novel was ever published. Among those many writers, only a small percentage—a tiny percentage—spent their childhood dreaming of a career in writing. And yet, we writers of genre and literary fiction, while not as numerous as the stars in the heavens, check in at quite a hefty number. Some would say there are too many of us! So how did membership in this club grow when almost no one seemed to yearn for admittance? When did the itch to become a professional writer reveal itself? Each personal story is unique to be sure, but I believe there are some common threads:
You know you’re a writer…if your town library was important to you from the get-go. As an eight or nine year old girl, I remember visiting the public library every single week. I was gloriously happy strolling down the aisles, checking the shelf space of my favorite authors, excited to find either a brand new book or one new to me. I also remember feeling sorry for these authors, however, and glad not to be one of them. Why would I want to spend my time all alone in a room writing books? I’d have to give up playing with my friends, give up watching television. That life wasn’t for me! Poor writers. So lonely. It must have been a terrible life, but I was glad they’d chosen it because I loved to read.
Hear that? Writers love to read. We started out that way, maybe from birth. Every one of us with no exceptions. During my conversations with other authors, someone usually brought up her trips to the library as a kid. At that moment, every face would light up, every expression one of remembrance. When we were children, visiting the library or the bookmobile was the common denominator. In my case, the dentist’s waiting room was a hot spot for magazines. That’s where I discovered Good Housekeeping and Ladies’ Home Journal. I was twelve by then, reading everything and anything.
You know you’re a writer…when your high school English teacher hangs your essays on the classroom bulletin board. No fuss about it though. She simply returns the essays of other students to them while you sit empty-handed. Until you realize your epic poem about Odysseus and his band of men/Who thought they’d never see home again or the comical piece, A Musical Instrument? which depicts your adventures playing the taller-than-you, low toned bassoon with the school orchestra, are decorating the walls of the room. Oh, there they are. She hung them up. But did I get an A?
You know you’re a writer…when in college, you’d rather handle a term paper than take an exam. You enjoy exploring plays and investigating a “comedy of manners.” You love reading the romantic poets—Keats, Byron, Wordsworth’s Lucy poems. On the other hand, you also remember dark powerful lines: That’s my last duchess painted on the wall/Looking as though she were alive…Robert Browning. As soon as I read that, I got shivers. I still get shivers. Most of my friends moaned and groaned, but I liked this stuff.
You know you’re a writer…when as a young adult, you start making up poems for your own amusement. About your kids. About life. About nature. Some funny. Some serious. And you send a few verses to Hallmark Cards, not realizing they employ their own staff of writers. You know nothing about the business of writing because to you, writing is fun! Just like I did, you reach for your thick pad and a pen every night after the kids are in bed. Creative writing is becoming a hobby we really and truly like.
You know you’re a writer…when you try your hand at family stories. Three or four page personal essays. About what makes a “real” grandma. About meeting your husband. About your parents’ wedding. Whoa! Your parent’s wedding? You weren’t even there, but you asked a lot of questions and filled in the blanks. A story emerged called A Fine Romance. Everyone loved it. More important, however, you realize you loved writing it.
You know you’re a writer…when you voluntarily enroll in creative writing courses. You even shell out some cash for them! The writing bug is biting and won’t let you go. Your family stories evolve into short fiction pieces. You start learning about the craft—the structure and elements of fiction. You begin to realize how character, plot and setting are put together to create a whole work. Little by little, you learn to braid these threads yourself, and the craft begins to make sense.
You know you’re a writer…when you grab every drop of courage you possess, put your best short story in an envelope and enter it into a national contest. Just to test the water. Just to see if you’ve “got it.” Or not. Or not yet.
When the results come in, and you’ve placed in the top ten out of almost 2000 entries, you cry. Maybe, just maybe you start to believe…
You know you’re a writer… when you realize that The Wizard of Oz is a masterpiece. Baum had it right: Goal, Motivation and Conflict. It’s all there—the foundation of fiction which has endured to this day. Aristotle explained it as the hero’s journey. Lucas illustrated it in Star Wars. Want something more sophisticated? Think about The Shawshank Redemption. Journeys well traveled; endings well deserved. Or sometimes not, but that’s not my way.
The original cover, circa 1900.
The promise of these well crafted elements is why the words, “Once upon a time…” brings everyone to the campfire. The request to “Tell me a story…” echoes through every generation of children. Our kids become the heroes; they live the adventure–within the safety of a book.
You know you’re a writer…when you look into those children’s faces and reply, “Of course, I’ll tell you a story. I’ve got lots of stories tucked away.” When the time comes, you sink into your chair, all alone in your office, and close the door. You noodle around with a few ideas. Your fingers start itching. They begin tapping the keyboard and a book emerges. Down the road, another one comes to fruition. You’re not a one-book wonder, and the relief is grand.
Whether your story is aimed at children or adults doesn’t matter. The genre doesn’t matter either. But good stories do. Good stories matter! When you believe they matter as much as I do, then you’ll know you’re a writer.
As always, thanks so much for stopping by. I hope both authors and readers took away a little insight about one writer’s development which is not too unusual among others in the field. I hope to see you for the next edition of Starting Over.
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