Monday, June 23rd, 2008 • 3 Comments on How It Began
I don’t know when it started. As soon as I learned to read, I guess. Once I could decipher those words on the page (or cereal box or billboard or clothing label…), I wanted to duplicate them. I got in trouble for carefully and meticulously copying down the words I read in my picture books. I got in trouble because I wrote my words—in bold crayon colors—directly below the words on the page. I learned to write the words on paper, that horrible beige-brown ruled paper they made us write the alphabet on. I got so frustrated writing the alphabet. A B C D… I already knew the alphabet, I wanted to write words, sentences, paragraphs. Stories!
I wanted to be a writer from the moment I realized someone wrote those words in my books. I wanted to tell stories and often made up stories in my head when insomnia would prevent me from falling asleep. Still do, actually. Maybe I’m not an insomniac at all; maybe I just like telling stories to myself. I learned the word “writer” first. Then “author” (which I always confused with the name Arthur), then “novelist.” I think I was in the third grade when I learned the word “journalist” and my teacher suggested that might be something I’d like doing. I majored in journalism my first time around in college after serving as editor for my high school paper. Journalism wasn’t for me, though. I like making up stories, not reporting the news. (Though the line becomes increasingly blurry.)
I wrote my first stories in first grade. A story about a dog who stops two bank robbers, a story about a witch who takes the form of a crow. I’ve reread those stories—they were pretty good for a seven year old. There were characters and conflict, there was plot. Good stuff. I’ll scan them one of these days and post them for posterity. I wrote for myself, even then. My parents didn’t read to me and had no interest in writing.
The only books in the house were the ones that accumulated—first in neat rows, then in increasingly towering piles—in my room. I lived for the Scholastic Book flyer that my teacher passed out each month or so. I had to make the order out in pencil because I would want too many books and my mother would make me take some off. I still ended up with 5-10 books each order (back in the day when paperbacks were $1.75 to $2.50). I literally could not concentrate on the day the books were delivered—they sat there, teasing me, on a table in the corner. I’d start reading on the school bus on the way home (back when I could read on a moving vehicle without getting motion sick) and finish the stack within days. Then I’d read them all again. And again. I read some of my favorite books ten times.
I wrote stories about my friends. I acted as secretary (and co-president—I never wanted to be in charge, but I didn’t mind sharing the title) for the neighborhood “clubs” we started, writing down everything that was said and sometimes embellishing it. I wrote one-act plays and short skits for the variety shows we’d put on for each other (and the occasional parent who would wander by). I read voraciously and tried to copy my favorite authors (Arthurs). I dabbled in illustration very briefly, writing a comic strip called “Froggy” that was all about a frog. Not terribly original, but Froggy was based on a real-life classmate and I cracked everyone up with my stories, especially my reading teacher. I don’t think I was ever deliberately cruel or that my storylines were embarrassing to the real-life Froggy (whose name eludes me now), but it’s hard to remember. All I remember is getting to pass around my new comic strip in class each Monday and hearing people laugh. That’s a nice feeling.
I wrote my first book in sixth grade. I don’t remember if it ever had a real title (it’s in the attic in a box, maybe one day I’ll dig it out), but it was about two friends named Abbie and Josie. That may have been the title. It was not-so-loosely based on me and my friend Denise. As I recall, there was a mystery of some sort in there. Denise’s uncle (who was probably in his early 20s at the time, but seemed terribly old) was a real writer of some kind. All I really remember is him talking about how one of his ideas had been stolen and made into a movie. He offered to critique Abbie and Josie for me and told me he’d treat me like an adult and not baby me like my teachers. I think that’s when I first realized that not everyone was going to love what I wrote. I didn’t know the word critique until Denise’s uncle took my fledgling novel effort—handwritten!—and marked it up with words and abbreviations. “Awk” was one of his favorites—it meant awkward. “Cliched” was another one. I learned from him that my writing was awkward and cliched. Ouch.
I didn’t stop writing, but Abbie and Josie went into a drawer, then a closet, then a box, never to see the light of day again. I fell in love with Stephen King shortly after that and wrote many horror stories over a ten year period. (Jay still remembers one in particular that I wrote shortly after we got married about a woman who kills her husband and turns him into hamburger. I’m pretty sure that’s the last real horror story I ever wrote.) In 1982, I wrote a ghost story for a Halloween contest sponsored by the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel. I was one of three winners. I was fifteen, the prize was $50 and it was the first money I had ever received for my writing. I was hooked.
I compiled a bunch of slam books. Anyone remember those? I always came up with the best, most personal questions. I never answered them, of course. I was just the author. I co-wrote a book of trivia in ninth grade with my friend Joanna. We were always coming up with these little snippets of trivia (“Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but it actually has 11,007”—I still remember that one) and we would add them to our graffiti-style notebook. Before the internet, Google and Wikipedia, there was Joanna and me, trying to collect all the useless knowledge in the world under one spiral-bound cover. We got bored with it after a year, but I still have our efforts in a box.
In high school, I wrote all kinds of things. I wrote a terribly long satiric fable called Queen Kristina. It was a hoot and my audience was a couple of friends. My best friend Nancy (aka Princess Nancy) egged me on, encouraging me to write more and more about Queen Kristina’s exploits (there may have been sex involved, come to think of it). I wonder if Queen Kristina is in the attic somewhere, as well? Probably.
I also wrote poetry—lots and lots of poetry. Mostly rhyming and mostly bad. I went through the required teenage angst and wrote about it incessantly. I know that notebook (a red three-ring binder) is in a box in the attic. There’s one poem in particular that I actually memorized. It’s not dark and teenagey, it’s actually a kids’ poem called “The Unicorn.” I think I still remember most of it:
There once was a mischievous unicorn
who loved to eat the grass,
But he could not read, this unicorn
and was caught one day, alas!
By a man who hated unicorns
and made a sign that said:
“Please don’t eat the grass”
That the unicorn should have read.
But the unicorn, he could not read,
and was carried off to jail
And the next day, with a piece of rope,
he was hung by his tail.
If the unicorn had learned to read
He would’ve known what the sign had said
But because of his illiteracy
This unicorn is dead.
You can see why I’m not a poet, In retrospect, I guess it was kind of a dark poem. A dark, cautionary poem about the importance of learning to read. What else would a writer write? Don’t ask me why I still remember it after twenty-five or so years. It just stuck.
For years, I have been carting around boxes of stuff I’ve written—first hand-written, then typed (on a typewriter!), then word processed, then computer written. I have pencil-written stories, stories written in ink and poetry written in calligraphy. I have all-capitalized stories because my shift key on my typewriter stopped working and stories typed with a worn out ribbon that are nearly impossible to read. I have dot-matrix printed stories on computer paper (with the holes on the edge that had to be ripped off). I have floppy disks that won’t work on any computer in my house. It’s not all fiction, of course. I have a dozen or so journals filled with the drama in the life of a young Kristina. I have back-and-forth notes between my friends and me, detailing a day (or so) in our lives. I likely still have a few letters that I wrote and never delivered—love letters, letters to people who had hurt me. Letters that I needed to write but never intended to send. I have outlines of books I was going to write “some day” and ideas for stories and the endless term papers of high school that I’ve kept. I have written millions and millions of words, most that were never seen by anyone but myself.
I have always wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to be anything else. Well, that’s not entirely true. I wanted to be “a writer and.” A writer and a veterinarian. A writer and an actress. A writer and a photographer. A writer and a news broadcaster. A writer and a book store owner. But always, always “a writer.” Always.