Cultivating a fiction writer

girlpeekIn my earliest memory, I am lying on my stomach in the kitchen looking through the square holes in a grate. I am eighteen months old. My parents and I live in the upstairs apartment of an old house converted into a duplex. Our kitchen lies above the kitchen of the downstairs apartment. Our only heat source is radiant, meaning the heat from downstairs rises into our apartment through open grates in our floor. My mother warns me not to drop anything through the holes, but that was never my intention. The family who lives downstairs is eating dinner, their table is directly below the grate, and I am watching them and listening to their conversation. That’s the extent of that memory, but I now see it as an early indication of my interest in observing people, what they do, what they say, how they act and react.

Yesterday, I followed a link to a video interview with John Irving. In one segment1, he mentioned an early indication he knew he could be a writer: he desired and needed a lot of alone time. Aha!, I thought. Sometimes, when I look back on my childhood, it seems sort of like those Charlie Brown cartoons where adults are unseen, their voices muted. I had parents, two sisters, and a fair amount of friends, but I preferred to spend a lot of time alone with my imagination.

At this point, I can’t say if that choice was strictly my nature or if circumstances enhanced the tendency. Early in my school career, teachers labeled me one of the “smart kids.” That designation sets you apart in ways both good and bad. You may have free time while other students work on a subject that you breezed through. You may also be assigned extra work. In both cases, you’re alone.

childreadingIf you’re a writer, then you are a reader. And I presume, like me, as a child you gobbled up books like candy. I don’t know about you, but reading time was alone time for me. And then, inspired by what I read, I wanted to act out my own stories in the backyard with my baby dolls in my “covered wagon” or behind the living room sofa where I sat up an “apartment” for my Barbies. Alone. Whole conversations carried on in my head.

Of course, I played games with other children, but I preferred make believe to sports or most physical activity. I would try to act out some of my stories with friends, but it was frustrating for us all. I always wanted to be the star and director—“now you say this and then you do that and then I say …” It was just easier to play alone.

sickgirlWhen I got a little older, the ultimate isolator struck—illness. I spent only nine months of my seventh, eighth, and ninth grades actually in school. The rest of that time I was either bedridden, in the hospital, or recovering from surgery. Except for three months with a visiting teacher, I taught myself and took tests by phone. Needless to say, I didn’t fare well in the social skills usually developed during this period of life. But I can remember only a few times feeling lonely. And never was I bored. I had my imagination.

In light of all this, do I mind that writing requires me to spend a lot of time alone? Of course not. I think I was cultivated for this life. Only now, I don’t lay on my stomach peeping at the neighbors. I just close my eyes to watch and listen for the story to unfold.

1 The whole interview is here: http://bigthink.com/johnirving  If you want to hear just the portion I referenced, click the segment titled: How to Tell if You’re a Writer

19 thoughts on “Cultivating a fiction writer

  1. I can’t remember much that far back, and what I do remember is questionable, but what I can say with certainty is, I loved — and still love, truth be told — being alone.

    With a loving spouse and two wonderful children, that’s harder. And it’s harder still when one has to go out and earn a living, which typically involves interacting with other people. But hey … what do I know about that, right? 😉

    Still, I live in my own head-space, and I enjoy it there. I’m happy to know I’m not alone in that, because frankly, I thought I was a weirdo.

    🙂

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    1. Mama, mama we’re all weirdos now … 🙂

      Seriously, I don’t think it’s surprising that bookish loners would eventually put pen to paper. By the time you’ve developed the skills and perspective to tell well-crafted stories, you probably don’t have many people in your world to tell them to, so you pretty much have to write them down and set them loose on the world.

      Now, all you writers who are true “people persons” speak up.

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  2. Yesterday I went to a NaNoWriMo write-in at a nearby cafe. There were 11 people, most arriving one at a time. As people arrived, there were minimal greetings, a brief discussion of laptop styles, and some conversation about word count.

    About 45 minutes into the 1.5 hour event, three writers briefing mentioned they were short story writers, not novelists.

    Other than that, there was coffee sipping, a little staring out the window and around the cafe and lots of fingers flying over keyboards.

    It was an eerie experience, all of us alone in our heads, but sitting side by side, elbows occasionally brushing against each other.

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    1. Yes, we’re all alone in this together. I guess I need to develop the skill to work in an “outside” environment. I find myself too easily distracted to write in a public place. If I try hard, I can usually go deep enough within to do it, but it takes awhile. Maybe if most everyone else was quiet, it might not be too hard. But I’ll pass on anyplace that smells like coffee.

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  3. Linda, I’m so glad you shared this. It’s a very touching glimpse of your childhood. I’m not surprised that you are a writer. Imagination is a wonderful place to escape to. I’ve done it all my life.

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    1. Thank you, Laura. I’m never sure about these more personal posts. Their unfettered imaginations are one of the things I love about young children. It’s too bad so many lose that.

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  4. Hi Linda
    I really enjoyed this post. I love the way you start your personal narratives. The first sentence hooked me good.
    I can identify with much of what you said about early childhood. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved my friends, but I also loved my own company and spent a great deal of time reading or creating stories, whether in my imagination, through play or by actually writing them. I was told I was creatively gifted. It’s somewhat of a reinforcement of the importance of those years to read your experiences and realise that I was not a freak – I was a writer in development. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Sharon. I almost didn’t post this. You, Laura, and Darc made me feel better about sharing this personal background. I just wonder how many of us had similar childhoods. I doubt there are published authors who, at age thirty, for the first time thought about writing a novel.

      I also think it’s natural that we’re drawn to interact with each other virtually. We all sort of exist in each other’s imaginations! 😀

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  5. As long as I have books I’ll never have a bored moment in my life. But put me at a party with loud music and lots of music and I’ll be bored out of my skull.

    The literary world was always where I dwelled, my comfort zone, so it comes to no surprise I would be a writer.

    My family refuses to go with me to a bookstore or library. To them it’s an errand, to me it’s an all day affair.

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    1. When my mother and sister were out here recently they both, at different times, stood looking at my bookshelves in wonder … the shaking your head, I don’t get it kind of wonder. 🙂

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