Friday, July 22, 2022

When We Knew We Were Writers

Monique's typewriter JE Theriot

 













LUCY BURDETTE: Being a writer is such a huge part of my identity now. But looking back to me as a girl, even though I read a lot, I don’t think it ever occurred to me to consider becoming a writer. In eighth grade, I wrote my first short story featuring a jilted teenager. She runs to the top of a lighthouse to nurse her heartbreak, and finds Micky Dolenz, who consoles her with a kiss. (Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees…remember?) The story was rock-bottom awful and I can’t blame anyone for failing to encourage me…


I went on to become a clinical psychologist, and had a private practice for a number of years. I remember the moment when I first imagined writing. I was obsessed with learning to play golf, because the man I’d fallen for was a golfer (and is now my husband of 30 years.) We’d spent the day in New York City with family and friends. On the train back to Connecticut, I was talking to a dear friend about how difficult it was to get freelance articles related to the psychology of golf published. She asked the question “why not write a mystery?” The light switch was tripped! (This is another version of the Madeleine question we talked about Monday, isn’t it?)


How about you, Reds, when did you have the first definite inkling you’d become a writer?


HALLIE EPHRON: Oh, Lucy, I’d love to read that story. Why a lighthouse?? It’d make a terrific movie.


I was determined NOT to be a writer. See: two screenwriter parents and three successful writing sisters. I was determined to be a teacher: aka NOTAWRITER. And for many years I taught.

One turning point came when I got a call from a freelance writer who wanted to write a piece about me. Why? I asked her. Her answer: “Because you’re the only one who doesn’t write.” Nuts to that, I thought, and began working on a very personal memoir/novel which has never seen the light of day. Writing a mystery came later still.


JENN McKINLAY: I remember it clearly, my dad took my brother and me to see Romancing the Stone (post divorce, he was trying to bond), and I remember snarfing my popcorn, watching Kathleen Turner in her sweet apartment in New York, WRITING FOR A LIVING. I was a book junkie but it had never occurred to me that this was a job, like an actual paying occupation, that a person could choose. It took another six years before I started writing but once the idea took hold (could be that I really just wanted to be Kathleen Turner, but whatever) it was impossible to not picture myself as an author. I was all in!


RHYS BOWEN:  I have written all my life but it was just something I did. I didn’t think of writer as career. In fact I wanted to be a movie star and as a teenager I wrote movie scripts for me to star in. It was only when I was working in the drama department at the BBC that I found myself rewriting plays we were doing in my head. So I wrote my own, took it to the head of drama and was called into his office to say that they liked it and were going to produce it! I’ve been a professional writer ever since! 


DEBORAH CROMBIE: When I was about fourteen I started writing poetry. I was smitten with putting words on paper, with trying to get just the right image and the rhythm of the language. But I didn't really dream of being a WRITER, as a career, especially as I grew up hearing my writer uncle (journalist, novelist, poet) say that no one could make a living at it (although he did.) (Years later, he was enormously encouraging to me.) Then, when I was a couple of years shy of forty, I had an idea for a book and thought I would just give it a try. That was the first Kincaid/James, A SHARE IN DEATH. 



HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I love this question (and MIckey Dolenz),but the question is impossible to answer. I remember as a 10-year-old and thereabouts looking at books in the library and stores--libraries, mostly--and wondering about the people who wrote them.  And I remember wanting to BE Agatha Christie. But did that mean writing books? I'm not sure.  I have to say...the reality might have hit me when I read the book A CIVIL ACTION.

I thought--that's a TV story I covered, and now it's a non-fiction book that reads like a novel. Hmm. I loved In Cold Blood.  And both books seemed so reporter-centric that it nudged my brain a bit. Then one day, I just had a good idea. Boom . I know it was a good idea for a book. No further thought. Except for:  I'm doing this. ( I was 55.)

I was so naive--after 30 years of being a reporter it never crossed my mind that I couldn't do it.

(HA! Right?)

But that turned out to be Prime Time. And et cetera.

Then one day, maybe 7 years ago? I was in New York, and a person came up to me and asked "Are you Hank Philippi Ryan, the writer?"

And I stopped in my tracks.

And there was the moment to own it. "Yes," I said. 

I will never forget that. 


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I was told I was a writer. I was going through a “what do I do with myself now?” funk when, after five years as a stay at home mom, both my kids were in school full time (Youngest was still a pipedream at that point.) I had my JD and bar membership, but I had only become a lawyer so I could afford to buy a car - and Ross had already gotten me a car, so problem solved.


One Sunday my then-priest preached on discerning God’s will. He had a definite therapy-oriented bend, because his advice was to pose your question to four people who knew you well. Hmmm. I didn’t ask Ross, because I knew what he would say - he had paid for my law degree :-) Instead, I asked my mother, my sister, my best friend from high school and my college roommate.


And my mother said, “You should be a writer.”

And my sister said, “You should be a writer.”

And my best friend from high school said, “You should be a writer.”

And my college roommate said, “You should be a writer.”


Reds, I know better than to argue with a sign like that.


Over to you Reds and Red readers. When did you figure out what you were meant to be?

53 comments:

  1. Oh, that’s not too difficult to answer . . . when I was young [grammar school young], I loved school and little kids and the idea of being like my favorite teacher wasn’t much of a leap. It was an idea that never dimmed and I enjoyed every minute in the classroom with those Little Ones . . . .

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    1. that's a lovely story of a perfect calling, Joan!

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    2. I'm with Joan. I decided in kindergarten that I wanted to be a teacher, setting my goal a year higher every year, until high school when I decided English was the most fun. I CAN write, and I definitely nurtured writers, but the secret of publication eludes me. It's fine, though, with so much to read, and reviews to write. <3

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  2. I kind of stumbled into becoming a baker. In my late teens my mom decided to go back to school to become an RN. Between classes, clinical training and working she needed me to take over the cooking. When Christmas rolled around I realized any cookies, fudge, etc. was going to be up to me. Not only did I enjoy it, it seemed that I had an aptitude for it. Before I knew it, I was making birthday cakes and holiday cookies for people we knew. Fast forward more years than I care to admit to and a 600 mile move this is now a more than full-time job.

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    1. Wow--yes, I so agree with Lucy--LOVE to hear more!

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    2. And your skills are AMAZING!!! Definitely, your calling.

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  3. I have told this story before earlier this year. I knew I wanted to a geographer since I was 10 years old. My grade 4 social studies class opened my eyes to exploring many different countries, landscapes, and cultures. Despite high school guidance counselors trying to woo me towards a more respectable and higher-salaried field, I focused my high school courses towards this goal. Newtonbrook Secondary School in North York was also the only high school in Toronto that had a geology program. I had 4 years of classes studying minerals, rocks and physical geography. I left Toronto in 1985 to major in geography in the environmental studies faculty at the University of Waterloo. My first climate change research project was in 1987 and I joined Environment Canada as a climatologist in 1990. And I joined their new climate change research group in 1993 and worked there as a climate change researcher until I changed jobs in 2013 and moved to Ottawa.

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    1. It's amazing how one class or one teacher can send a person in a direction she'll follow her whole life!

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    2. Absolutely! My grade 4 teacher Mrs. Smyth was such a fantastic teacher. I also had an influential English teacher from grades 7-9. Mrs. Shields encouraged my love of reading mystery fiction & helped me get a part-time job in the school library.

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    3. Teachers! Shout out to Miss McCormack (in her stunning red suit) and to Mrs Ramsay, who put on The Shoemaker and the Elves in grade 2 and cast me as Mrs. Shoemaker. Ever since, I've loved performing in one way or another.

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    4. Yay for such great teachers, AMANDA! I should have given a shout-out to my high school geology teacher, Mr. McCammon. I still have my geology pick but I really don't have much opportunity to break off some rock samples in Ottawa.

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  4. I love these origin stories! I wrote stories constantly as a child, and I remember my mother saying, "Edie, you're a good writer." (She was an avid reader of mysteries...) Okay, I thought, I'm a good writer. But I never thought of writing fiction as a career. I went on to many other kinds of writing - journalism in high school and college, academic writing while getting a PhD, freelance feature pieces for local papers, and technical writing.

    But it was my ex-husband who put the bug in my ear when I was home with my sons, farming and teaching childbirth classes, and our younger son went off to kindergarten. Suddenly I had every morning to myself. John said, you like to read mysteries so much, why don't you write one? Zing! My first mystery didn't come out for another 18 years, but that was the start of thinking of myself as a writer and of writing and honing my craft.

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    1. You had several wonderful things come of that marriage--your boys and your writing self!

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  5. On a dreary January day, my youngest off at college, I drank hot cocoa and thought about what would come next during my major birthday year. I had interviewed young women and written scholarship letters of recommendation with some success. "After I read your letter, the candidate leaps off the page, almost as if we'd met her in person."

    Maybe I could do this. I opened my laptop and started writing my first mystery.

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    1. Oh, Margaret - what a great story! I think it's so typical of women that we wait for OTHER PEOPLE to tell us how smart/capable/etc. we are before we truly believe it.

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    2. Wonderful Margaret--we are all late bloomers here at JRW!

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    3. THAT is a terrific story! It showed you could write vividly about real people--so why not fictional ones? Great!

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  6. Tough -- and interesting -- question, Lucy. I started out wanting to be an interpreter at the UN, as I was always good at languages. Then, in university, I turned to translation, but through the student movement and the women's movement I discovered that I had my own things to say and didn't want a career saying what others had. But I ended up in corporate communications, where I spent years doing exactly that: writing what the companies needed saying. Oh well, I also always wrote for newsletters or community newspapers, because I enjoyed writing. Eventually, I found myself teaching technical writing to college students and discovered how creative and rewarding teaching can be. Now, I'm retired but still writing and still teaching, but my own courses on my own terms. And on a good day, I confidently call myself a writer.

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    1. what a smart observation, that you had your own things to say. And you're getting there Amanda!

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    2. AMANDA: You are definitely a writer, and a fine one!

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    3. Oh gosh, thanks to both of you! You are both contributors to my 'writer' journey and I appreciate that so much!

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    4. You are certainly a writer, Amanda! I so enjoy reading your blog!

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    5. Thanks so much, Hank and Deborah!! The JRW blog, all the Reds and the commenters are central to me in my evolving identity as a writer. Truly. Heartfelt thanks to all...

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  7. In "my day,"as I paraphrase things to my kids, woman's choices were very narrow. You could be a lawyer, a nurse, a teacher or a nun(Catholic schools through college). My dad wouldn't pay for nursing school(one of his nieces was a nurse and he didn't talk to her-long story but a very Irish result). Being a lawyer was too many years in colleges. A Nun was a definite non-starter. So that left being a teacher. I double majored in history and math, ending up being a math teacher for grades 6-7 & 8 for the past 25 years. At age 79 am still teaching full time. Have a thing called a divorce and a mortgage!!

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    1. I hope you love teaching! My hat's off to you, teaching math to middle schoolers. Yikes!

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  8. Thank you all for sharing your stories. Amazing! And a prayer of thanks for your former priest's sermon, Julia! Your books have delighted so many, and especially those of us in the 'Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement'.

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  9. Oh, I love this topic, but I'm surprised that no one had the same epiphany as I did. I knew the moment I read Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I was so young that it was the Golden Books edition - complete with black and white sketches - I was probably 6 or 7. I desperately wanted to be Jo so I purloined my mother wedding dress (Jo wore long dresses and somehow I thought they were essential to the muse) dug out a fountain pen and bottle of jet black ink from my parents' stash and proceeded to fill pages with some serious melodrama. I remember lots of exclamation points the kind that looked like balloons over open circles. I think my first story was sixty pages and recounted our ill-fated construction of a Huck Finn raft that sank with all aboard in the Passaic River. We were rescued by the bridge tenders in real life, but in the story, they were knights in armor that rode in on their kitted out white steeds.

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    1. Love the story Kait! I was afraid you were going to say you dumped the ink on the wedding dress...

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    2. Oh, I can just picture that! Wonderful!

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    3. Love this, Kait. I'll bet a lot of us wanted to be Jo. I know I did, too. The only doll I treasured from my childhood was my Madame Alexander Jo.

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  10. After a long absence, I am back. I am taking antibiotics for my sinus infection this week. I have to wait two hours after taking antibiotics before eating. So here I am writing. I love the stories from all of the Jungle Reds about writing. I remember when I was in the fifth grade, I told so many tall tales - LOL that our teacher said that I could write books with all of the stories I made up. ha ha ha. Currently I am taking online writing workshop with 60 fellow aspiring authors from Ellie Alexander. I just started keeping a daily journal this summer. I have been flexing my writing muscles. And I just remembered a Benji the Dog movie when I was a young child. Jane Seymour and Omar Sharif were in the movie. That was the first time I saw the word "novelist". There was a photo of Jane on the cover of the newspaper and the headline said "Novelist". Omar's character was a villain.

    Diana

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    1. Awww.. we hope you feel better soon! xxx

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    2. Dear Hank, Deborah, Lucy, thank you so much! I hope that my comments answered your question in today's post. I am still catching up on the posts that I missed last week and this week.
      xoxo

      Diana

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  11. I knew I was meant to be a nurse since I was five years old. I would daydream about my favorite TV heroes being injured ( anyone remember The Cisco Kid?) and I would patch them up. I was fascinated when my older cousin who was then in Nursing school would visit and i could hold her bandage scissors. So I did become an RN. A life long voracious reader, I decided I also wanted to write - I loved to tell stories. At work many nights as we became tired and every patient was taken care of for the moment my colleagues would say "tell us a story". My stories were mostly true things that had happened to me or that I had heard about. But I am a fiction writer. When I told a friend that I was going to write she joked that I would be one of those writers who published her first book at 100. Ha, ha -close - but not quite!

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    1. I didn't know these things about you Chris! You are going to have to come back to JRW and tell us some stories later this year...

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  12. These stories are great! I've always had two loves--in fifth grade I enjoyed a poem in our reading book so much that I wrote one of my own. A fellow student accused me of copying it from another book. Instead of being insulted, I thought "Wow! Pretty good try!" I still write poetry in my journal. My other love was archaeology, which I discovered in a sixth-grade social studies book--two paragraphs on the archaeological excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. That led to a PhD, although I stuck close to home and my field of expertise was the Eastern Woodlands (North America east of the Mississippi River).

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    1. Fantastic that you knew so early and stuck with it! I was a drifter...

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  13. After three years or so of anthropology courses I very practically came to the conclusion that I was going to have to support myself and switched to accounting. Why accounting? A friend who was a pharmacy major had flunked a required course for the second time, switched her major to accounting, and informed me it was a snap! So deep thought went into this decision! When I was in fourth grrade our teacher told us to write a paragraph about what we would be doing in twenty years. One girl said she'd be married to her boyfriend in our class. (his face was red!) I said I was a detective solving cases in outer space and even named what I was working on. Obviously that didn't come to pass but I follow what NASA is up to and I definitely try to solve cases in the mysteries I read.

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    1. Pat, I decided to go to law school based on the thought that if my then-boyfriend's frat bro friends could do it, I could certainly do it. So... not a lot of consideration of that career.

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  14. Kathy Boone ReelJuly 22, 2022 at 2:59 PM

    I discovered what I was meant to do in life five days ago. The fact that I'm 68 years old is a bit problematic, but I'm thinking about what it might mean. I was watching a preview for Ken Burns' upcoming documentary entitled The U.S. and the Holocaust that will air in three parts September 18-20. I was thrilled that this topic was being addressed by Burns, as I've been deeply interested in it for some time. Then, it hit me. How I would have loved working on something like this, on documentaries uncovering the untold or barely told stories of history. So, if I can figure out how to be a part of such a project at my age and lack of documentary experience, I'll have achieved my newfound career goal.

    I will say that I wish I'd listened more closely to the universe when in second grade my teacher took two stories I'd written to the principal for me to read. I also wish I still had those two stories. However, I enjoy my review writing, so I have that. And, who knows. Maybe I'll take up writing script for a documentary. My family is full of late bloomers, although I admit that I'm stretching that.

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    1. I just found this in Wikipedia, Kathy!

      One of the most shining examples of late bloomers in filmmaking is the Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. Born in 1908, he worked sporadically in filmmaking from the 1930s. He completed his first feature film in 1941 called Aniki-Bobo. Due to circumstances beyond his control (difficulty in financing, having to deal with his family's business), he did not complete his second feature film until 1971 (when he turned 63). 2 years later, he completed his third feature film, Benilde or the Virgin Mother (1973). Five years later, he made his breakthrough film (originally commissioned by Portuguese TV) called Doomed Love. After his critically acclaimed film Francisca (1981), he became a full-time filmmaker (at the age of 73)

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    2. What a great story, Julia. And Kathy, I can certainly see you working on that sort of project. And we would be your cheerleaders!

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    3. Sorry I didn't check back here sooner today, Julia and Debs. That is interesting indeed, Julia, and thank you for finding that. Debs, I need to get started.

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  15. I love these stories. Amazing how you find where you need to be...eventually.

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  16. What amazing stories!

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  17. When I was 2, I would march down to the sidewalk and watch the construction in front of our home. And by 5th grade I was drawing floor plans for fun in school. Pretty clear I should be a civil engineer.

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    1. Amazing, weren't you lucky to know what you loved so early?

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  18. In the beginning of 3rd grade, which I later skipped, I was told to use a word in a sentence, and I got carried away, wrote a paragraph. Teacher shared it with the principal, I was suddenly in 4th grade, and whatever I wrote wound up on the wall. Just didn't figure out how to sell it for another 25 years.

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