When did you first know that you wanted to be an author?
I’ve read countless interviews of authors answering this question with stories about being a child and filling notebooks or reading books and just knowing that this was it. I’m envious of those authors, because they always knew. That’s not my story at all.
I spent more time playing sports than I did writing, but I was the most detached, introspective and inquisitive athlete on any team. At a young age I often found myself trying to understand the game from another teammate’s perspective. I did not succumb to the tunnel-vision quest for perfection, spending hours practicing. Sports were fun. No more than that. I couldn’t understand how anyone saw these events as more than just games. Therefore, sports brought me friends and fitness, but nothing deeper.
Fortunately, I loved reading. I read everything as a child and can say with confidence that Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls changed me. I can still picture my childhood living room, the orange rocker in which I sat night after night falling deeper into the story. I remember when it was over and the dogs had died and how much that hurt. But there was more—the closure and then the explanation of the title in the symbolic ending. That did it for me. That simple structure changed it all. Here, I found meaning.
From there on I sought books with turmoil and tragedy and lessons to be learned. I came to understand the truth of fiction and saw in the people around me the character traits I’d read. My analytical mind turned on, taking the perceptions of youth and testing them against the depictions within narratives. I learned the criteria for “good” book: resonance. And at some point, I knew I wanted to be able to communicate that well.
I made fits and starts in high school, but sports and girls and partying were far more powerful than writing. I still read, but as so many adolescents, I turned very cynical. I looked for dark material that matched my emotions and stumbled upon a canon of books that resonated far more deeply than anything before. Then I began to write poetry.
I still have that notebook filled with awful verse. Some rhymed, most did not, but the voice I’ve now spent years cultivating was planted. I had found a way to express what I had up to that point only read, as immature as it was.
It wasn’t until college that I wrote my first short story. I had no idea how to navigate fiction, in spite of having read it forever. The workshop professor offered suggestions, as did my classmates, and that was it, the full extent of my formal education on fiction writing. The rest has come from my own tinkering, the advice of a couple of writing groups, and for a brief period, James Lasdun.
In no way does this make me superior, or inferior. It just is. I’ve employed Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule and have come out the other side with a sense of how to move words effectively across the page. I’m still learning.
And that’s the trick. I wonder about those children who knew so long ago. Are they still writing, still learning? Chances are yes, for some; no, for the rest. Because there comes a point where writing isn’t solely about the enjoyment, it’s about the challenge: Can I do this? I now understand that element of sport, but am still glad I missed its essence, before.
For every author the “this” is unique. And I imagine it is informed by the point at which he or she could answer the initial question. I’m not fully sure when it happened for me, but it did, and like the best decisions in life, it was messy and founded on nothing more than hope.