The Writing Life: Passion or Circumstance?

Me and Mom early 1980s

I like to think that I’d feel the same lifelong excitement about writing no matter what.  But really, has it been part ability, part nurturing?  What does it truly mean to be surrounded by people who believed in me?

I’ve always known that I’m a writer.  Note that I did not say, “I always I knew I wanted to be a writer.”  Because even as a kid, the excitement of seeing my imagination come to life via pencil and paper made it very clear that there was no question.  No “want to be” about it.  I’ve always been a writer.

My grandparents, who had the nothing-goes-to-waste mentality of many who’ve lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s (okay, they were hoarders), had boxes of discarded business memos from a local corporation.  My aunt worked there as a tour guide.  The idea in bringing this stuff home, I’m sure, was at least partly because the blank flip-side of the memos made ideal scratch paper for us kids to draw on and amuse ourselves.

My start as a writer came at age 5 or 6, when my grandfather stapled multiple sheets of this old memo paper together for me to use to write my own “books.”  The length of each book depended on how many sheets of paper he stapled together.  I don’t remember if the original idea was mine or his.  Possibly mine, since I was the only one of my siblings who did this.  I illustrated every page of my books, too.  The less said about my artwork, the better.

So I had family support right from the start.  One of the proudest moments of my young life was when I received an “A” on a poem I wrote for a school class, and my grandmother accused me of copying it from somewhere.  Okay, so that part of it isn’t particularly supportive, but I was 9 or 10 years old and smart enough to know that if Grandma thought my poem had been written by an adult, I really had something going on.

Grandpa’s stapled memo sheets transitioned to my own stapled sheets of double-sided notebook paper on which I wrote adolescent novella-length stories featuring Sugar Barry, my own version of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden.  This morphed into spiral notebooks.  At age 15, I wrote my first novel in 3 spiral notebooks.

My mom, despite being downtrodden with 5 volatile kids and a husband who would come home from the bar at 3:00 AM to croon “Oh Lonesome Me” accompanied by his guitar, always made time to read my writing.  With that first youthful novel, I naively wrote a scene in which a dying boy’s mother rushes from the hospital room because she couldn’t bear to see him die.  Mom advised me that no mother would leave her dying son’s bedside.

When I was 16, I worried her with knife-wielding, wrist-slicing murder and suicide poems with titles like “Fire and Ice” and “From a Suicide.”  (I never did tell her that she had every reason to be worried.  I suffered from deep bouts of depression and serious emotional disturbance as a teen – all undiagnosed and untreated, because this was the 1970s and society felt I should “just cheer up” and “quit mooning over boys.”  But that’s for another time.)

When I graduated from high school, it was Mom’s idea to take a creative writing class together at a city college.  In my 30s, she was thrilled when I wrote a character based on her into a mystery novel.  She called me excitedly from Boston to talk about the ending and her character’s secret life.

In fact, the more I matured as a writer, the more exasperating it became to show my work to Mom.  In those days before the internet and online writing workshops, I wanted honest feedback.  In Mom’s eyes, everything I wrote was great.  That was no help!  I needed guidance, not a fangirl.


Would my strong sense of knowing myself as a writer be different if I hadn’t had lifelong encouragement and support?  I like to think that, no matter what, the passion of writing would always have burned within me, yada yada.  But what if my grandfather hadn’t stapled together makeshift books for me and praised the results?  What if Mom had been indifferent to my writing, or told me to quit wasting my time?  What if I hadn’t also been an avid reader who knew what to do with the overblown fantasies in my head?   What if I hadn’t been a painfully shy, perpetually bullied introvert who had nowhere else to release my feelings?

Is a writer nurtured, or is it all just a matter of circumstance?  Right time, right place, etc.   I know gifted writers who don’t see themselves as such because they have shockingly little faith in themselves.  (A particular shame, considering there are too many people who think they are talented writers but desperately need to rethink that.  Again, something for another time).  Nature, or lack of nurture?

I’d love to hear from my fellow authors.  What’s your story?  Has the support system around you been vital to your journey?

I had planned on a different topic this week, but my mom has been on my mind.  Eleven years ago on February 7, she died during a massive heart attack.  I miss my biggest fan.