My friend Meghan Ward wrote a post on her blog Writerland (one of my favorite blogs on writing and publishing) called "My Writing Journey," in which she describes how, starting at the age of six and proceeding through a series of adventures, misadventures, wrong turns and right turns, she ended up deciding to be a writer. Then she asked readers to share their own writing journeys, which got me thinking: how did I end up here?
As a narrative, my story seemed pretty lacking compared to Meghan's. Hers is full of twists and turns, stabs at other careers, the recurrent siren call of writing, all the things you want in a good life journey. Mine had some build up, then one sharp moment and there I was. But it's a story I've never heard exactly from anyone else, and maybe that alone makes it worth telling.
I was one of those kids who is compelled to tell stories from his earliest years. On family hikes I'd pour out inchoate adventures endlessly to anyone who would listen (which was always my dad; it must have been his military training that enabled him to endure what drove everyone else insane). I drew pictures on my Playskool blocks in narrative sequence, like comic strips, and then lined them up on the floor to see how long—physically long—I could make a story. And when I figured out how to use the alphabet, the first thing I did with it was add dialogue to my picture stories.
I didn't read much, at least not as much as most writers say they did as kids. It was the pouring out, not the taking in, that drove me. Sometimes I'd love a book but read only until I got an idea for a story of my own, then drop it and start writing.
Here the nature-nurture loop gets complicated, as it always does, because I was also enthusiastically supported in my writing by my mom. Her heroes were writers: poets and playwrights, mostly, but novelists too, even the better genre writers. Shakespeare was as close to a god as we had in our household, but Ray Bradbury got his share of veneration too. So I grew up with the idea that a writer was quite a noble thing to be.
It was only later that I learned my mother had wanted to be a writer before I was born, and had even gotten a short story published, before she lost her drive and became an English teacher instead. We do pass on our unfulfilled dreams.
By fifth grade I was already identifying myself partly by my ability to write longer and more elaborate short stories than any other kid in the class. But when adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I still had a wide range of answers. I carried the fantasy of illustrating nature books into my teens. I think, really, I saw writers as some other class of being, like kings and astronauts, who we admired from afar but could never become.
Then, at fourteen, I read a book called A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. For the next year I experienced my first real literary infatuation, checking out and buying everything by him I could find. In the course of that I made a fateful mistake: I bought a book that said Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master of Adventure on the cover, thinking it was another novel. Instead, it was a biography of Burroughs written by Richard Lupoff.
It was the first time I'd read a biography, and the first time I'd had a sense that these marvelous creatures called writers actually had lives, apart from the few dramatic events my mother had passed on (Christopher Marlowe being stabbed to death, Keats hiking all over Britain and then getting sick and dying). Realizing that this writer I loved had parents and a childhood, could have been other things but decided to write a book, had to send his book out to publishers and worked other jobs to pay the bills before he could write full time, made me think that maybe "being a writer" was an attainable human goal.
Still, though, I didn't think of making a living as a writer, I think mostly because I didn't want to think about making a living. Really, I didn't want to think about being an adult at all. I was quite happy walking around lost in my own head and touching ground only long enough to eat the food that my parents put in front of me. That was an easy state to maintain for my fifteenth year, because I spent the whole year hanging around the house. I'd been unhappy in school and my mom, being a bit too averse to facing reality herself, just pulled me out.
But reality does come calling. The summer I turned sixteen we were going to be moving to a new town and I'd be entering a new high school. Since the only school I'd been in since seventh grade was a tiny "free school" in the Santa Cruz Mountains with no classes or even classrooms, plunging into a public high school as a junior was a terrifying prospect. It got me thinking about the fact that there was, inevitably, an adulthood ahead of me. Which included, someday, having to earn my own living.
One day in late spring, with my house being readied for sale and the onset of summer weather announcing that the great change was imminent, I was walking my dog along the creek behind our house—I could still find the exact spot—when I decided that I was going to write fiction for a living. I wouldn't have said this at the time, but that was the best way I could see to avoid reality forever.
It helped that my role model had had a charmed career: Burroughs's first book sold extremely well, the sequels sold better, books flowed out of him like water from a spring and money fell on him like rain. It seemed to me that all I had to do was sit down and start writing fantasy stories with the intention of getting them published and everything would fall perfectly into place. I would never really have to leave my own head again.
A few months later I entered Gilroy High School, nearly as out of place among normal American adolescents as if I'd just immigrated from another country. I was scared, but also eager to be liked or at least noticed somehow, so for my defense I used the fact that I was a writer. I was the only kid in school who announced that he wanted to write for a living, the only one who used his spare time to write stories. It didn't take long for my perception of myself to solidify around Being a Writer. By the end of high school the idea of Not Being a Writer looked more perilous than anything the writer's life could hold.
I'd already finished the journey to writing and started the journey I'm still on. And even now when I wonder if I picked the right journey and toy with the idea of ending it to try something new, I know deep down that I never will.