#RWchat prompt: How did you become a writer?

In New Jersey, On Writing, Progress by BronwenLeave a Comment

This past Sunday’s question is an interesting one. We’re often asked why we write, but rarely how we got to this point. So here’s an overview of my steps along the way.

I identify my earliest desires to write with the discovery of Tamora Pierce’s IN THE HAND OF THE GODDESS, the very first book of hers that I ever read. I was about twelve, and this book had everything I’d ever wanted in a book. Magic, knights, girls kicking ass, romance–just everything. I had been looking for a book like this for a long, long time. And I just knew that I wanted to make more books just like it. (More on me and Tamora Pierce here: Alanna, Tamora and me.)

Around the same time, two other major things happened. First, I made my teacher cry. CRY. She told my parents about it at one of those parent-teacher nights, and they told me. You see, this was Social Studies and we were doing a unit on human evolution. (New Jersey is kind of awesome that way. Comprehensive sex ed AND biology.) One assignment was to write a story about one of these distant ancestors. I heard “story” and went for it with gusto. This is probably the first (and very nearly only) short story I ever wrote. The quality, compared to my classmates’, was so not craptastic that my teacher cried when she was grading it. This has always stuck with me, as proof that I am capable of impressive things. I hadn’t thought I was doing anything special, I was just writing in a way that echoed the books I read. So that’s one lesson you should take from this: reading is a fantastic way to learn.

Not long thereafter a neighbor friend introduced me to Sailor Moon.

Tell me this doesn’t scream GIRL POWER.

My god, Sailor Moon. After the first episode I watched, I said to myself, “That is the stupidest show I’ve ever seen. …I’m going to watch again tomorrow.” This launched me into the world of anime, and it just happened to coincide with my first forays onto the internet. I wanted every scrap of info I could get on this show, and the comics, and the art, and the music, and it was all online! And the fanfiction. I read tons of fanfiction. (This is also the first time I got to read about lesbian relationships.) And then I started to write my own, terrible, terrible fanfiction. A year or two later Cartoon Network’s Toonami block began airing Gundam Wing. That took over my life for a few years. I wrote some very popular fics, which are still available online but which I will not point you to because they are terrible. They do show growth, though, and I’m proud of them and the following they had.

Early in high school, I met Vijay Narayan, and he became my brainstorming buddy. This relationship has been formative and wonderful. From the very start we bonded over writing. Early on I had this great friend who agreed that writing was important and understood the need to do it. I’m incredibly lucky to have had this.

Also in high school I started subscribing to Writer’s Digest. I started telling people I wanted to be a writer. My poor father immediately told me I needed a day job as well. He’s also one of my biggest cheerleaders, insisting that I have talent (thanks to that teacher!), that my fanfiction track record mattered, that if I would just finish a book I’d be all set. He’s amazing. (My mother is, too. She just never understood the fanfiction thing. Why not write original stuff?)

In 2003 I discovered NaNoWriMo and took my first crack at it. It did not go very far, but I was determined to keep trying. Somehow, I managed to accomplish it for the first time my freshman year of college, which was a year heavy with reading.

Despite the facts (yes, writers need day jobs) I decided that I wanted to make a real go of this thing and that I would study writing in college. I don’t know why my dad agreed to this, but I went to a private liberal arts college in NYC, The New School‘s Eugene Lang, and studied fiction alongside digital media and religion. I loved the hell out of it. I grew a lot as a human being. My fiction program was comprised of a few lit classes, a sidebar in playwriting, and workshops. Lots of workshops. These had their uses, but we didn’t dig into craft the way I’d imagined we would. This resulted in a lot of conversations about how something “felt” or “seemed” rather than concrete feedback like, “Your pinch point is too soon.” Still, I wrote my longest piece of original fiction so far, my capstone project. I was proud of it (though it was an awkward length, 16k) and I had a great supervising professor. I think he was frustrated by some of the same things I was–funny how there were a lot of students writing about being young 20-somethings in the city–and he loved that I wrote fantasy, something outside my experience. College kept me writing regularly, and got my thinking critically about how to talk about writing.

Then came The Dark Time. I graduated directly into the Great Recession, fall semester and everything. The job I’d wanted disappeared. All jobs disappeared. In the lead-up to that last semester I had thought to myself, “I could spend these last months looking for a job, or I can concentrate on my capstone. I’m going to put my all in my project.” And so there was nothing for me when I graduated. It was a very, very scary time.

But, there was Vijay. He was in the same damn boat. No school, no work. So we made our own routine. We would meet at the local library a few days a week to work on our projects.

But as time wore on, I realized something.

I wasn’t writing. Not like I had in school. Because writing had always been an outlet for me when I was bored with school. Now I was bored all the time. Something had to change.

I needed to be around other writers, I decided. I needed people who got it. And most of all, I needed something like a NaNoWriMo deadline or a write-in to get myself busy. So I went looking for local writer’s groups. I found one on MeetUp.com, the Princeton Writing Group, which met five minutes from my house. I could do that! It didn’t meet very often, so I volunteered. I’d go to the coffee shop every Thursday, come hell or high water, and I would sit and write. Come join me, I told the anonymous mailing list. And over time, they did. Thursdays now see 8-11 people every week. The group is healthy and active. It’s a beautiful thing.

And I write a helluva lot more! I volunteer in the writing community, I lead workshops, I am an active writer. It is a good thing. I have a core group of writing friends who I go to conferences with and swap work with. I have online friends and critique partners. And I am producing work that is worthy of sharing. I’m querying a novel. I blog.

That’s where I am now. My fingers in a lot of pies and my nose to the grindstone. A long way yet to go, but I’ll get there.

Photo: Mattia Merlo‘s Journey

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