I have been asked quite often over the years how I became a writer. This piece is my explanation, originally written back in July 2010 for “HubPages” but no longer viewable there.
I started writing when I was about 8 years old. It began as a way to practice my penmanship – back when they use to give medals for good penmanship in school. I guess I was just learning cursive writing, so I started with writing my name. When I got bored (or perhaps good at writing it legibly and according to my teacher’s standards), sometimes I would copy passages from the books I was forced to read.
Then something happened that made me start “journaling”. Some spat with my only neighborhood/school friend that left me without anyone to talk to. And so it began. I wasn’t the type to talk to myself or an imaginary friend. With no one else to confide in, I simply wrote down my thoughts and childhood frustrations on whatever paper I could find. Sometimes it was a paper grocery bag.
It was a time of great upheaval – lots of family problems, adjusting to being a stepchild, moving into a new neighborhood, starting at a new school, defending myself and two younger siblings from neighborhood bullies, etc, etc. There was never a shortage of issues for me to write about. The problem was keeping my little diary/journal a secret. And I guess I didn’t do such a good job of it. Someone in the household must have found and read it. Shortly thereafter, I recall being roundly scolded for what I’d written. So I stopped writing it for about 4 years. When the family moved to a new house, those pages were lost.
At the age of about 12, the “diary” – a little hardcover book with a little lock and key – became a popular, girl’s “must-have”. I think someone must have given me the one I had. Maybe I’d asked for it as a Christmas or birthday gift. I immediately began writing in it for the same reasons as before – a lack of someone to talk to, to share secrets with; to confide in. The upheavals had continued so again, there was no shortage of fodder. There was also no shortage of prying eyes. No matter how hard I tried to hide it, my younger sister (with whom I shared a bedroom) always seemed to find it, pick the lock, and read it. Then one day I was called on the carpet by the stepfather. He’d found the diary, read it, and called me out because of a particularly scathing entry I’d written about him. He claimed to be deeply offended and hurt by what I’d written. So much so, that he informed my mother, who promptly read me the riot act. The gist of her rant was that I should never write down anything personal – even in a diary – that might possibly be read by someone else. Huh? I thought that, by nature, a diary is not meant to be read except by the person who wrote it. I was outraged that my privacy had been violated! That clearly a 12 year old has no privacy! AARRRGGHHH! But I also learned something extremely important to my development as a writer: that my written words had a definite impact on others, including adults – especially my mother and stepfather. I stopped writing in the diary. And with no other outlet for my frustration, I became a very sullen, stubborn, mean-spirited girl. It lasted through high school. Outside of school work, my only opportunities to write were letters to my favorite cousin who had moved to California. She wasn’t much of a writer so the correspondence quickly dwindled. Sadly, my little diary was destroyed when the basement where I was storing it with other keepsakes was flooded during a rainstorm.
Going away to college provided a renewed opportunity to return to writing. By then I had many friends to keep in touch with, and to tell of my college co-ed adventures. And I had several! But it also gave me the chance to push a few of my mother’s hot buttons. Finally I could have her attention long enough to tell her how I was feeling about the home/family situation, which was still quite rocky and unstable. She quickly stopped looking forward to hearing from me. My pen had become even mightier than any sword.
Also while in college, I began a regular correspondence with my biological father. Until then, we hadn’t stayed in touch much. Years before, he’d moved to California with his new family, and we only exchanged pleasantries through holiday/birthday greeting cards. We started getting to know each other a little better through the regular correspondence of my college days. That was nice. (After he died – some 20 years later – I was happily surprised to find that he’d kept all those letters, and every one I’d sent since then.)
Still, there were some things, some thoughts that just didn’t quite fit into these categories. With a little more privacy, I resumed writing a journal. It was September 9, 1975 and the first entry begins with “I’ve decided to write down some of my thoughts.” I still have that entry. Then there’s a big gap. The next entry is dated 9/10/1978! Apparently I was enrolled in a psychology class, and keeping a journal and writing something in it at least 3 times each week for the duration of the semester, was a requirement. Writing my thoughts for myself and writing them for another’s review and grade were two different things! I was outraged! But of course I did it – but knowing my entries were not completely private.
Then in early November 1978, something happened that devastated me and was the catalyst for me to resume keeping a personal diary/journal again. My favorite grandmother had suffered a massive stroke while at work. The next day, she had another one while in the hospital. Although my sister and I were quickly retrieved from school and rushed to her bedside, she was already in a coma by the time we got there. She died about an hour after we arrived.
In the days that followed, I was prostrate with grief. I got through it somehow and returned to school. I had just about 6 weeks left to study for and complete final exams, and to pack up my stuff for the move back home. It was a really tough time. I was still so distraught that I scheduled a couple of sessions with a mental health counselor at the school’s health facility. The sessions didn’t help much. “Grief counseling” hadn’t been invented yet.
I don’t seem to have any notes on the grade I received from the class I took that required keeping a journal. But after college, I became more diligent about keeping one. I still had thoughts and feelings that I had no one to share with.
Writing in a journal became a cathartic experience – much like baring one’s soul to a trusted confidant. But I didn’t have a trusted confidant. Sure I had many good friends that I could talk to – but there were always some limitations. Can’t talk religion with this friend, can’t discuss politics with that friend, can’t discuss race with this friend, can’t discuss abortion with that friend, etc, etc. So I continued writing in my journal.
In 1987, I decided to get more “formal” (organized) about my journaling and bought my first spiral binder to record my thoughts and experiences. I now have 14 of them, and in the middle of Volume 15th.
Last week I had a stark reminder of why I’m still journaling after all these years. I had some wonderful news that I wanted share with everyone I know, about a writing gig that I’d been hired for. But it was the middle of the day – a time when most of my working friends and family were not available for a personal call. I took a chance and called my mother in Las Vegas. She was home and was thrilled for me, as I’d hoped. I called my (half) sister in California. She was home and was thrilled for me too. I called a local friend. She was happy for me, but busy/distracted with events in her own life and couldn’t share my enthusiasm. So it goes; so is the reason I continue to journal …..
It has been only in the past few years that I have begun to use the internet as an outlet for my creative writing abilities. The catalyst was winning an essay contest 5 years ago. The management of the apartment complex that I’d recently moved into, sponsored a contest for the residents to submit a 500-word essay about what they love about living here. I’d been a resident for only 4 months but had been in love with my “queendom in the sky” from Day One. So it was an easy item to write. Six months later I was notified that my entry had won the contest! I received a $500 AMEX gift card and my essay was published on the front page of the resident newsletter! That inspired me to at least dabble in the world of creative writing. I found a website where one could post any kind of writing (essays, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, you-name- it) for the purview and feedback of other members of the site. Within about 3 months, I’d posted 4 essays including the one about where I was living. All of them got very favorable reviews. Around that same time, I found a few other websites that pay for content based on number of readers. To this day, the endeavor has resulted in receiving only pennies per article from such sites. Clearly, I could not make a living at this so I began to think of it as a hobby with pay and focused my efforts on writing and rewriting my resume and thousands of cover letters in search of a “real” job.
It is a challenge to find the right site for what I’d like to say/post, and what is appropriate to say/post to the general public. Meanwhile, I continue to write in my personal journals, where I can say/write whatever I want. I still need the cathartic experience. And although it is bittersweet, I still enjoy going back and reading about “my past”. No one knows it better than I. In retrospect, it is funny, entertaining, and educational. Some entries still bring tears of emotion. Some make me ask myself “What the hell was I thinking???” “Why did I do that???”
There are at least two other facets of my evolution as a writer: Technical and Business Writing. In 1981, with only a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Language and History, I started a position that required writing technical and end-user procedures, meeting minutes, and a variety of internal business memos for a large media/publishing corporation. Without any formal education or training in this area, I quickly became a master of these tasks and gained a reputation for writing clear and concise documents. For the next 20 years, I enjoyed a career of many roles, all of which allowed me to use and hone my skill and talent as a technical/business writer. Meanwhile in my personal life and aside from my journaling, I became quite the master of writing complaint letters. Not just a rambling rant about some product or service that I was unsatisfied with. No, they were what I refer to as my “Writing for Results” series. I would say that 9 out of every 10 letters I’ve written in the past 30+ years were not only responded to, but the end result was in my favor – I got what I asked for/demanded. (I think the IRS is the only organization where my success rate is only about 50-50.) Measurable results include: street repairs, free or discounted airfare, flight upgrades, and refunds of deposits when service was not delivered or not up to (my) par.
As much as I am able to communicate my thoughts, and instructions on how to do something via the written word, I am completely aware of my limitations. I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it. And perhaps because my real life is and has been filled with so many true adventures, I have never been interested in writing fiction. Something that my “readers” always find surprising about me is that I don’t read much. More specifically, I read for information rather than entertainment. I haven’t read a whole book in over 20 years.
Where did my talent come from? I have no idea. I was never encouraged to pursue journalism in high school, nor in college. And it never occurred to me to do it on my own, without any encouragement or role models. I can only speculate after all this time, that learning to write the way I do came from writing book reports, essays, and term papers for school assignments.
Just about 3 months ago, after dabbling off and on for the past 5 years and occasionally pursuing technical and creative writing jobs (and totally unrelated jobs), I decided to quit dabbling and pursue my passion on a full-time basis, as a freelance writer. I have been more successful in this new career than I have been in the past 7 years since my last full-time technical writing job. I’ve written 6 technical articles for a web developer’s website, and I was recently hired as an ongoing content contributor for a city/neighborhood information website. For the latter, I’m receiving $20/hour for 5 hours of work each week. That’s almost like a hobby with pay, but the pay is so much better than a penny per 1000 readers!
While I hope to be “discovered” for my writing talent/ability, I know it’s a tough field and that I am but a small fish in an ocean of competition. But at least I’m doing what I love, and one of the things I’m good at: writing. I am also becoming the “go-to mentor” for a few friends/associates who aspire to be creative writers.
WOW! This piece turned out to be so much longer than I anticipated when I started writing it yesterday! I guess I had more to say than I thought I would on this topic. Hopefully, this has been a “good read” for you!