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I was talking with another writer friend of mine in chat a few days ago and he asked me a question: When did you first get "the writing bug"?

It's a question I haven't really sat down to think about for a while, and since I answered him, I've been thinking about it quite a bit.

I've been reading since...probably 8 or 9. For pleasure, that is. Not just the mechanics of recognizing or being able to sound out words. It seems alien to me now to think of a time in my past when I didn't like reading, but there was one. Well, okay, it was very brief. :)

My mother tells me that at an early age, I was recognizing words on flash cards, but I don't remember that. And it wasn't true reading, either, I would guess. :) I learned to "read" in Miss Annie's kindergarten class in Greensboro, Alabama. But it was merely mechanical (hence the scare quotes). I can remember being able to recognize the words, but not being able to put the words together to get meaning out of it.

Yes, they're probably false memories. I was only 5 or 6 at the time.

Because of this, when I entered the first grade at Warrior Academy in Eutaw, Alabama (my hometown), Mrs. Meads thought I was some sort of prodigy. At some point, she even took me and classmates Willis and Elizabeth to some conference to demonstrate the efficacy of teaching reading using this program she had.

I still sort of remember the program, but not what it was called. Each color of chalk represented a different sound. So white was short 'a' as in 'bat' or 'cat.' Light orange was short 'o' as in 'top' or 'hot.' Pale blue was short 'e' as in 'get' or 'vet.' Etc. Every consonant and every vowel had a specific, unique sound. We only learned the short vowels, and I can't see teaching six-year-olds about things like 'oy' and 'wh' and 'ng,' so there were probably fewer than 44 colors (there are 44 sounds in the English language, if I recall correctly).

I remember vividly (again, probably falsely, but we'll go with it) her telling us on Day One that white was always short 'a' (ă). She wrote down an 'a' in white chalk and said, "What is this?" And we all obediently said, "ă!" There were other non-representational drawings, each of which we dutifully called "ă!" Finally, she drew a horse and said, "What is this?" Some kids said, "A horse!" but the savvy ones said, "ă!"

We'd get a few more colors periodically as we mastered the ones we already knew. I remember (blah blah false blah blah) her finally taking away the color "crutches," and hoping we'd learned the sounds of the letters without needing the colored chalk. She wrote "abdomen" on the board—all in white—and asked us to sound it out. No one said "ă!" by this point, but no one spoke, either. It was a hard word for a six-year-old. She then said it was another word for 'stomach.'

Someone in the back of the class yelled out, "Tummy!"

I think it was me—although it might have been Elizabeth or Willis—who finally said 'abDAHmen.' (Remember, we didn't know long vowel sounds—or schwa (ə)—at this point, and so that 'o' had to be short!)

In second grade, we learned the long vowels and...other stuff. We had to start writing reports and such, and learning cursive. Reading wasn't fun for me or anyone else at this point—it was homework. Bleah! Who wants to do that?

Then...by the fourth grade, I was reading ravenously. I don't know when the transition occurred or what the catalyst was, which is a shame. It might have been Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke, all of which I know I read relatively early on because they were in the Eutaw City Library and all of them have an extensive "juvenile" selection. But it must have been something easier and earlier, and I just don't remember. I do remember checking out the maximum number of books every week during summer, but as to what they were? No clue.

So anyway. Fourth grade. Reading ravenously. I was heavily into ghosts, Bigfoot, aliens, the Loch Ness Monster, etc. I read everything in my school's library that had anything to do with those subjects. I branched out into the city library, too.

Then in the fifth grade, something else happened. It was in Mrs. Cathey's Reading class, I think we called it. I remember having Mrs. Windle for "English," and learning the parts of speech and such, but we also had Mrs. Cathey. Hmm. Odd that this escapes me.

At any rate, Mrs. Cathey had a program where she had many shelves of books in her classroom and she had rated each one from 1 to 5 points based on how difficult the book was to read and comprehend. The one-pointers were easy; the five-pointers were hard. We had to read a certain number of points for each six-week period.

I don't remember exactly which book flipped a switch. Was it Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time? Nicholas Stuart Gray's The Apple Stone? Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Below the Root, And All Between, and Until the Celebration? Richard Parker's The Old Powder Line? Oliver Butterworth's The Trouble with Jenny's Ear? L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz? L. M. Boston's The Children of Green Knowe? C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? I feel like it was one of those, or perhaps the totality of all of them that lit the spark.1

I remember the tipping point, though. I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Green Sky trilogy (see above) and because I loved them, I read her The Headless Cupid, too. I don't remember the book at all, at this point. It has, after all, been 34 years or so since I read it. :) But something in there...sparked a need to tell stories, not just read them.

I'm going to have to read it again, one day, to see if I can identify what it was. What...catalyst lit the fuse.

I remember starting to write stories. I got my mother's typewriter and set it up in the basement on a rickety, metal typewriter table and laboriously typed the worst Mary Sue2 nonsense ever written. Well, I can't prove that. But it was bad. :) I mean, it was about four kids named Gary and Willis and Albert and...someone else I can't remember. Me and my best friends at the time. And we...did stuff. Mysterious, magical, weird stuff. Like stepping through into other worlds, solving mysteries...you know, the standard stuff that all child protagonists do in their spare time.

Later, I incorporated elements of The Chronicles of Narnia and the story evolved to something else entirely, then morphed, then morphed again. At some point, I read Tolkien and creating a language became something I absolutely had to do. I developed an alphabet loosely based on the runic alphabet and Tolkien's various Elvish scripts. It was alternately swoopy with curlicues and dots and spiky with angles and harsh straight lines. With dots. I still have that, somewhere.

And I can trace that very first Mary Sue story on a direct path to a story that I've had knocking around in my head for decades. And part of which I finally wrote down in 2008 as my NaNoWriMo novel. I got 51000+ words in and it's a good start. And one day I'll revise it and add antagonists and a plot. :)

So I've been writing in some form or another since I was 11. By the time I was 17 or 18, I had a terrible science fiction story written out longhand in a large spiral notebook. I still have this notebook, somewhere. That's how I can definitely call it "terrible." But that story will, in some form, be told. Someday. Because I still like it.

Also by the time I was 17, I had discovered computers. One of the things I eventually had to do was write a "word processor" program, even though that is not what I called it. It was just a silly little Basic program that monitored the keyboard for keypresses and stored whatever I typed in memory (all 32K!) and then wrote it out to cassette tape. Imagine my shock and awe when, several years later, I discovered WordStar, and realized someone had stolen my idea. (Yeah, it's cute how naïve I was, isn't it?)

I laboriously drew maps of all nine worlds in my galaxy-spanning civilization on large sheets of art paper. Plus the world of the antagonists and one of a world that served as the catalyst for the war that would inevitably break out. There were going to be nine novels separated into three trilogies. That I only had enough plot for maybe two never concerned me. I had place names, rivers, forests, mountain ranges...all of that.

As a senior in high school, our school guidance counselor came to the senior class with an exercise. She wanted us each to fill out a form she had drawn up. We put our names, the date, and then answered such questions as "Who is your best friend? Who do you hate? Why? What do you want to do?" and things like that. And then she put, "Where do you think you'll be in five years?" We filled them out and handed them in, and she said, "In five years, I'm going to send these to you. You'll be 23. How many of you think you'll still remember what you wrote down?"

And then I went to college immediately following high school graduation in 1983. I abandoned all of it. The things I wrote in college could best be described as "blog entries" even though they predated blogs by two decades at least. Alas, all of that is now lost to the mists of time. Or maybe not "alas," but "thank goodness." I'm sure it was awful stuff.

In college, I discovered things like friends and socializing and pizza (I did not then nor do I now drink, so I'm sure some would say my "college experience" is not really complete), and everything else sort of fell to the wayside.

In 1988, when I was in grad school, I got a letter from someone I didn't know. Curious, I opened it. It was in my own handwriting. Wow. It was the thing we all filled out when we were seniors. Under "Where do you think you'll be in five years?" I had written, "I hope to have at least one novel published."

Yeah. Naïve, yet sobering at the same time. That thing that had been so vitally important to me just five years previous was backburnered, possibly forever, although I still wrote world-building notes and endlessly reorganized them into categories.

In 1990, fresh out of not graduating from grad school (Can you say 'severe burn-out,' boys and girls?), I got a programming job at Tuscaloosa Steel Corporation in Tuscaloosa. I was 25.

I started to dabble in writing, again. Not really writing, but endlessly rewriting the opening chapter of my Epic Novel™ Doesn't Have a Title. I'd write some of it, then I'd get a new world-building idea and have to start over, even though the idea didn't change the opening of Chapter One. I must have had hundreds if not thousands of notes that I've collected over the years (Yes, I still have all of them.) for that galaxy-spanning tale and the high fantasy one that is tangentially connected.

I remember the opening lines to this day (because I rewrote them dozens of times): "The deep blue sky over the western end of the valley of Dhorn was ablaze with vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows as the beautiful autumn day came rapidly to an end. The dark shadow of the mountains creeped closer and closer to the town of Ondir, nestled at the foot of the [I can't remember the name] mountains, like a skeletal hand reaching out of the darkness to engulf the town. With the darkness came The Mist. The deep blue sky over the western end of the valley of Dhorn was ablaze with vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows as the beautiful autumn day came rapidly to an end. The dark shadow of the mountains creeped closer and closer to the town of Ondir, nestled at the foot of the [I can't remember the name] mountains, like a skeletal hand reaching out of the darkness to engulf the town. With the darkness came The Mist." The entirety of the first...probably 1000 words or so was like this. I didn't introduce a character until several pages in. But, dammit, I had built this world and I wanted my readers to see it as vividly as I did. And yet to this day, I don't know why I personified The Mist.

So anyway. Work.

One day at lunch, I was riding with my boss and we were talking about nothing in particular. He told me about an article he'd read in a science magazine about geneticists working with fruit flies. They had isolated the sequence of genes that seemed to mean "grow a leg here" and grafted it where the sequence for 'grow an antenna here' goes. When the flies became adults, they had two extra legs on their heads where their antennae should go. Phil (my boss) remarked, "It's like a subroutine."

Ding. It was almost audible. I'm shocked Phil didn't actually hear it. I jotted down notes while I was at work for the rest of the day.

When I got home that night, I wrote the very first short story I ever wrote and finished. It was (is) awful, as it was (is) an "Adam and Eve"3 variant, but it marks the moment when I crossed a line. I quit 'thinking about writing' and picked up a damned pen and wrote.

I've been writing—not steadily, and not with any goal—since then.

What got me off my figurative butt was two things that happened nearly at the same time, and solely by chance.

First, Mur Lafferty—podcaster extraordinaire of the "I Should Be Writing" podcast—put out an episode where she talked about finally being able to write down the story that had been knocking at her skull for years and getting it out of there. It had come from a dream.

Oddly enough, I also had a dream-inspired story that had been knocking at my skull. So I sat down right after I listened to that podcast and I wrote the story, dammit. And it's one I rather like. Very dark. :)

Shortly after that, I went to the book store to buy a book (duh). I just happened to pick the book store near where I used to work instead of the one near where I work now. As I was headed out, I just happened to notice the then-current issue of Writers Digest, and I picked it up, even though I had never even opened an issue prior to that day. And the woman behind the counter just happened to say, when she saw what I was buying, "Are you a writer? We have a writers group that meets here every Tuesday night at 7:00."

And that is the final spark. I've been writing fairly regularly since that day a little over two years ago. I have to, because people on Tuesday night ask me, "When do we get to hear the next chapter?" :)

I "won" NaNoWriMo for the first time that year, and again last year. I intend to "win" it this year, as well.

And that, boys and girls, is the long and boring tale of the threads that led, inevitably, to me writing.

Seems like there should be a fanfare or something, here.
  1. I recall finding out that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had sequels! I excitedly went to Mrs. Cathey and told her like it was something new. I can't help but think how amused she must have been. :)
  2. A "Mary Sue" is a story in which it is painfully obvious that the hero is an idealized version of the author. He or she is a superbeing capable of solving all problems, vanquishing all foes, always getting the girl (or guy), and riding (or flying) off into the sunset.
  3. An "Adam and Eve" story is one of the oldest clichés in science fiction. In it, two people—a man and a woman—are shipwrecked on an alien world. It turns out they are our Adam and Eve! <dramatic chord> Mine was less clichéd in that a couple of programmers named Gabe and Mike (subtle!) are on an insane seven-day schedule (subtle!) to finish this huge coding project or their boss, Mr. Y (subtle!) would freak out. Shortcuts have to be made, and a huge mistake is made, as well. Instead of being self-replicating, ADAM 1.0 (subtle!) is unable to replicate and must have an auxiliary program (EVE 1.0; subtle!) to assist him. EVE 1.0 is, of course, made from a copy of ADAM 1.0 and then modified. As I said, pretty awful. The "big reveal" in the story is the name ADAM 1.0 and Mr. Y saying, as he activates (breathes life into?) the project (a naked young man in a garden, of course) and says, "Hello, Adam. My name is Yahweh. I have given you life." Oh, the pain, the pain.



Atheists Are People, Too  Antispam  

Comments

( 1 hiss — Hiss at me! )
rarelytame
Jul. 23rd, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
I love these stories. I find it so interesting all the different places people come from before they get to writing. Yours seems so much more direct than mine. (I posted my "How did I get here?" on my LJ a few weeks ago. You probably saw it.)

I really wish I'd have been writing when I was younger. I feel like there's all this time I could have been practicing that I've missed. It sounds strange, but it gives me this bizarre, frantic sort of feeling, like "OMG I have to write MORE! Faster! I will never catch up to all the writing I've missed!"

Which is ridiculous, of course.

The first story I wrote as an adult that I'd call fully complete (beginning, middle, end) was about a squirrel who had a strange compulsion to look at stars, despite the danger from predators inherent in doing so. It was the long-distant descendant of a squirrel who had gotten caught up in a Scientific Experiment Gone Awry. Somehow our descendant squirrel learned how to migrate, like birds. Looking back on it, all I can think is, "Holy WTF, Batman?!" I like yours better. *grin*
( 1 hiss — Hiss at me! )

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