“When Did You Know…?”

My earliest memory of personal ambition comes from when I was seven years old and writing a story for my first grade teacher, Mrs. Glass.  She had asked us to write about what we wanted to be when we were grown up, and I chose the most obvious thing.  I wanted to play center field for the New York Yankees.  I grew up in New York, and we all knew that the Mets championship of 1969 (the year before I was called on to write Mrs. Glass’s assignment) was a fluke, never to be repeated.  If you wanted to be a star in the city, you played for the Yankees, and you played center field, where DiMaggio and Mantle played.  I remember writing a story about playing for the Yankees and hitting a home run to put the team ahead in the last game of the World Series, and then making a game-saving catch to clinch the series.

As elementary school progressed, it became clear to me and, sadly, to my classmates too, that I pretty much sucked at baseball, and would never play professional ball, not even for the Mets.  I did have a penchant for argument, however, and my parents made it clear to me that while they found this penchant annoying, there was a job out there that would make good use of my talents and pay well for them.  So in sixth grade, when Mrs. Feldman asked us all to write a story about our lives twenty years in the future, I wrote about my life as a rich and respected lawyer.

In between, I wrote stories about myself as a television reporter, as President of the United States, and as a movie actor.  Naturally, in all of these stories, I was wildly successful at whatever career I pursued.

Looking back on these assignments, and on countless others that I found many years back among my parents’ papers, I realize that while dreams of glory or wealth or both pushed me toward one career or another, what I enjoyed best was writing about my myriad possible futures.  I might have fantasized about winning the World Series or saving the world from whatever new evils Leonid Brezhnev had concocted for the United States, but I was already on my way to being a professional storyteller.

I started this post intending to ask the question “If there was no such thing as ‘Being a Writer’ what would you be doing with your life?”  But for me, and, I’m certain, for most of my friends here on SFNovelists, the answer is, “If there had been no such thing as ‘Being a Writer,’ I would have invented it.”  I have been writing “books” since I was six.  Creative writing was always my favorite activity in school.  One year in junior high we were assigned to keep a nightly journal.  We had to write stories or poems or personal reflections every night for the better part of a semester and then turn it in for grading at the end of the year.  For many of my classmates this was a chore.  They just hated it.  For me, it was the best part of the day.  I went to bed early every night — I was thirteen at the time, and I can tell you as a parent that getting a thirteen year-old to go to bed early is just about impossible — just so that I’d have more time for writing.  I still have that journal, and while a lot of it is just as bad as the work you’d expect from a thirteen year-old, there are a few pieces in there that I still look at with some pride.

I came to this profession relatively late in life.  I was thirty before I finally got over the idea that I had to do something predictable and practical for a living and decided to follow my passion.  But had I been paying attention, I would known from the time I was seven that I was destined to be a writer.

So rather than asking you, “What would you do with your life if you couldn’t write?” I’ll ask this:   “When did you know that you were going to be a writer?  And looking back on your life, when should you have realized it?” 

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  1. 1. Lydia Sharp

    Excellent topic.

    Reading this blog post felt like reading my own life story almost word for word. Never wanted to play for the Yankees, but I did want to be an astronaut, a marine biologist, a teacher, an actress, a veterinarian, etc. And I, too, was wildly successful at every ambition I dreamed of…and I also wrote about every one of them. I wrote my first “book” in elementary school, complete with illustrations. From then on, I was never without a stack of notebooks in my bedroom, each filled with stories, poems, and ideas. Aside from the sciences (go figure), English, literature, and composition courses were always my favorite.

    I wrote my first fantasy story in third grade and entered it in a state competition. Didn’t win, but I still remember the story. I wrote my first sci-fi even earlier, in second grade. We were given an assignment to write a letter to the teacher aboard the space shuttle “Challenger”, which I had loved doing, and couldn’t wait to hear back about her travels…but if you’ll recall, that shuttle exploded before it reached space. I was so distraught over this, I wrote a story about what their journey “would have” been.

    Not sure why, but I never considered being a writer during those formative years, even though I was technically already doing it. Thinking back on all the “career days” we had in school, “writer” was never an option. Is it not thought of as a real career? I wonder…

    I decided to write professionally at age 29, after working more jobs than I’d care to admit, succeeding at every one of them, but not feeling at all satisfied. If only I’d realized sooner that this IS a real career that you have to work at, just like any other, and that I was meant to do this from the day I learned to write. If only more people had recognized what I’d been doing all along and taken the initiative to guide me in the right direction. If only…

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    I always wanted to write novels “on the side,” ever since I knew that writing novels was a thing. Like 25 years later, I found myself in a position where writing on the side was the most I could do, but I could do it.

    Even when I wasn’t thinking about writing, though, I was still creating in some form. Game design. RPG campaigns. Make-believe stories with my Star Wars action figures…

  3. 3. Jane Lebak

    I wrote my first story at age 3 in magenta crayon on green-bar computer paper! Apparently I was telling them even earlier. I wrote my first novel when I was 13. So really, always. I didn’t have a moment where it really coalesced for me. I just did what I wanted to, and publishing them was the next obvious step.

    (Well, not the one I wrote at age three.) :-)

  4. 4. Laura

    I wanted to be a writer when I was in my late 20′s but being a single mom, getting a steady pay cheque was more important. Now my kids are adults and I am working on it.

    However like you, I was always writing stories for English and enjoying it. I even enjoyed the research reports for all the other classes, and I was of average skill. According to the teachers.

    It was when I was a computer programmer that my love of writing and skills improved tremendously because as a group programmers hate writing. They want to program.

    So I became the programmer who wrote the User Manuals and got many a thank-you and ‘yes, we understand it now’ compliments.

    I also was the programmer who created the business reports for all the applications. And the clients complimented me on how good they looked, easy to read and accurate.

    And my fellow programmers thanked me for doing the grunge work. Which to me it wasn’t. It was the most satisfying work.

  5. 5. Joe Iriarte

    Great post!

    I still want to play for the Yankees. I think it’s only a matter of time before their bench gets so thin from injuries that they feel the need to call up a 37-year-old fat guy who can’t catch or hit and who runs the 40 in, um three minutes.

    On second thought, maybe I should play for the Red Sox.

    I always wanted to be a writer, but I came within inches of giving up on my dream. I didn’t experience instant success, and I took some bad advice about “fallback careers” which led to me having a career that left me too spent to write. I still tried, and even managed to complete a trunk novel and a handful of short stories, but I gradually came to see publication as a pipe dream, not all that different from playing pro ball.

    A couple of things happened about the same time to change that. First, and I know how cornball this is going to sound, I saw Avenue Q. At the end of the show, when the cast was singing “For Now,” I thought about how Princeton’s failure to find his purpose in life was kind of like my failure to get published. The song’s message to me was that just because I’d reached a certain point in life without accomplishing my dream, that didn’t mean that the door was closed. I could try to live my life to the best of my ability, and keep on dreaming and keep on trying. I’m not kidding–that show really did inspire me.

    The other thing that happened is that one of my friends won Writers of the Future, and, shortly afterward, sold a short story. This changed “published writer” from some exalted thing that I could only look at with envy from afar to something a little closer to home (that I could look at with envy ;) ). Published writers, I discovered, were actually people just like me, who simply kept trying until they succeeded.

    From that point on, I made writing an obsession, instead of just a hobby. Whenever I’m not writing, I’m pretty much thinking about writing. When I’m living my life I’m also thinking about how what I’m experiencing can be fodder for my creativity. And I really believe I’ll break through and get published. I have a bunch of friends now who are published writers, from going to Cons and stuff like that, and I’ve come to realize that they’re better writers than I am by virtue of the hours they’ve put in, but that I’m actually intelligent and talented enough that, if I do the same thing, then I will also get better. If they can do it, so can I.

  6. 6. Kameron

    Ha! I used to write and share stories for show-and-tell starting back in the third grade. A remake of Godzilla versus King Kong and the adventures of Ramona Quimby’s dog on the moon were two that I remember.

    I don’t think I knew I wanted to be a writer until my senior year in high school. Even then, however, it was something to do “on the side.” It wasn’t until one of my graphic design professors sat me down during my junior year in college and asked me if I really enjoyed what I was doing, that I said to myself, “you should be writing.”

  7. 7. David B. Coe

    Great comments, all. Many thanks.

    Lydia, I do think that writing (like most of the other arts) is thought of as a diversion rather than a career, and so kids who are gifted at an early age are not guided in that direction, or at least they weren’t when I was young. It’s a shame, really. Makes me wonder about the talent that is lost to sheer neglect….

    Adam, writing is writing, be it “on the side” or full-time. How cool that 25 years after the fact, you’re doing what you’d hoped.

    Laura, I had a somewhat similar experience when I was a grad student getting my history Ph.D. All my friends would talk about how much they enjoyed doing research and what a chore the actual writing was. I always felt just the opposite. The research was okay, but nothing I wanted to do all the time. I was happiest when I got back from the research trips and was able to sit down and cobble it all together into a story.

    Thanks for the comment, Joe. I don’t think your response to Avenue Q was cornball at all. Art is meant to move us and make us think. Cool that it worked for you. I actually had a similar experience with the movie “Up” this weekend. If that’s not cornball, I don’t know what is. But the idea of getting over disappointment with what we haven’t done or accomplished in life by recognizing the value of what we actually DID do — that was very powerful for me. And to your last point, YES! Talent is important for writing, but it’s not everything by a long shot. I know of lots of immensely talented people who didn’t get the break or didn’t put their butts in the chairs and make it happen. And I know of people who have had great success with very little talent. The thing is to put in the work and give yourself and your talent a chance to succeed. Best of luck doing that!

  8. 8. David B. Coe

    Kameron, sorry your comment hadn’t yet posted when I began to write mine. Coming to writing in college is actually far earlier than many of us do it. I was thirty when I came to it. Others started later than that. Very cool that you’ve found your calling at a young age. Hope it takes you just where you want it to.

  9. 9. Kelly McCullough

    Right after I finished my first novel, which I wrote half on a lark because I’d just quit theater cold turkey and needed something to soak up all that creative energy.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    But, Kelly, surely you had written before then and knew you had a talent for it, right? When did you start writing stories?

  11. 11. Alma Alexander

    I dreamed before I ever wrote, and i wrote as soon as I knew how. My first surviving poem dates from when I was five years old. My first novel (utterly terrible I might add) was written by 11, my second (much better, and I still have a copy – handwritten, in pencil, in hardcover notebooks – to prove that I had good plot bones in it even if the writing itself was still raw with inexperience) at 14. There seems to be a vague memory of another somewhere between that age and the early twenties, but then I started on the thing that was eventually published as the “Changer of Days” books (two of them, because the publisher took a look at a quarter-million-word MS and threw up their hands in horror and screamed, “SPLIT THAT PUPPY!”) And after that it’s been kind of full on.

    I always wrote.

    But I knew I wanted the writer’s life at roughly fifteen – I tell the story in a recent interview, at http://booksbypickles.blogspot.com/2009/07/interview-with-alma-alexander.html , if anyone wants to go take a look there.

    I like to quote an Ursula Le Guin exchange when I am asked a question about what I would be if I weren’t a writer. When asked the same question, Le Guin answered, without missing a beat, “Dead”.

    What she said.

  12. 12. Kelly McCullough

    Actually, not much. I’m sort of freak that way. From 11-22 theater was my creative outlet and I did very little writing that wasn’t non-fiction, a couple of super short plays that I co-wrote because somebody had to do it. I did a lot of creating, but it was almost all live improv. I did write papers for classes and I got a lot of very positive feedback on that–one of my papers was used for years as model of what a student review should look like in the intro to theater class at the U of MN–but that’s it. It was the combination of professorial praise for my papers and the need to do something creative that made me say “hey, maybe I should try writing a book.” And it was the writing of the book that made me think “I love this, I’m going to be a writer.”

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comment and the link, Alma. I think it’s very cool that you still have that early hand-written novel. What a wonderful memory to be able to hold in your hands. I have some of my earliest stories, but others are lost.

    That’s interesting, Kelly. I always had other creative outlets — I did theater, too, and then music. But through that time I also wrote. Amazing that you were able to make that choice and then make the career work. A testament to your talent and determination.

  14. 14. David B. Coe

    Jane (comment 3) sorry that I didn’t respond earlier. There is something funky with this site and I didn’t get the comment notification for your remarks until the morning of the 14th. Thanks for your comments. I love the visual of magenta crayon on that old computer paper, and I think it’s great that you’ve been pursuing your dream from the get-go.

  15. 15. Kelly McCullough

    David, Re: Jane’s comment

    It was hung up in the Akismet spam moderation queue and then once I freed it up* it dropped into the place it would have occupied had it not been held for moderation (one of the weirdnesses of wordpress I think).

    *Whenever I drop in to post a comment or write a post I check the queues and release the real comments and delete the spam.

  16. 16. David B. Coe

    Talented and a Samaritan. What a mensch.

  17. 17. cedunkley

    From very young I was making up stories. Writing them down started in Junior High School. It wasn’t until I started writing what I thought was a short story for an English class assignment in my Freshman year in High School where I first realized that this is something I wanted to do.

    However, it is only in the past couple pf years where I made the decision that not only did I want to write but I wanted to be published as well.

    One of the earliest things I wrote is in a small notebook (the ones that fit in your back pocket). Someone in the house was stealing my cookies, so my younger brother and I set out to find the culprit. So, I wrote down in my notebook all of our investigative findings. Its all labeled “The Great Cookie Caper”. Of course, it was my older brother who ate them.

    One a technical note: does anyone here know who set up the Livejournal sydicated feed for this site? It stopped working a while ago and unless one of the writers here posts on their own LJ that they’ve submitted an article I’m always playing catch up reading here.

    Thanks!

  18. 18. Kelly McCullough

    cedunkley, LJ thing noted and forwarded appropriately. Hopefully it will be fixed soon.

    David, ah shucks, thanks. looks at feet

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Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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