I have read many writers who have said that they became writers only after learning the craft, i.e. the skills that were needed to impart an idea on the page. Others have said that writers pop out of the womb fully fledged and write every chance they get from day one. I think there is something of value in both these ideas. My own experience, I feel, tends toward the latter first and the first followed it.
I was born with a creative gene, and spent my early life learning how to sing, how to color, and how to act out with my few friends the many stories that rumbled round my brain begging for expression. Many of these I told to my early friends as we sat together at recess, or after school, or around the campfire at scouting camps.
My very first piece of fictional writing was a Nancy Drew fan fiction novella when I was in the fifth grade. I was an early reader and at the time I was a huge Nancy Drew fan. I had about thirty of those novels , all inherited from one of my older cousins. But I was also reading more adult novels as well. When I’d read through every Nancy Drew book I had at least twice, I grew bored.
So I began secretly borrowing the books on my father’s bookshelf. I made sure to only take the ones I knew he’d finished. I squirreled myself away in my room with the book and a dictionary. If I found the words to difficult or the concepts too complicated for my youthful mind to comprehend, I would put the book back and save it for later, knowing that my own understanding would eventually grow and make sense of it all as I grew older. Some things I learned far too young, but I think it opened my mind to a somewhat more complicated adult view of life and what drove people to do the things they did.
If I was drawn into a story, I would read the book through and make a list of all the words I didn’t understand to research later. I kept a heavy dictionary beside my bed. My dad would have skinned me alive had he known, but he either tacitly approved of my actions or had no clue what I was doing. I preferred to believe that latter as it gave a certain piquancy to the read.
My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Milam, was determined to open our imaginations to reading and writing and she set aside an hour of the day, during which she read stories to us by authors such as Charles Dickens, C. S. Lewis and others. She read the story of Robinson Crusoe, The Wizard of Oz and, my very favorite, The Secret Garden. It was, of course, my favorite hour of the day.
During the spring of my fifth grade year, Mrs. Milam gave our class a writing assignment. We were to write a story of our own. I was somewhat taken aback. It had never dawned on me until that moment that I could write something too.
She spent a lot of time on the details she wanted us to adhere to, but my mind was all ready off and running as I began to write my first mystery story in my head. I stopped listening to much of the other lessons that day. Instead, I wrote. I wrote during the reading lesson and through recess. By the time it was time to go home, I had already written the required six pages!
At home I wrote feverishly as the story seemed to appear in my mind completely formed. It took me the entirety of the time limit she given to us — a very short two weeks — as well as another whole week to finish it. I turned it in late, but I just knew it was “A” work.
A week later I got my story back along with the other students, and she had a few students, the ones whose work had been graded with an A, read theirs to the class. I simply stared at my own story in mute horror.
She’d given me a “B–”!
I was devastated. Red marks slashed through my story like a bleeding trail of wounds made by a broadsword. Words misspelled, incorrect grammar, repetitious sentences I hadn’t needed to put in the story at all. Across the front page she’d written:
“Marvelous story, great organization of the plot, but it needs some work to be readable. Come see me after school today to discuss this. If the story had been completed and turned in on time, I would have given it an A+.”
Then on the left margin, she’d written in bold red letters:
“THE ASSIGNMENT WAS FOR AT LEAST 6 PAGES, NOT 142!”
Shades of Ralphie’s experience with theme writing in A Christmas Story. Well, I gathered from that movie, when it came out during my own children’s youth, that at least Jean Shepard knew how I’d felt. At the time, though, it crushed me! I went home that afternoon with tears in my eyes, miserable despite the praise with which Mrs. Milam had regaled me after school was out that day. All I could see was the number of red marks on the pages and that hideous B+.
But it didn’t stop me from writing at all.
I had been bitten hard by the writing bug, and I wrote and wrote and wrote. I’d be writing on one story when another idea popped into my head. Then I’d stop working on the first to get the second one down on paper. It became a vicious cycle with very few finished pieces. But I couldn’t seem to stop writing. This was the medium my mind had been waiting for all the years prior.
I had become a writer.