I decided to give the DPchallenge a try!
The challenge: Write your Writer Origin Story!
In my own, meandering way, that’s what I’ve done. It’s interesting how little pieces of this reflection make me think of other things I want to write. I’m pretty sure the “Origin Story” of me as a writer is more than one entry — but this is where it starts.
I was a reader before I was a writer. Fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by people who loved books and stories, and who were eager to share that love of the written word with me.
My parents read to us, my teachers read to me, even my grandparents — on the rare visits (they lived far away) — would read to us. Our home had bookcases, at some point my dad even built a massive set of bookcases to hold all the books we had. Books were a common, and always happily received, gift on the holidays, it seemed even the great figures of the holidays were in on the book-gifting, Santa would leave us a book outside our door on Christmas morning.
I love books, stories, and reading, and when I look back at how I was raised, I’m not sure I could have escaped such a fate. Certainly, I don’t think any of my siblings did — there are five of us, and we all still read plenty. Both sets of grandparents were readers, and my still-living grandparents still devour books and the printed word across genres.
But, as seems to be the case with many things, I had to read on my own terms. I only wanted to read books that interested me, and I wanted to read them when I wanted. This sometimes meant that I would read late at night, eventually learning that I could take advantage of the hall light, peeking through the cracked open door, or the street-light shining through the window, to make out words long after lights out. Many years later I learned that my Mom had actually come into my room a few nights to find I had literally fallen asleep on whatever book I was reading.
Reading for school was never quite as much fun as reading on my own (even if I enjoyed the book I was required to read). And it took me quite some time to find the books that would help me move beyond picture books. Even today, I have a hard time branching out to new books if they don’t capture my attention right away (though I have learned to trust the opinions of certain friends and stick it out through shaky starts, often with pleasant results).
As a kid we would take regular (perhaps weekly) trips to the library, and were allowed to take out whatever, and however many, books we wanted. And we participated in the summer reading programs with enthusiasm. But for the longest time I never ventured out of the comfortable children’s-book section. The familiar picture books, authors like Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Richard Scarry, and Stan and Jan Berenstain. And I loved fairy tales, with the beautiful princess dresses and elaborate illustrations.
But I had very little interest in venturing away from that children’s corner (that I still remember well, even though the library has since moved locations. Until my Grandmother sent me some Babysitters Club books. Hardly high literature, I know, but the story interested me. I forget how old I was, but the date of publication of the books tells me that I had to be at least 9 years old, and I think it was right around there. As soon as I realized that there were books without pictures that I enjoyed, it didn’t take long for me to seek out more books to read.
And I devoured them, working my way through the shelves of the library, and the bookstores. I started to read almost any book I could get my hands on — leading, if I recall correctly, to one instance of taking out about thirty chapter books during one of our library visits, one of which got lost under a seat in the car for months (perhaps an influence in my parents imposing limitations on how many books we could check out each week… and us each getting our own library cards so that fees became our responsibility). The school librarian was very helpful, as well, at finding more books for me to read — “Oh, you do ballet and liked Samantha on Stage, how about trying The Sisters Impossible,” or “Look, The Secret Garden and The Little Princess aren’t just picture books, but have longer stories,” I learned at an early age that librarians are amazing (as resources, and as people. Seriously, if you aren’t friends with a librarian, find some to make friends with. I adore my librarian friends!)
I am amazed to this day how I will stumble across a book and have that passing memory of reading it back in those early days — and I still read many of the books again, familiar friends. When I had to purge through my book collection recently for a cross-country move (the second such purge in five years), I found myself agonizing about which of the books to keep, and which to part with. And I kept many, including the books mentioned above, those original Babysitter club books, Charlotte Sometimes, The Cage and a copy of Little Women exactly like the one I had read in elementary school (which I had fallen completely in love with because of the illustrations).
And as I was pouring my free time into reading, I still got to be read to. I think that one of the most amazing things that I experiences in elementary school was that my fifth grade teacher read to us every day. We worked through a bunch of books, books I might not have picked up on my own (including some that became favorites). Through him I was introduced to Roald Dahl (Matilda and The BFG and Danny Champion of the World, I remember especially), and Scott O’Dell (Island of the Blue Dolphin). There was something powerful about hearing someone else’s voice give these words life, not just hearing them in my head. It was also through school that I was introduced to Jerry Spinelli (through Maniac Magee), and Katherine Paterson (through The Great Gilly Hopkins), and The Westing Game.
I think all these books influenced me, eventually, as a writer, as well as the many other books I took from the library, or was gifted for holidays. But as I was reading them I was still primarily a reader, not a writer. Outside of school assignments, I wasn’t really writing stories. I was, however, telling them. I created stories to entertain (or sometimes participated in story creation to frighten) my siblings. A friend and I played with dolls, into late elementary school when other kids would probably have made fun of us if they knew, but when I look back we were just creating stories together. Imaginative play was a key cornerstone to my activities, and somewhere in middle school I began to stay up late into the night (when I wasn’t reading) creating stories in my head.
But taking those stories and allowing them to play out across the page, to put them in a form that I could, potentially, share them with others, came later. I probably started sketching out stories earlier, but the pivotal point — what stands out in my mind — was the summer before high school. That’s when I found myself struck by stories that I could not ignore. It was the first real experience of having a story flow through me so quickly that I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up. It also happened to be the summer when a bunch of cousins came to visit, and I wonder if perhaps I didn’t bury myself in my writing, in part, because I wasn’t really finding myself relating to them very well. Whatever the reason behind this sudden burst, I was writing every moment I could. I filled spiral bound notebooks, and loose-leaf note-paper, with stories. I still have them, these barely legible scribbles of very stilted and ridiculous writing, and they still make me smile (and cringe) to reread.
It didn’t take long for me to become enamored with the idea of being a writer, and I was rather prolific in my early attempts. Mostly I was writing realistic fiction, stories of girls around my age with exciting lives, real challenges, and mysterious family pasts. But there were at least a few stories that walked the edge of being more of the fantasy, historical-fiction, or sci-fi genre. It wasn’t until I reached college that I found myself delving pretty completely into fantasy fiction. But, I still dabble with realistic-fiction, historic-fiction, poetry, memoir, and of course, nonfiction.
But those early stories, they always hold a special place for me, because they were the first time I took the risk to commit the stories in my head to the page. I was writing for myself, at that point (and some of what I write still is just for me), but there was something empowering about the act of transferring the stories from my head onto the page. Sure, some of them have never been (and likely will never be) read by others. And some have only been read by my sister. But those stories were the start. The moment when I realized that I liked being able to figure out how another person might act in a situation, to pretend to be someone else looking at an event and telling an understanding of it from that perspective. The moment when I realized I wanted to create stories that someday, somewhere, some kid might stumble across to read. And that kid might find themselves sparked by a love of the story, drawn into the world that I have created. That a story I write might help someone develop a willingness to read something new. That I might be able to craft characters that stick with someone long after the story is finished. Or characters, and a world, that someone is able to engross with so completely that they don’t believe the last page is the end of the story. Or, best of all, the thought that perhaps, some day, they too might want to create stories, to take the risk of putting the story on a page, to share with others or to keep for themselves.