Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Humble Beginnings: Writing for the First Time

I never wanted to be a writer. I much preferred the simplicity of numbers and math. So in first grade when we had monthly writing assignments this was a huge source of struggle for me. The class was given a story starter once a month and our job was to finish it. This should have been something fun for a child but for me it created anguish and stress. The sunday before each assignment was due, I’d sit at the kitchen table and stare at the four walls waiting for inspiration to strike. Occasionally, I’d get an idea that I would quickly dismiss because it sounded stupid to me.

After what always seemed like an eternity of watching a blank page, one of two things would happen; I’d start complaining, or my mother would ask what the problem was. I didn’t know what to write and I felt stupid doing it. My mother’s response to this was write whatever you want. And then the whining would start. My ideas are stupid, I hate this assignment, why do I have to do it, and on and on. My mom was always a good cheerleader and would try to console me. She said, “No idea is stupid. Look at Hansel and Gretel, it’s about two kids lost in the woods following bread crumbs. Now that sounds pretty silly doesn’t it? But it’s still a story. So just write something.”

Although her pep talks were pretty good, they never seemed to help. I was lucky if I wrote one or two sentences afterward. My three year old sister on the other hand, who listened to each and every one of these monthly exchanges, would dance around the kitchen and spew out idea after idea after idea in a matter of minutes. It annoyed the hell out of me. I wondered why she got the creative gene and I didn’t have a single imaginative bone in my body. This was the biggest source of frustration for me because while I couldn’t think of one idea, she could sit in the corner and play with her fingers. I couldn’t wrap my head around how easily my sister could rattle off a million ideas and I was stuck in the uncomfortable kitchen chair with nothing but silence in my head.

After an hour or two, I’d get so frustrated and embarrassed that I’d reduce myself to tears, and still I wrote nothing. My frustration and tears eventually got to my mother and the yelling began.  I wanted so badly to find a great idea and I kept coming up blank. My mom kept telling me to write anything it didn’t really matter. But the situation drove everything from my head. And even at age seven the thought of stealing one of my sister’s umpteen ideas never crossed my mind. The crying and yelling continued, until finally my mom felt sorry for me and listed off a series of ideas and said pick one. Angry and exhausted from all the crying, I’d take one idea, which I still wasn’t happy with, and wrote as the tears dripped onto my paper. After a paragraph or two, I’d cram the page into my language arts folder and stuff it into my backpack embarrassed for anyone to see it. To which my mom said, “See that wasn’t so bad.” But it was. I was drenched with tears and I felt like a broken pencil without lead; completely useless and stupid.

As I continued on through school there was one thing I hated more than anything, writing papers. It was always a nightmare. They took forever and they were horribly painful and boring. I was so disinterested in writing, that when I finished my last English class in college, I never wanted to write again. It was a good thing my degree was in engineering. Too bad no one told me about the numerous lab and technical reports I’d be writing over the years. But somehow I made it through each and every painful writing experience.

It wasn’t until I was working full time as an engineer that I actually started to write something of my own choosing. Without homework, I found myself looking for things to do in my free time. Out of boredom, I started researching the meaning of names. From those names, I started creating characters that belonged to them and then imagined up a world they could live in. Little did I know, I was successfully being creative for the first times in my life. This piece, at the time, ended up being the longest thing I’d ever written coming to around fifteen thousand words. But it was flawed. I broke every rule in the book. The story started with my main character shooting up in bed because her phone rang, waking her up. This was promptly followed by an explanation of her looks as she stared at herself in the mirror. I think there are at least a billion things wrong with that segment alone and it only went downhill from there. It began with a boring ordinary start that everyone says to avoid. It was extremely cliché.

Despite the horrible writing skills and the fact that I’ve now hidden that piece away where no one will ever see the embarrassment it holds, I learned a lot from it. I found my creative gene that was hiding for all those years. I figured out how to write something interesting and not let my brain get in the way. And I found a way to use words besides just for talking and getting to the point. Those days spent crying at the kitchen table aside, I learned to trust in myself and go with it. No idea is stupid. In fact some of the simplest ideas can be spun into the most interesting stories.

At some point between writing out of boredom and finding a hobby in reading, I was bitten by the writing bug. I find that ideas and stories overwhelm me and often take over inside my head refusing to sit unwritten. I spend countless hours of my free time writing and studying the craft because I no longer would know who I am if I didn’t. Who would have thought the girl who cried over her writing assignments and was so happy to have written her last paper, would ever grow into a woman who aspires to be an author one day? Somehow in my horribly rocky start, I found the writer within myself. And despite the pain writing caused me over the years, I never forget where I began, because it defines me as a writer and as a person. We all have to start somewhere but how we move forward from our humble beginnings and what we learn from the past is what really matters.

This post first appeared as a guest blog post on Writing for the First Time. If you want to write a piece about your literrary beginnings, they are still looking for contributors.

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