Writer Beginnings

As writers, we’re always looking to improve, to develop, and to grow from one day to the next. We revise our creative works, and in doing so, are hopeful that we are revising our writing selves, too. We spend a lot of time looking to the future of our writing lives, but it can be interesting to look back to where we started. BSR asked some of our creative writing faculty members to share their first creative writing endeavors.

Sheri Reynolds, who teaches Fiction, fell in love with writing at a young age, believing she understood what creative writing entailed:

“I wanted to be a writer before I knew how to read or write. As a preschooler, I’d have my mom staple blank sheets of paper together all along one side to make books. Then I’d ‘write’ — drawing looping lines (which I considered cursive) all the way across and down the page. I was very eager to learn my letters so I could start filling my ‘books’ with real words. I had this idea that first you learned your letters; then you formed them into words; then you moved from printing to cursive. I thought that the very best writers (the kind I wanted to be) didn’t even put spaces between their words and ran everything together. I was so disappointed when I learned that words would always need to be separated from each other.”

Our Non-fiction Darden Chair, Blake Bailey, began by imagining lives for prizes from his cereal box:

“When I was, I think, in fourth grade, I was fanatically attached to the little plastic Freakies® characters you got as a free prize from the cereal box. (The cereal itself was nasty. I liked the plastic characters, period.) We lived in a rural subdivision near Edmond, OK, and during a hard rain the pasture next to our property would become an enchanted city of canals. I would drop a Freakies character—Snorkledorf, say—into a little rapids area of the canal, and away he’d go; then I’d drop another character into the same part of the water and the latter would end up in the same little swirling eddy, thus ‘saving’ Snorkledorf if you follow me. It was great. Anyway I wrote a long illustrated story about this for my fourth grade teacher, Miss Miller, who professed to find it interesting. I’d like to say I never looked back as a writer, but I looked back a lot. I’m looking back still.”

One of our Poetry faculty, Luisa A. Igloria, remembers how the itch to become a writer was introduced by her mother:

“My parents taught me to read when I was three, and by the first grade, I was a voracious reader. One of the books I treasure, that I was given by my mother when I was a month shy of five years old, is MAGNIFICENCE AND OTHER STORIES – a collection by Filipina short story writer (in English) Estrella D. Alfon. We were browsing at the Ato Bookshop in Baguio City, where I grew up; she saw this book and said, I am going to get this for you so you can be a writer like her one day. There is an inscription on the paperback cover of the book: ‘August 20, 1966; To my sweetheart … lovingly, Mommy.’  When I look at the book now or read through it again (I brought it with me when I came to America), I think to myself: What audacity, to give a book like this to a five year old! But I loved it, and I got it. I read and loved all the stories, loved the capacity of literature to drop me down into a fully realized world, where I could feel every heartbreak, fear, and joy with the characters; and marveled at the way language could open the lyric vein, which is important to me in my work as a poet.”

One our Non-fiction faculty, Mike Pearson, remembers his first taste of success through creative writing:

“I wrote stories early on, but my first success was in the 8th grade when Brother Bruce put my (fictionalized) true story in the school showcase. I’m sure my friends thought ‘what a nerd,’ and I probably rolled my eyes as if to say I couldn’t care less about such bookish things, but deep inside that pleasure made me want to be a writer. It was like a first publication. I had gotten away with telling a few artful lies and been praised for it. I was smarter than Orpheus: I never looked back.”

For Tim Seibles, another poet on our faculty, it began with a girl. Like a true poet, he began writing to express his feelings for her:

“I started writing poems because I fell for this girl, Louise Johnson, when I was in high school. Though I imagine, now, that they were terrible poems in many ways, writing these passionate poems to her was my first encounter with The Trance that overtakes someone who is desperately intent on saying something crucial. I remember feeling a sense of having beensomewhere else when I finished writing a poem to her. It surprised me, but pleased me in some odd way. Wanting to feel that sense of departure into words is what made me go to my first creative writing workshop when I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. The year was 1974.”

Janet Peery, one of our Fiction faculty, began by writing poetry. Unfair judgment by a harsh critic darkened her creative writing for a long time:

“One of my first memories of writing came when someone told me I couldn’t. When I was ten I wrote a poem called ‘The Bubbler’ about the drinking fountain in the Milwaukee school I went to. The poem was fifth-grade work, but my teacher liked it and he read it aloud. The class laughed at the right places. Later that year, when my family moved to small-town Kansas, I hoped to please my new teacher, Mary Warren, who had put me in the row for slow children, in part because I rode the Daffy Duck country school bus and in part for the trouble I had memorizing the times tables, and so for a Parents’ Night display I wrote another poem. This one was about going upstairs to bed in the shabby rental farmhouse we were living in, a place called Tamarack Farm, which I loved. I worked on the rhyme scheme, tried for the right words, decorated the margins with crayon drawings. It was beautiful and I turned it in.

“If Mary Warren had known anything about poetry she would have known it was the work of a child. But she didn’t, and she thought it was too good for a girl like me to have written. She called me to her desk to whisper, ‘I’m going to put this on the board with the other children’s work, but I want you to know that I know you didn’t write it.’ About then my mind went blank. I forgot the incident, or maybe I repressed it, and I didn’t write much after that. The memory of Mary Warren’s accusation didn’t return until thirty years later when I started, again, trying to write. Even now, as I tell this memory, it pleases me to look down the long barrel of time and see her standing in the crosshairs—skunk-striped, small, and wrong—and hope I’ve blown her clean away with words by now.”

– Amana Katora

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