A tweet @Nikki_Roberti said the other day, combined with some recent editing, made me think about this question.
Why did you start writing?
For me, it was when I was in 5th grade. I’d just moved to Texas from Ohio, and my entire world had been turned upside down over the past year. Between the move, my mom getting remarried, my grandfather’s death, and my best friend moving away (in reverse chronological order!) I was in a position where I had no real ties. I mean, yeah, I had my mom, but she was the only semiconstant, and frankly, she had other things she was focused on. We’d read A Wrinkle in Time for my 5th grade class, and I wrote this really Mary Sue story where Not!me (totally me) went back in time and saved her twin sister from falling down the stairs, using the tesseract machine. Very much based on my own life (I had a fraternal twin sister who fell down stairs when we were 2 and died. If you say sorry in the comments it will be deleted, I hate when people do that!! Unless you pushed her, you don’t need to apologize for it! I grew up knowing about her, and her death, the way others might grow up knowing the sky is blue. It’s fact. It’s not something that needs sympathy.)
But my teacher called a parent teacher conference, and I was CERTAIN I was in trouble. Maybe kids here weren’t allowed to talk about death, or maybe I had done such a bad job that I was going to be told never to write a story again!!
Instead, a woman who, to that point was an inscrutable rock who I thought hated me, revealed that she cried reading my story. Not because it was somehow an amazing piece of prose, but because she finally related to me, the stubborn, pain in the ass kid that I was at that point.
I realized, sitting in that stiff plastic chair, that words had power.
I realized, in that moment, that if I honed my words, I could not only reach outside of myself, but find others like me, who might feel just as lonely, alone, and lost.
Everyone starts writing because of something. Be it as a kid, as a parent, or as a grandparent… There’s something we want to capture. For me, as a 10 year old, it was that feeling of being half of something more. Every time I sit down to write a story, I am reaching into some part of my emotion, and finding where a squishy part needs to expand and grow through it.
A friend of mine recently saw another friend of hers lose a child. As an adult on the outside of the situation, my thoughts immediately went to that child’s young sibling. The kind of adoration that is heaped on the child who is no longer there. The idealization that people invoke the lost child with. And part of me felt worse for the sibling than for the deceased child, because they will always live in the shadow of the might have been. And yet, having been in that position, I wouldn’t change it. I started writing because I was emotionally processing a lot of that as I grew old enough to understand it. To a certain point, I think write what you know is right… not so much in, I know BBQ so I must write characters cooking it. But on an emotional level.
If you’ve never known loss, you’re only going to have that outsider’s view. If you’ve never known a deep faith (I haven’t!), your depiction of it is going to be inheritedly limited. There’s an old expression that those who read live a thousand lives in one. It’s true. Reading a good book lets us feel things we’ve never experienced, and put things we have into the context of what others have felt, making it easier to bear.
We all start writing for a reason. There’s an incredibly long journey past that. It discourages at every turn (the first writing convention I went to, the writers of a TV show I adored told the audience “Stop writing. If you can do anything else other than this shit, stop now and save yourself the heartache”. All it did was piss me off and make me determined to show them how wrong they were!). My job, as an editor, is often to tell people where they need to work on specific aspects of craft. I deliberately don’t try to tell people how to change anything about that core concept. Because I know and understand that concept comes from their experiences. That’s the heart of the story. Everything else should work to grow/support THAT, never the other way around.