In 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.
If 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.
When 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
Originally published 7 Nov, 2009
9 thoughts on “Childhood of a Fiction Writer”
I enjoy listening to writers talk about the childhoods and how much reading and making up stories in their minds dominated their activity. I wonder how many of us liked “being with ourselves,” Hadn’t thought much about it in terms of cultivating the life of a writer. Great insights.
Thank you, Patricia. 🙂 Most days, now, I long for more quiet. I think so many of us live such noisy lives, we don’t have enough time to be still and listen.
We have that alone time in common. I know about the watching, listening, playing it out, directing the play etc .Reading was a skill learned as a preschooler and I craved it. For years, my reading resources were limited as I went to a one room school, lived in a rural community with no library and outside work was a priority at home. By the good fortune of interested highschool teachers and parental support I was allowed time in my last two yeas of highschool to spend a great deal of time in our town library…I was alone during this time but it was a formative time. ( see my archive blog post…Reading For The Sheer Love of it)
I’m most likely sticking to short stories , children’s stories and poetry rather than novel writing. I can only imagine on those terms.
Oh, I hate to imagine your isolation from books, E. 😦 I’ve blogged before about what a wonderful day it was when I discovered the public library. I reminisced today on Facebook with a grade school friend about how we used to trudge the many blocks home from the library with armloads of books. I’m happy you have the time to read and write now. 🙂
I grew up on a farm/ranch and as an extrovert I found it very hard not to be around people. So I spent a lot of time creating friends in my head. Walking across the prairie fields my made up friends and I would have the most amazing adventures. A trip to town always meant a stop at the library for me to load up. Since I didn’t care for farm chores, I was often found hiding with my nose in a book. It was my way of escape. I couldn’t wait to move to the city and live the life I craved. Now, when I look back, I’m glad I had the time and space to make up stories and read about other worlds.
I’m glad you did too, Darlene. 🙂 A childhood without books is such a sad image, isn’t it? So is an adulthood—I think I need to take more time to read now.
This was fun to read! It has made me think back on my earliest memories. I have some fond memories of sitting alone at school with a notebook and writing down descriptions of everything around me. It’s like I wanted my brain to be a camera, freezing everything in time. As for reading, I’m reading a lot more now than I have in the past 15 years. It’s quite nice!
I’m reading a beautiful book right now, Michelle, and realizing how much I miss reading like I used to. I’ve cluttered my life with too much junk the last few years and I need to get back to basics.
Yeah, that’s why I say in my bio that I believe a simple life is the best life. Putting that so prominently in what describes, it has helped remind me to keep pushing away things that complicate my life. It has been very helpful!