The first time I can remember wanting to write a book was when I was in second or third grade. In fact, I did determine to write a book– and so began copying down one word for word from a book about rocks (I was fascinated by rocks). It didn’t occur to me that this was plagiarism. 🙂
Soon after that, my friend Megan and I decided to write a series (Nothing like diving right in, eh? Straight from plagiarism to a full-blown series!) about a family of seven or eight kids we had made up. We figured out all sorts of details about these kids (their last name was Poinonia), including what their personalities were like, their favorite foods, their ages and grades. I remember there was a troublemaker named Otis. There was also an older brother named Billy. Other than that, I have no recollection. After all this planning, I think I only ended up writing one story about them– in particular, about Billy, who fell in love with Kate. Then they had to leave for college and their love was tested– they didn’t know how to find one another (it didn’t occur to me that you could tell your boyfriend/girlfriend where you were headed). There was an epic fight for Kate’s love– and even a wedding! I illustrated this book too. Yup.
In fourth grade, I wrote a story about the Easter bunny. It was for school, and I wrote waaaaaaaay more pages than I needed. I loved that story.
In fifth, I wrote my first poem. The first simile I ever remember using was about running around like a chicken with its head cut off. I’m glad I’ve gotten more profound, less cliched.
In sixth grade, I asked my teacher if we could start a class newspaper. I was the editor-in-chief, and I entered an “article” I wrote for the paper into a young author’s conference contest, and I won. When I attended this day-long conference, surrounded by other 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds, I had my first bout of writer envy. In one of my sessions, we got a writing prompt, and when some of the kids read their freewriting aloud, I knew it was better than mine.
In junior high, I wrote my first “book.” It was about best-friends-turned-competitors Mariah and Kayy, both trying to get the one open spot on their track team. When one of them tripped during the big race, though, the other turned around and helped her friend to the finish line. I thought it was pretty powerful. Ha!
In early high school, I wrote my second and third “books” (I put them in quotation marks because they were really more like short stories, but the point was that they were complete— I started so many more things than I finished). My second book was a thriller about a jealous best friend who faked her friend’s boyfriend’s suicide (did you follow that?). But my third, my magnum opus, was about a girl dying of emphysema (Do people die from emphysema? My character did.). It was the best thing I had ever written in my life up until that point, and I was terribly proud of it. I stayed up late one night, probably till about 2 AM, finishing that story, tears streaming down my face. I had this strange, never-again-replicated out-of-body experience while writing that. It was like I was floating above myself, watching myself type out Kelli’s heart-wrenching deathbed scene. I felt like a real writer after that.
My junior year, I took a creative writing class, and that teacher gave me great confidence in my writing, telling me to “never stop.” After a conversation with her, I decided I’d be an English major in college.
Oh college. By this time, I considered myself a poet and was focusing more on that than on any kind of fiction. My poetry teacher took me aside freshman year of college to make sure that she wasn’t “killing my writer soul.” I assured her that I was surviving just fine. Funny to think back on it– I still was a pretty poor writer at the time. I had been (probably) the best writer in my grade at my tiny high school, but now I was in a bigger pond– ALL the writing majors had been the best writers at their high schools. I struggled but got good grades (thank God for the chance to revise my final portfolios!).
I remember my second year of college, I was in a fiction-writing class, and I loved my story idea– wrote and wrote and wrote and was thrilled with my many-pages-long result. In my critique group, there was a girl who had written a short, two-page story that was far more poignant and beautiful than mine. More writer envy.
I took a writing of young adult literature class and really floundered in it. Who knew this would later be where I’d return and find myself at home? (My professor kept saying that my images were “too erotic”– I was like, “HUH?? They’re not even KISSING.” Apparently the shock of my character’s red hair against her white comforter was titillating.)
My senior project for college turned out pretty well– four poems and a short memoir piece. I worked my butt off on those five pieces, and I am proud of them (I’ve even posted some of them on my blog), and after my senior project was done, I had nothing left to give.
For three years.
Yes, it’s true. I took a three-year hiatus from writing after college graduation. I don’t regret it either. I filled that time with reading tons of amazing books. I imagined I would write again, and I was smart enough to realize that reading would be planting seeds in me for future writing. (I’m glad I knew that– I’m not entirely sure how I did, but I was very aware that I was sowing seed for later harvesting.)
Meanwhile, my OCD (still undiagnosed) went out of control. I briefly lost touch with reality and began to seek help and a diagnosis (yay!), and I couldn’t help but chicken-scratch my thoughts and cries for help in those terrifying months. Eventually, I began to collect all those pieces together, imagining that I could write a book about my OCD experience.
I had intended for it to be full of stories and poems from my real life, but my scrupulosity was so extreme in those days that I was terrified to misquote someone.
So I changed it to fiction.
Around this time, my friend Anna gave me The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and it was after this that my writing finally started to improve. Thank you, Liesel, Rudy, and Max! (And Anna!)
I spent four years on that book about OCD, and then after that, I read The Fault in Our Stars and decided I wanted to try young adult fiction. I spent 19 months working on my first YA novel, and that brings us to today …
where I wait,
dreaming of a book deal,
and reflecting on all the touchstones that add up to Jackie Lea Sommers, the novelist.