Uncategorized, memoir

Starting to Write

I said previously that although I’d been making up stories in my head my whole life, it didn’t occur to me to write them down until I was nearly thirteen. But I did start writing before that. The first time I recall writing something and thinking it was fun was in fourth grade. The teacher put a picture on the board and told us to write something about it. I don’t remember much about it, but there were kids sitting around a candle, and something about it really sparked my imagination. When the allotted time for the assignment was over, I had pages of the beginning of a real story. The teacher saw what I was doing and let me finish it at home and turn it in later. I think the idea was to just write a paragraph or two describing the scene, and I ended up writing a mystery or ghost story. I did my usual short story thing of it spiraling out of control, pacing it as though I was writing a novel, until I just ended it abruptly. I remember having to do some handwaving and one of those “and they solved the mystery” endings just so I could turn it in.

I also remember reading a non-fiction book from the library about starting a family newspaper, and I spent some time trying to write the news. I was writing for fun, but it still didn’t occur to me to write down the stories that were in my head. In sixth grade, we had journals we had to keep in class. When we got to class in the morning, we had to pick up our spiral notebook from a box (mine had The Muppet Show on the cover) and write a page from the prompt on the board. I loved this assignment and had a lot of fun with it. I liked writing assignments in school.

I finally had the “I could write my mental stories down and have a book” realization between sixth and seventh grades when a friend and I were playing Star Wars, running around in the woods, and I told her about the original character I’d made up and had been making up stories about all along. Something about telling her flipped a switch and made me realize that I was writing stories, and I could write them down and share them with people.

The problem was that what I had wasn’t actually stories. I had characters, a situation, and a bunch of moments involving my characters. I realized this once I started writing stuff down. I had all the backstory and worldbuilding, but no actual story. I managed to write a first chapter, but had no idea where to go with it next. Mostly, I ended up making a lot of drawings of the clothes the characters would wear and the floor plans for the place where the characters lived.

We moved soon after that, and when we got to the new place we got all the stuff that had been in storage while we were overseas. In that stuff was an old manual typewriter, and I taught myself to type on it. I got good at the letter characters, but I still come to a screeching halt when it comes to numbers and symbols because that was where I stopped with the how-to-type book I used. Once I could type words, I was off and running. I typed out a bunch of first chapters of potential books, from science fiction to spy thrillers, and they all had that same problem: they were a situation and characters, not a story. This was a problem I didn’t solve until I was out of college and got truly serious about writing. I made a few stabs at writing short stories and I did a lot of worldbuilding, but I didn’t have anything that was anywhere near close to complete.

I don’t think this was wasted time, though. I learned a lot about creating characters and worlds in all those spiral notebooks I filled with writing about the stories I wanted to write. I wrote scenes and got good at stringing words together. I worked on the school newspaper in high school and competed in journalism writing contests. I majored in journalism in college, and I was still scribbling story ideas and notes in spiral notebooks. I took courses that I thought would be useful for when I became a writer. But I still didn’t know how to write a book or even a short story. That would come later.

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