Over the last few weeks I have had several conversations with people about becoming a writer. Well, not so much about becoming a writer as thinking of oneself as a writer. Many of you are writers, so I ask you, “When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? When did writer become part of your self-description?”
For me the transition to thinking of myself as a writer took place in by early teen years. It was at this time that I began to create stories for my own amusement and for the entertainment of my friends. I grew up in Baptist churches where they thought that if they kept you in church all the time you wouldn’t have time to sin, so instead I and my peers learned to sin in church… from experts. You can’t tell stories while sitting on the back pew of a church, but you can write them. And, there on the back pew of the church writing those stories is how I came to think of myself as a writer.
I have been reading Sven Burkett’s excellent book, The Gutenberg Elegies. In it he share his own story of coming to think of himself as a writer. Here is an excerpt:
The more purposeful, creative kind of writing became important to me once I started junior high school. In response to a class assignment for English–write a description of someone you know–I produced an utterly fictitious portrait of my grandfather, my mother’s father, endowing him with a white beard, a pipe, and a fund of stories about faraway places he had explored. In fact he was clean-shaven, nonsmoking, and quite private about his past experiences. My teacher entered the sketch in a citywide writing contest and stunned me one day by announcing before the whole class that I had won a gold key. How little encouragement it sometimes takes. From that day on, I have thought of myself as a writer.
My wife Susan was a good friend of Tom Huff who wrote under the pseudonym Jennifer Wilde. In his/her book Once More Miranda he wrote about a young lady who was coming to think of herself as a writer and taking the first steps in that direction. I share an excerpt here for your pleasure.
“Might as well stop stalling, Randy, I told myself. You started it. You got yourself into it, and you’ve either go to tear up those pages and forget you ever wrote ’em or else get in there and get back to work…. Sitting down in the delicate yet sturdy mahogany chair with seat of sky blue velvet, I opened the secretary, its front projecting to make a desk surface. I took out the old silver ink pot, the quill I’d nipped from Cam, the stack of finished pages. Just fourteen of ’em, and I’d been working on the book for two whole weeks, writing on the sly when Cam was out of the house or else immersed in his own work upstairs. Fourteen pages. Two weeks. That was just a page a day, I thought miserably, and on a good day Cam could turn out fifteen or twenty. I was a novice, sure, but you’d think I’d be able to do better than a page a day, particularly when you considered the hours and hours I spent at it….
“Placing a clean page in front of me, dipping the tip of the quill in ink, I stared at the page, thinking hard. The ink dried. I toyed with the feather as brilliant rays of sunlight spilled through the window, making a sunburst on the silver ink pot. Lovely sunburst, I thougt, tiny golden spokes reflecting on the empty page. Another three or four minutes passed between I finally dipped the quill in ink again and wrote eight words: Lady Cynthia watched Lord John climb the stairs.
“Abject, I stared at the sentence. Boring. Lifeless. I couldn’t see either of them, couldn’t feel anything. The words conveyed nothing, and my noble characters were mere names, not flesh and blood. This wasn’t nearly as easy as I had thought it would be when I started the book. I thought it would be fun, thought it would be exciting, and rarely had I known such anguish. There was a knack to it, all right, and I obviously didn’t have it. Looked so easy when you watched someone doing it. Seemed a snap when you read what someone else had already written. Nothing to it, you thought, and then you tried to do it yourself and suffered the agonies of the damned. Frowning deeply, I crossed out the words and started again.
“Lady Cynthia watched… All right, she’s watching, but how does she feel about it? She’s happy. She’s elated. She’s nervous, too, because this is the first time she’s seen him since their violent quarrel and wasn’t that torture to write! I added the words with trembling heart. Does a heart actually tremble? Sounds like she has some kind of disease. I crossed out trembling and wrote the word joyous and added an a before it. Lady Cynthia watched with a joyous heart as Lord John climbed the stairs. We see Lady Cynthia, know how she feels about it, but Lord John’s still dull as ditch water, no life at all. I stared at the page some more utterly abject, and then I smiled and crossed out the last three words and added bounded eagerly up the stairs. Lady Cynthia watched with joyous heart as Lord John bounded eagerly up the stairs. That was better. That was more like it, yes, and it had only taken me forty-five minutes to write that one sentence. At this rate I’d be seventy-three years old before I finished the first section.
“Nevertheless I forged ahead, and after a while the words seemed to come a bit easier. I continued working until the sharp, stabbing pain in the small of my back made further work impossible, and then I scooted the chair back, emitted a heavy sigh and looked at what I’d done. One and a half pages, all crossed out and marked over and looking far more messy than anything Cam had ever turned over to me for copying. Not nearly as much as I would have liked to have done, but I had fifteen and a half pages now and that was better than nothing. Would I ever be able to write a complete book? Seemed impossible at the moment, but I wasn’t going to give up. I felt a sense of satisfaction as I stacked the pages together and fastened the top back on the ink pot. Me, Miranda, actually writing a book. Beat all, it did. Who’d uv thought it?
So, when did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?