The Writing Imperative

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About eleven years ago, after my father died, my siblings and I were going through the apartment in which he and my mother had lived the last few years of their lives, when we found the first books I ever wrote.  One of them was called “Jim, The Talking Fish.”  On the cover, under the title and a picture of a green fish saying “Hi”, it says “writen [sic] and illustrated by David Coe.”  The dedication reads “To Dad, who tought [sic] me to play Baseball well.”  The book is “bound” with a piece of yellow yarn.  The other volume we found, which I’ve misplaced, was a book about a pair of eagles who fight off a hunter.  They might have been able to talk, too.  Seems I was in the creatures-that-shouldn’t-be-able-to-talk-but-can phase of my artistic development.  I’m guessing that I was five or six when I wrote them.

Okay, a few notes here.  First off, in the interest of full disclosure I’m guessing that I since I couldn’t spell “written” or “taught” that someone helped me out with “illustrated.”  Second, on the whole “Dad taught me how to play baseball well thing”: my Dad was a stockbroker and must have been in his late forties when I wrote that dedication (he was 43 when I was born).  I think this probably explains why I never fulfilled my dream of making it to the big leagues.  And finally, even back then I was far better at writing than illustrating.  I’m not going to scan in my drawings; you’ll have to take my word for it.

I’m asked quite often when I knew that I wanted to be a writer.  The short answer is that I always knew (my delusionary baseball dreams notwithstanding).  These two books were by no means the only ones my siblings and I found — they were just the first.   There are other novels, as well as nonfiction books on birds, space, volcanoes — pretty much anything I thought was cool.  But the fiction was what I loved most.  I wrote stories constantly, some of them quite funny, many of them utterly bizarre.  I remember being in second, third, and fourth grade and wishing that we could skip math, science, spelling, and the rest, and just spend all of our time writing.

When I was in junior high I developed a habit that persists to this day.  Whenever I experience something — a funny moment shared with friends, a beautiful sunset, some emotional trauma — I begin to write it in my head.  I look for ways to recreate the moment as narrative.  I imagine how I might write the “character” I’m with at the time.  As I say, I started doing this years ago, around the time I was my older daughter’s age.  I always thought I was odd in this way (as in so many others), that I was the only person who did stuff like this.  Turns out, this is fairly typical.  Lots of my writer friends did the same thing as kids, and still do to this day.

The other thing I’ve done off and on for all of my adolescent and adult life is keep a journal.  I haven’t always been diligent about it, and over years the format of my journal has changed.  In high school, college and graduate school I used a notebook and pen — simple, easily portable.  Later I started keeping a computer journal.  Today I blog.  But the impulse has always been the same:  I am driven to write down my observations, descriptions of places I’ve seen, emotional responses to things going on in my life.  And to this day, whenever I travel I bring a notebook and a pen.

Catie, Misty, Faith, and I have spent a good deal of time here at Magical Words writing about the challenges that writers face, be they artistic or financial.  This is a tough way to make a living, as you’ve heard from us time and again.  But we always conclude by saying that a) we love it, and b) we write because we have to, because writing is in our blood.  At RavenCon last weekend several of us on a panel about the business of writing gave this advice to people thinking about a writing career (I’ll paraphrase):  If you’re looking at a career in writing because you think it might be fun and an easy way to make some money, think again; if you’re thinking about a career in writing because you can’t imagine doing anything else, and because stories and characters are clamoring to get out of your head and onto paper, then it won’t matter that the money sucks and the work is hard.

I remember how cool it was when my brothers, sister, and I found that eagle book and “Jim, The Talking Fish.”  It was a light moment in the midst of a long, sad process.  But I didn’t need to see those first books to know that I’d been destined to be a writer all my life.  I’ve been looking at the world through a writer’s eyes for as long as I can remember.

What about the rest of you?  How did your love of the written word first manifest itself?  What was the first “book” you wrote?

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13 comments to The Writing Imperative

  • I do that, too, start putting the things around me into words that way. :)

    I don’t remember doing things like your storybooks, though I might well have. I wrote poetry for a school publication when I was 6, though, and started my first novel (my first series, in fact) when I was 8. It was going to be an on-going mystery series a la the Bobbsey Twins, the Happy Hollidays, Trixie Belden, etc, with twin red-headed girls (no, I am not a twin, and no, I am not a red-head) as the main protagonists, and their friends/family as the back-up cast. Even then I grokked that the way to longevity as a writer was through series, I guess. :)

    I got about twenty pages written (typewritten, actually, as it was on a computer, so it might’ve been about 40 pages of manuscript-style writing) but it’s long since lost to the annals of time. A shame, that. :)

    -Catie

  • I guess I was a late bloomer.

    When I was 11, my mom and I went to six flags and I got one of those huge, detailed horoscopes and it said I would be a skilled and accomplished writer by the time I was 19. This was most likely random on the computer-horoscope’s part, but I didn’t like that answer at all. Writers were boring. Who wants to write all day? That sounds like work!

    When I was 12, someone at the local comic book shop my mom and I hung out at said they were doing a “fanzine” for this show called “Robin of Sherwood.”

    Mom’s friends told us all about the show, and it caught my fancy, and I sat down in the floor of the comic book store and wrote a poem about Little John greiving after Robin died. They published it, and later that year some lady at a convention asked me for my autograph.

    Short stories started to fall out of me, and I got some of them published in more RoS fanzines (Rebellion 1 and Rebellion 2).

    Thus began my “career” in writing.

    Then I went to college, got a major in Creative Writing, and was so burned out I didn’t write for 10 years.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter

    Funny, I had only just remembered that my early story had a lot of pictures with it. I think I was actually a better artist than a writer back then (and I was a lousy artist, so you can just imagine what my writing was like. 😉

    The funny thing was that while I always made up stories and I often wrote something down, I don’t think it occurred to me to be a writer, as a career, until college. One day, I suddenly realized that if I went into any other career, all this time I spent making up stories would be a liability. While, if I became a writer, the same activity would become an asset.

    Before I graduated, I went to have a conversation on the subject with a friend. His advice reminded me of what you said about the advice given at your Ravencon panel. He said that I should not become a writer unless I could not do anything else. At first I thought he meant that I would have to fail at all other things (like Edgar Rice Burroughs. 😉 Later, I realized he meant if I was unable not to become a writer. In many ways, I think he’s right.

    My kids also spend all their time making up stories, but they do it in the context of roleplaying games, so there are no written records. They sure keep us amused, though!

  • Amy

    I suppose I was a late bloomer, too – I only really started writing at thirteen, and that fanfic, though I had always been an imaginative child. It was my little sister who had always wanted to be a writer – and now it’s me who seems to be actually working to do it for real. Funny, huh, how these things work out?

    My first original novel was going to be an epic fantasy about elven twins raised as humans who would save the world from a terrible Dark Lord. I never finished it or got very far, partly because my attention span was poor and partly because my friends at school – all writers – didn’t like it very much when I showed it them. But I persevered with writing, and – hopefully! – continue to improve.

  • The first thing I wrote that was longer than a paragraph (at least, as far as I remember) was a four page “Wild Wild West” story. (They call it fanfic now…I was so ahead of my time!) Jim West and Artemus Gordon were up against the evil Black Fox, who intended to dynamite Washington DC so that it floated off into the Atlantic, and could then be taken over by him, allowing him to rule America.

    I think I was 9. 😀

  • My first full story was actually a subject that I have never visited again. I was in 7th grade and there was a Creative Writing Contest in English Class for some National Contest – I don’t even remember the name. I wrote a story about two guys who both signed up for the Army and then went off to war. One of them got killed and the other guy had to go home without him. It was actually very serious and kinda anti-war. It’s odd since I never have revisited the story or the topic.

    I didn’t win so I didn’t write again until college.

  • Thanks for all the comments! Catie, I just love the idea of an 8 year-old coming up with a series idea! Even then, you had an uncommon business sense!

    Hope you’ve started writing again, Sam. Sounds like you’ve had talent for a long time.

    Jagi, I wish I’d had someone imparting such wisdom to me when I was in college. I could have saved myself 6 years in a Ph.D. program. Of course, I might not have met my wife, so I guess things worked out the way they were supposed to. :)

    Amy, good for you for persevering. Seems there are a lot of late bloomers out there, and it doesn’t seem to be holding anyone back. :)

    And, Misty, I loved “Wild, Wild West”. So you started with media tie-ins! Cool!

  • David,
    Like Sam, I was a late bloomer. Tenth grade. Mom instantly became my biggest fan, and to this day she wants me to publish the 400 word tale about the puppies born in my bothers bedroom at 3 am. I still have it somewhere.

    But I have share something here about that *can’t do anything else & can’t *not* write* statement. Friday was one of those breakthrough days. I wrote the final conflict scene of Skinwalker…and came up with a totally different bad guy, a character not even in the book yet. I have to add 2 or 3 scenes and rewrite the book, but I totally *love love love* it!

    Nope. Can’t do anything else! Just can’t!
    Faith

  • Interesting, Mark. I wrote a similar story when I was in ninth grade. War story, one guy is killed and his buddy kind of goes nuts with grief and guilt. I haven’t written a story like it since.

  • Congrats on the breakthrough, Faith! Can’t wait to read about the new bad guy.

  • I wrote my first ‘book’ when I was three and still illiterate. My mother found a pile of thin brown papers that she’d stabled together (artist newsprint, I believe) and had given me to distract me. I took the large blank pages and filled them with the letters I knew, spaced out to look like words and paragraphs. I did this page after page until I’d filled all twelve of them with gibberish. I’m not certain if that counts, but it that’s not a book, it’s certainly foreshadowing.

    Learning to read did wonders for my writing career. I remember getting high grades on my stories in first grade, cats being sucked into vacuum cleaners, odes to my hatred of mushrooms and the news, tales of ghosts kidnapping kittens and demanding ransom. After I turned ten it was fairies and magical worlds, monsters with terribly long names, and wayward princesses. I feel like the old guy in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “I’m getting better!” “No you’re not. You’ll be stone dead in a moment!” “I want to go on a walk…”

    Cheers.

  • That’s the earliest I’ve ever heard of, Eliza! Very cool. It sounds as though you still have this first “book”, which is even cooler. Thanks for the comment.

  • Michele Conti

    I was writing books for mothers day presents since I was about 7. Just little, 10 page books, with very little depth and a whole lot of stuff that made absolutely no sense.

    Once I turned 13 I started writing a *real* book…haha “real” right… as well as a lot of angst filled poetry. Whatever gets ya through a day of high school, right? 😛

    I actually got a good 300 pages in that book, then my HD crashed and that was the end of that… Teach me not to back up my work on another disc.

    Oh…crap…Mothers day is coming up and I haven’t figured out what to get the moms yet.