My origin story has three acts all by itself. The third and final act is where I am today having found my writing community.
If I were to start in childhood, I couldn’t say: “I’ve always wanted to be writer!” That simply isn’t true.
I don’t think I actively wanted to be a writer as much as I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to be Audrey Hepburn specifically.
I had a penchant for singing and memorizing songs and sort of developed a love of language and big words because I watched grown up musicals, dramas, and comedies—some I think my peers were not exposed to.
I think some of my elementary teachers recognized and appreciated that in me, but others found it daunting and discouraged it.
That was until my fourth grade teacher volunteered me without my knowledge to be a part of the Young Author’s Conference.
There I met Judy Blume and I asked her when I was like 9 “If (and it was a big if) I wanted to be a writer what would I need to do?”
She said I needed to “Start writing stories.” Easy, right?
That didn’t exactly come easily to me. I don’t have the “I wrote a story about X and it won the prize in the local magazine” origin story.
I was better at telling stories than writing them down and stories to me were like long jokes at that age.
I came from an extended family of story tellers. They would sit around the dining room table and retell the same stories about our relatives over and over with the same punchlines.
I memorized them as a kid. I got a sense of rhythm that way for comedic timing and what kinds of things made people “interesting characters”.
I think I filed a lot of those stories away in the back of my mind and those became the kind of slice of life stories I wanted to tell and would eventually.
I wasn’t really into telling fairy tales or more traditional storytelling, the kinds of things my peers were turning in at school, so I felt out of place in that realm.
The kinds of stories I wanted to tell would have gotten me in trouble at school and at home. Discretion was more important than truth in those days. And obedience was favored more than creativity and humor.
Especially if you were a girl.
My interest in actual “writing” wasn’t sparked until I was a teen, and it was sort of a Walden-esque experience.
Needing an escape, my Father would scoop us all up and take us to a cabin they rented in the Poconos.
If you can imagine it: no running water, no indoor plumbing, no cable, no internet. Just VHS tapes (luckily) of movies and TV shows that I had seen thousands of times—again the repetition and experience of things was sort of a family tradition. Watching the same Dick Van Dyke or All in the Family episode so many times that you could act it out, was just something we did.
We were all very theatrical.
Not to mention all the “imagining” I did outdoors, there was that element, and the seclusion as we were literally in the middle of nowhere.
But this existence was confusing.
In the seclusion I was becoming more self-conscious, less likely to perform. I was going back and forth between my introverted self being at ease, while my child self was becoming very bored.
I think as a result I sort of lived in a fog of uncertainty, not really knowing who I was.
As I got older, I found myself reaching for something new, and I was looking for things that sparked my curiosity. With few options, it just happened to be the stack of literary magazines and Nat Geo and Popular Science that the man who owned the cabin left lying around.
It was an odd combination of information I guess, but it flipped a poetry switch in my brain.
I was also stealing and reading the NYT best-selling books, and Women’s Fiction my Mom brought in tow most likely to stifle her own boredom.
The more I read the more it opened up my brain to the possibility that I could be one of those writers even though writing a novel seemed like a Herculean task at the time.
I used to look at the flap copy not so much for the synopsis but so I could look at the author’s picture and read their accolades and then sort of map out in my mind what steps I needed to take to have those same credits and experiences.
During her seven years at Vogue, Joan Didion worked her way up from promotional copywriter to associate feature editor. While there, and homesick for California, she wrote her first novel, which was published in 1963.
Something like that.
“Damn,” I thought, “That could be my life.”
At that age you expect your life to just fall into place, especially when you have the luxury to dream about it, which I took for granted.
It certainly didn’t just fall into place…
As I progressed in age, I actually took it upon myself to ask my parents if I could keep going to the mountains but literally on my own terms.
I became a camp counselor but I did lots of reading then and journaling and note-taking, with all my extra time. When I was home I started keeping track of the things I wrote in a portfolio with drawings and so forth.
I was also on the internet a lot more where even in the late nineties I was starting to find places I could write and share my writing. I think my parents had literally no idea how nuanced I was with this, and I kept a lot of it a secret from my peers, somehow, learning early how to lead this double life as a writer/normal person.
But while I was at the camp, I started teaching a poetry class to younger campers, a group of us started a camp newspaper and radio station and eventually my life just went in that direction. I was suddenly taking creative writing classes and journalism in high school then again in my freshman year of college. Eventually the trajectory had me able to say: “This is my world; these are my people.”
And it’s a very diverse group, as I would learn which would toss me a bunch of artistic opportunities and end up pulling me in lots of different directions. So much so that I would have to crawl on my hands and knees back to my writing which at the time was still a very solitary act for me. Sure people read my poetry, sometimes. I was usually the go-to person if someone wanted something written for something. It would show up in the college paper because I knew the editor, but I was still not fully the “out” writer I wanted to be. It felt like an odd job.
I also got distracted. I met men. I traveled a lot and lived in a few places including California. But I always went back to writing.
Secretly, I was fully entrenched in the online poetry world and back then I feel like Fiction and poetry were very different realms and communities.
I was blogging, I was submitting to publications, I was an active part of Poetic Asides and when you’re doing that you kind of feel like you’ve “made it” as a poet, not knowing that there was so much more to do to actually make it. When you only have people like Shakespeare and Elizabeth Bishop and Emily Dickinson to emulate, as long as you are eating and staying alive you are doing something right.
Why was it a secret? Because I was often changing diapers for a living and not going to chic cocktail parties.
Eventually I felt like I hit a wall, and I had an itch to do other things. I think circling back again I wondered if writing a novel was as hard as I thought it was when I was 16 now that I was in my 20s.
But, I got bit by the acting bug again even though I went to school for writing, and I did that for a while, I graduated my undergrad around the same time and so was reading a lot literature and trying to find sneaky ways to make all my projects either about poetry, writing, or studying poets or playwriting, and performing.
My GPA hit the roof, so being an academic to me seemed the only route toward being a writer even though it secretly bored me to tears.
Though academia did afford me a few chic cocktail parties, conferences and events, just not the paycheck I needed to sustain that life.
After I graduated the economy tanked. I was writing poetry, plays, trying to write a novel, I was freelance writing, but I was broke, and I couldn’t get that elusive writing job that didn’t exist.
I tried to work at a newspaper, but they had just laid off all their writers and only had one on staff and wanted to keep it that way.
Eventually I started teaching preschool again. When I moved up the ranks and did more than change diapers, it was as a creative gig that gave me a lot of time to write, but let’s face it, not the right place for me.
I stupidly had high hopes for getting an MFA but didn’t get accepted to the Top 10 school I cherry-picked and found that a bit demoralizing.
I decided to pull up my own grown up pants and transitioned from preschool teaching to marketing, the closest thing I could get to a writing job at the time. It was IMPOSSIBLE to get a teaching job that wasn’t for ECE or tutoring. That was a letdown. I spent lots of my undergrad preparing to become a teacher.
It felt impossible to sustain any kind of writing life even though I was trying and SHOCKINGLY this was the time of my life when the novel writing really started.
I was sneaking in writing at all my jobs, I was always scribbling something, outlining, rethinking my characters.
I wasn’t very social.
I always had a notebook or tape recorder of ideas. I kept blogging and though I wasn’t a writer in many people’s eyes, because I was always someone’s administrative assistant, or marketing flunkey, I had “completed” my first book.
I wrote a fictionalized version of the chunk of my life that happened just before the book was written (basically all the stuff that isn’t in this story and more), and I was left in shock that I did that. But I wrote the exact book that I thought I would write.
Once I did that I had all of these other ideas and started to make sense of a lot of the slush I had compiled over the years. The slush became other books.
That would be the moment I started to “feel” like a writer, if I were honest with myself, and when I was finally brave enough to share my writing with non-writers/creatives.
But being a writer in a world of non-writers can really suck. Some have their presuppositions of what being a writer is and what the writing entails and they always want you to adjust to that. Or they just don’t get it. “You ‘write’? Why do that when you can be doing anything else?”
But some non-writers can be a great resource. I find it’s easier to share my writing with people who have zero artistic predilections, because they read like a reader and don’t bring ego into it.
Conversely if you share your writing with an actor or a artist, they always want to see how they can help you develop your skill and take credit for it, or turn it into something they can use to further their own career.
Leaving you not the creator, but in the fine print, or an idea-mill. That might sound salty, but it’s been my experience.
End of the day if you aren’t making money writing, no one is taking you seriously, and various “jobs” just feel like consolation prizes.
But regardless of where you are in life and what you are doing, your writing will follow you.
The one thing that made me finally slam on the breaks and take that monumental step of BEING A WRITER was that I had done everything else EXCEPT THAT. And I couldn’t not do it anymore. So I started calling myself a writer to anyone who asked what I did for a living.
Writing is a solitary venture, but it doesn’t have to be all the time. It’s very important to find a group of writers who “get” you, and like any relationship it’s best to find those specific people and not just settle for what is right in front of you.
It’s also important to not make assumptions about people based on their experiences, tastes, and skills. Just because you are all of the same age group, doesn’t mean you all read/write the same. Just because you all like the same bar, doesn’t mean you spend your free time the same way.
If you don’t mesh with a group of writers it’s not that they are great and you suck, they just aren’t the right group for you. Just keep looking. Be more deliberate in your search. Remember, same zip code doesn’t always make the best group.
DIY MFA was a great resource for me. Even though I don’t have tons in common with everyone such as going to the same school or living on the same corner of the planet, we have the right things in common such as a mutual respect for the craft even if we write in different genres or take different approaches to the writing. We might even have different tastes, but we are open-minded about that and that is what is important.
Many experts will tell you there is one writing ideal, but that’s simply not inline with reality.
You might think you’re the only one in the world who wants to be a writer. If you feel that way, you definitely aren’t surrounding yourself with the right people.
You will find your group and your niche if you keep looking, if you learn how to stop being afraid, take stock of who you are, reach out and talk about your writing.
I started out slow and meandered my way here.
Moral of the story: Don’t be like me.