You're Never Too Old (Or Too Young) to Be a Writer. A Tongue-In-Cheek Look at the Lessons I've Learned During 49 Years of "Honing My Craft"
Continued from Part 1
By fifth grade, I was on a roll. I alarmed my Gifted and Talented Program teacher by writing a short story about a man and his German Shepherd who are the only survivors of a small plane that crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. After days of struggling across the tundra without any supplies, trying to reach civilization, the dog finally attacks and eats the man, then sets off to find the nearby village alone.
My teacher liked the story, but seemed a little concerned that I might be some kind of young sociopath. She was relieved when I explained airily, "Oh, I read a lot of Jack London."
Around that time, inspired in part by my grandmother, Otta Louise Chase, who was an award-winning poet, I started writing poetry. In sixth grade, I wrote, directed, and starred in my one-and-only venture into playwriting: a dark tale of two girls spending Halloween night in a cemetery, who are confronted by Hades and Persephone, god and goddess of the Underworld. I still remember staying after school to paint cardboard gravestones for our set.
The writing kept pouring out, but in seventh grade the quality took a dip. I had reached that painful stage where, for the first time, you're aware that you're writing crap, even as you're writing it. I remember my teacher loved one story I wrote about a Native American teenager who is ostracized because he is "different" and won't do stupid things like drink and drive with the other boys. Even at age 13, I recognized my plot for heavy-handed preachy drivel, but kept my mouth shut because that drivel got me an A grade.
Another story I wrote at the time featured a rich teenage girl whose attempted kidnapping is thwarted by her loyal horse and dog. It was obvious wish-fulfillment fantasy, and I had the good sense not to show it to anybody. Even so, I was not (very) embarrassed to have written it. I just acknowledged its flaws and moved on.
All this writing was fueled by constant, voracious reading. My seventh grade English teacher, astonished to see that I had done my book report on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, asked me why I had chosen that book. Embarrassed, I admitted that I had done it out of laziness, because it was a book I'd already read once before.
In eighth grade English, we learned to diagram sentences and write five-paragraph essays. I liked the logic of sentence diagrams, but resented the tedium of the essays ("Every paragraph must have one topic sentence and three example sentences."). When I was later a finalist in the Voice of Democracy "Youth: America's Strength" essay contest, I knew my essay was plodding, dutifully patriotic pap. I was actually pleased when I lost to an essay that was actually good, and didn't mindlessly follow the rigid structure I'd been taught.
Also in eighth grade, my Reading teacher gave us the best assignment ever: We were to write a story, make a cover, and present it to her as if it were a real book. Finally, someone was asking me to do what I'd been trying to do since I was four years old!
I wrote a science fiction story entitled, "Exiled to Earth," about a scientist in a utopian world who gets sick from handling a contraband cat, and ends up exiled to earth, which is now uninhabited by humans and has reverted entirely back to nature. He learns primitive survival skills and adapts to his environment so well that when later human explorers arrive, he doesn't go to them and ask for rescue, but slips silently back into the forest to continue his solitary life.
My book had an elaborate cover of blue construction paper with illustrations of the iridescent glass domes the utopian people lived in, a rocket shooting across the sky, and lots of little silver dots of glitter for stars. My teacher gave me an A++ and took me aside to ask me a question that blew my mind: "Do you want to be a writer when you grow up?"
Everything stood still. I could not believe that for all the thousands of books I'd read and all the dozens of stories I'd written, it had never once occurred to me that writing was something you could do for a living. It was like being informed that you could get a job breathing or eating. All my other potential dream jobs (jockey, veterinarian, ballerina) dissolved into dust in the face of this wondrous revelation. "Yes. Yes, I think I do."
In high school, the momentum continued. As a freshman, I was invited to audit the senior creative writing class with the wonderful Myra McLarey, who was the first teacher to actually show me ways to improve my writing. I was editor (and chief contributor) to the school literary magazine Halcyon for all four years of high school. I hounded my friends to contribute, I submitted my own stuff, I got swoony feelings for the boys who submitted good poems and stories, and secretly looked down on those who submitted drivel. I even turned in my best friend for plagarism when her English teacher gave me a poem she had turned in for his class which I recognized as actually being the lyrics to a John Denver song. I was thrilled to be chosen for the region's Gifted and Talented Young Writer's Program, where we traveled to different places around the state and got to meet and have workshops with real famous authors and poets. The one I remember best is Morgan Llywelyn, who gave me good advice on writing a supernatural goddess character I was working on (to avoid making her seem unread, give her vulnerabilities or little human habits like nail-biting). Morgan also generously corresponded with me for a while after that, giving me encouragement and advice. I started writing a sword and sorcery novel, The War of the Wizards, and even was interviewed by the local paper about it. I never finished it, but although I now recognize the plot was full of clichés, I do still like the three main characters, so who knows, maybe I'll go back and rework it someday.
At age 18 I got my first paid publication--$5 for some poems and a story, "The Fool" about a court jester who overthrows his king--published in a local magazine, Bittersweet. I asked for a fancy typewriter for my graduation present, and started feeling my way in the big world of real-life publishing, writing stories and poems, and figuring out where to send them out, not even minding the rejection slips that came back.
Lessons Learned from Decade 2
Stay tuned for Part 3!
Image credit: By 관인생략 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons