The more I look into how various famous authors interact with the media, the more examples I find of their answers to the questions they are frequently asked, which invariably involve:
How did you become a writer?
When did you know you wanted to write?
Who are your biggest influences / What do you like to read / What did you read when you were a child?
So I began thinking about how these questions pertain to me. No, if you don't know me personally, you have never heard of me yet. You've never read anything I've written, short of my goofy facebook statuses. Someday I'll finish some of these book projects I've been working on for years and hopefully be published. At that point, my writing time will be spent primarily on actual books, not reminiscing about How Did I Get Here? It occurred to me that maybe right now is the time to examine the path I've been on and get it all organized on paper. Turns out I've been on this road a lot longer than I thought I had! Isn't it funny when things start to get clear? The following is part one (of two) of my road to realizing I was meant to write, and how I came to that conclusion.
When I was small I remember playing on the floor with little toy animals and making up stories for hours. There was no home video back then, but my Grandparents used a tape recorder to capture some of my stories.
What is a writer? Someone who writes. What did I want to be when I was small and full of stories but unable to download them onto paper? Someone who writes.
My mom helped me write a book when I was in elementary school. I told her the story, she wrote it down, fixing it as she went. I drew the pictures, then she and my dad sealed the completed pages in contac paper and bound the book with cardboard covers and psychedelic wallpaper to cover it. It was about a camping trip our family took and some semi-fictionalized things that happened on it.
On our family’s frequent road trips I’d watch interesting things passing me by, outside the car windows, and write stories about them as my parents drove. Somehow writing in the car didn’t make me motion sick while reading in the car sometimes did. Stories were about maps to buried treasure, aliens and witches, children and animals.
In 5th grade some of us were chosen to go to a conference for young writers in the state capital. Up to this point I thought authors were very old people or long-dead people. I imagined Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume to be like Betty Crocker, not real people who were still alive in the same world I was in. I figured their books had been around forever, never suspecting they’d been written in my own lifetime or for the generation just before mine. I didn’t know there were more books being written every day. I was surprised to find out otherwise. One of my favorite authors at that time, alive and well and actually not that old, was there signing books. I waited in line and handed him my autograph book, too much in awe to say anything. He opened my book and got as far as having written his first initial before he looked up at me and said, “What is this? This isn’t one of my books.” He handed the autograph book back to me, dismissively, and signed the next person’s book. What I was too shy to tell him was that I wasn’t too cheap to buy his books there at the book fair like the other kids had, to have him sign. I actually owned his whole series and they were at home. But he just thought I was some kid who wanted his signature but wasn’t going to buy his books. Now that I’m an adult I look back on how crushed I was that day and think that guy was quite the selfish twit to treat a little 10 year old fan that way. If I ever treat my readers that way, somebody please slap me.
Around that same time I started something that I’ve done almost every day since - kept a diary. In the same book that I almost got that author’s autograph, I began by writing down the rides we rode at Disneyland on the day I turned 10 years old. My diary has since evolved into a digital pastime and has grown into a dream journal, a recollection of sweet and funny things my sons and now grandson have done, and all my emotional highs and lows for more than three decades. It has been my most faithfully kept writing habit through the years and I’ll continue to keep it, probably for the rest of my life.
In 7th grade I was chosen for the brand new gifted student program at my middle school. I wrote two books of short stories and drew the pictures myself. My mom bound them and covered them in contac paper. The school library catalogued them and put them on the shelves. I’d completely forgotten about their existence until recently, when the school was ridding its shelves of out of date materials, they contacted my mom to see if she wanted them back. I read through them now and cringe, wondering how a kid who wrote like that ended up in a gifted program in the first place. Was there no one to help me fix my stories? Correct my cheesy sitcom endings? Develop some interesting ideas into anything someone would want to read? I’m glad to have these books back in my hands because God forbid anyone else should stumble onto them and make them public after I’m published. I’d die of embarrassment!
In the mid-80s, one of my high school classes attended Missouri Writes. Something I’d written had been chosen for their annual publication. Twenty high schools from across the state sent one teacher and roughly half dozen students and we all had what we submitted bound into a compilation, which we each received a copy of. As ever, they spelled my (maiden) name wrong in the table of contents (apparently our spelling of Engelhardt isn't the most common). Reading my essay, I’m impressed with how far my skills had come in the six years since my last conference. But by what I know today, it’s still incredibly cringe-worthy, if heartfelt.
I wrote a poem in high school that my mom always thought was incredible (hint - most peoples’ moms think this way about the things their children create). What I didn’t have the heart to tell her for many years is it wasn’t my original idea. The assignment, if I recall properly, had been to take an existing poem and rewrite it completely - to tell the same story but differently. I took one Shel Silverstein had written about unicorns turning into narwhals after Noah’s flood and turned it into one I wrote about unicorns turning into narwhals after Noah’s flood. The concept was good, it just wasn’t mine. I hadn’t set out to mislead her - I guess I just forgot to tell her what brought it into existence - homework, not a brilliant, original idea.
High school graduation was approaching quickly and for some reason, I wanted to try out to be one of the commencement speakers. This is highly uncharacteristic for me. I remember the Senior Superlatives assembly that year, in which people were given awards: best smile, most likely to succeed, most shy. I was petrified I’d been voted the most shy, and would have to walk the stage in front of the other students (thankfully that honor went to someone else probably equally mortified to myself). So why, within the same year I wanted to write a speech and speak in front of all of them AND their parents and friends, I’m not sure. I prayed about it and when it came down to the day before we had to submit our potential ideas, I still knew I wanted to say something, I just didn’t know what. I stayed up all night that night, trying to put something interesting together. Truth be told, I’d never been to a high school or college graduation ceremony at this point in my life. I had no idea what kinds of things people said in their speeches. I struggled and scribbled, then scratched it all out and gave up - but not before staying up so late, and getting so upset, that I was too sick to go to school the next day when submissions were due. I include this, because it was something I wanted to write but wasn’t able. I didn’t have something to say yet. I just wanted to have something to say and to know how to say it impressively. I was too young and didn’t know enough, but that wouldn’t be the case forever.
...stay tuned for the next exhaustive diatribe on me, me, me