I’ve been reading a book that’s part how-to book about how to have a writing career and part author’s memoir, and since I’m planning to start doing more how-to stuff, I thought it might be fun to do a bit of a retrospective on how I came to be an author and some of the wacky things that have happened in my career. That way you’ll have a better sense of where I’m coming from when I give writing or career advice.
Like many (probably most) writers, I was a reader first. I don’t remember not knowing how to read. My parents are big readers and read to me pretty much since birth. I memorize things easily, so I quickly memorized my favorite books. In fact, my whole family can still recite my favorite book from when I was a toddler by memory. It was a cloth book called Doggy’s Day, and I have tried searching the Internet to find it and learn something about it, but I can’t find it. There are a lot of things that come up in the search, but none of them are the book that starts, “Doggy eats his breakfast, just like you. Then he plays the whole day through.” I was pretty young when I figured out that the words on the page matched the words you said when reading aloud, and from there I was able to read those same words when I saw them somewhere else.
This actually got me in a bit of trouble in kindergarten. Because I’m old, kindergarten was a fairly new thing when I was that age. That was the first year they offered it in public schools in Texas, and I’d already been enrolled in a church school. It was pretty much like preschool is now, just half a day, and we were still learning numbers and letters and things like that. The teacher refused to believe that I could read and told my parents I was lying about that. Then when my parents said that, actually, I could read, the teacher had me prove it. I was reading chapter books in first grade.
We belonged to the Dr. Seuss book club, so we got a new book every month, and that may have started my tilt toward reading fantasy because they were certainly fantastical. Even the ones that weren’t actually Seuss books still had fantasy elements, or at the very least involved talking animals. I don’t think I ever had the “but that can’t happen!” reaction that some people have to fantasy. I liked my stories a bit unrealistic.
I tended to read by theme. I’d get utterly fascinated by a particular topic and read everything I could find that looked like it was on that topic, both fiction and non. The post library at the place we lived when I was in second, third, and fourth grades had a children’s room that had the fiction around the perimeter and non-fiction in the middle, and I remember walking around the room, starting at A, and reading the spines to find the things I was looking for. I remember going through a dance phase, when I’d read anything with “dance” or “ballet” in the title. Then there was the horse phase. The girls in my neighborhood all watched syndicated reruns of Bewitched, so there was a witch phase. Then there was the Nancy Drew phase that got me into mysteries, in general — Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and I think there were some others.
Fourth grade was a big turning point for me because several things happened that year. First, I saw Star Wars early in the school year and became obsessed. I don’t know how many times I reread the novelization. That started me reading other science fiction books and looking for stories with spaceships and robots. It also meant I started reading books published for adults because my parents began sharing their science fiction books with me. Meanwhile, I had a teacher who would read to us every day after recess as a way of getting us to calm down, and she tended to read us things like Roald Dahl and the Oz books. I’d get impatient with a chapter a day, check the book out of the library, and read the whole thing. That meant I read a lot of fantasy that year, including The Hobbit. The animated TV movie version came out that year, and our teacher read the book to us.
I don’t remember a particular phase in fifth grade. That was the year we moved to Germany. I guess I was still reading whatever science fiction I found. I do remember finding the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in sixth grade. Later in sixth grade and into seventh grade I was really into spy stories and books about World War II.
Oddly, I didn’t even start to think about writing books until after seventh grade. I just liked reading. I carried a novel with me to school every day to read whenever I had a chance. I read at bedtime. I read on weekends. Books were what got me through the “new kid” phase whenever we moved. One of the first things we did when we moved to a new place was find the library and get a library card, since that was a lifeline. But even if I wasn’t thinking in terms of being an author all that time, I was absorbing stories and characters, so I’m sure I was preparing myself that whole time.
Up next: Storytelling