Here’s another installment in my writing career memoir. I mentioned before that I didn’t really start writing until I was almost twelve, but I’ve been a storyteller my entire life. That’s been my primary way of playing and of soothing myself.
I don’t think I’ve ever been a good sleeper. It takes me a long time to fall asleep. My parents say that as a baby and toddler I fought sleep, but I’m not sure if I fought it or if it just didn’t happen (or maybe the reason I have trouble is that I trained myself to fight sleep). I’ve never been someone who could fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow, no matter how tired I am. I can do all the calming things before bed—dim lights, soft music, reading until I can’t keep my eyes open—and it still takes me about half an hour to actually fall asleep once I put the book down and turn out the light. And that’s story time. Ever since I can remember, I would make up stories in my head to try to settle down enough to sleep. That’s the only way to stop all the other stuff, like planning the next day, remembering the day that just passed, worrying about stuff, fretting over things I’ve said or done, etc., from swirling around in my brain and keeping me awake. The earliest story I can remember was when I was two and I made up stories about the bear in my room. There was a tree outside my window, and the streetlamp made it cast a shadow on the wall over my bed that looked like a bear standing up, upper legs poised for attack. If a car drove by, the headlights made the shadow move like the bear was rushing toward me. I made up stories about being lost in the woods and chased by the bear, or variations on Goldilocks, or sometimes I was the bear. I managed to psych myself out a few times so that I was convinced the bear was real and called out to my parents, who would have to tell me there was no bear, that it was just a shadow (and then they saw what passing headlights did to it and understood).
As I got older and was watching or reading more complex things with actual stories and characters than you find in toddler entertainment, my mental stories were often essentially fan fiction. I made up more stories for my favorite shows or books, or since a secondary character was usually my favorite, I’d make up stories in which that character was the hero. Since I was trying to get to sleep, the bedtime stories tended to be quieter, like the characters just hanging out and talking or even going to sleep.
It wasn’t just trying to fall asleep at night. I amused myself by making up stories whenever I didn’t have anything else to do. During car rides, I was on a pirate ship, spaceship, or covered wagon, or I was being kidnapped. I acted out stories as a way of playing. I had a drawer full of dress-up clothes, and I’d put on costumes and act out stories, or I’d have my toys act out the stories. I made up stories to string together the songs on cast albums from musicals if I hadn’t actually seen the shows and didn’t know the context for the songs. Or I’d make up new stories for the songs from musicals I knew.
When I was seven, we moved to a neighborhood that had a lot of kids around my age, so I had a big neighborhood gang to hang out with, and we mostly played “let’s pretend.” We never just rode our bikes around the neighborhood. We were riding horses or motorcycles or flying fighter planes. We acted out TV shows, playing things like Star Trek or M*A*S*H. Often, this required making up new characters because there usually weren’t enough female characters for all the girls to take part. We loved it when Charlie’s Angels came out because there were actually three girls, and it was the boys who had to make up new characters. I’d often continue the story from the day’s play as my bedtime story, or I’d make up new stuff for the characters I’d created.
Star Wars came out near the end of third grade for me, but I didn’t see it until I’d started fourth grade, and when everyone in the neighborhood had seen it, that became one of the main things to play. When we played in the swings or rode our bikes, we were flying X-Wings or TIE Fighters. We had lightsaber duels with whatever was handy. Again, I had to make up a new character to play since the girls fought over who got to be Leia, and I made up so many stories about that character that they soon branched out from the Star Wars universe to be their own thing.
Still, in all this time, it never occurred to me to write any of these stories down. I didn’t connect the stories I made up in my head with things like books I read or movies I watched, didn’t consider that all of these were stories someone else had made up and then written down.
I still make up stories in my head to entertain myself. Now, though, I write them down and sell them. My bedtime stories are prime writing time, when I figure out things that can happen in my books. I do still occasionally play with mental fan fiction. That’s a good way to test out plot or character ideas without actually putting them in the book I’m working on, or it gives me ideas for stories when the series my mental fan fiction is based on goes in a different direction from the story in my head and I like my version better.
Next: How the writing began.