A couple of weeks ago I went to an event where I had been asked to come read some poems I’d written, and afterward someone asked me and the other poet questions that I suppose you might pose to a writer. Unless my memory is leading me astray (but what are the chances that’s going to happen, huh?), we were asked when we began writing.
When we began?
I’m inclined to give an answer that sounds smartass, but for a change I don’t mean it that way. I started writing in first grade. I still remember my teacher teaching us the alphabet, like a priestess, unawares, opening up the most powerful secrets in the universe to a room of six-year-olds. When she was done, there we were, our tiny hands holding the keys to open the doors that hold everything.
The reason I’m not being a smartass here is that I don’t remember when I started writing. Did I start? Was there a time when I didn’t write and then I began? I’m sure I never made a decision to be a writer. Nowadays I wish I could remember some sort of epiphany of inspiration, a moment when I thought, “Ohhh, this is what I want to do!” That could be a cool story, but it didn’t happen.
My mother used to keep scraps of evidence thrown up by the world as proof her children had done clever things, or at least something slightly interesting. One of the things she saved was a letter I wrote that was published in the local newspaper. My epistle was a letter to Santa Claus, written in third or fourth grade, and on the one hand this was evidence that our local newspaper would publish damn near anything. At the same time, my letter involved more than hoping for a bag of puppies and a BB gun, as it mentioned wishing something for Russia and China. (Whatever I was hoping they would get, they probably still don’t have it.)
A few years later in life, I moved closer toward my future career as a jack-of-all-crapjobs, poorly paid writer. I don’t know how old I was, but it was not more than sixth grade, and without being required to, I wrote my first short story. This literary jewel concerned a rich man who died in a car wreck and on his car radio some ironic song was playing. I could not have described the song as ironic, as it was many years later before I finally figured out what that baffling word “irony” actually meant.
For all I know, I’m making a false assumption here, thinking these two examples show how I was unusually interested in writing from a very young age. My assumption is that other kids my age weren’t doing the same thing, and I don’t actually know that. Maybe we all wanted to write, but other people stopped wanting to.
By high school I could describe what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer. At that age I guess you don’t normally say you are a writer, but rather you want to be one, as if it’s something that you’ll do some day, but not yet. I knew I wanted it, though, and it seemed like the natural trajectory I had been following already for years.
And then right after high school I stepped boldly toward my destiny and began writing a novel—about a boy who was in high school. And you’re thinking “How is he not embarrassed to write that down and tell people?” Gaahh-jeez, that sounds like a terrible idea for a book. Indeed. And God saved me from that drivel after only a hundred pages. In my defense, I will point out that any idea I could have had at the age of nineteen would have been terrible. I was learning my craft, however, which included one afternoon when I sat pulling novels off my bookshelf, going to the last page, to see how many pages a novel was supposed to have.
When did I begin writing? I think it’s a reasonable question, but I don’t have an answer. Or I want to give an exaggeratedly symbolic answer, one of the things I’ve learned to do as a writer.
I was in the womb waiting for the alphabet.