I would love to tell you that from the moment I learned the alphabet, I lived to write, that I craved it like I crave a Costco-size package of Dove chocolates. The truth is I tried very hard not to be a writer. Oh, I love words. I love stringing them together to make quirky sentences. I love reading, and I confess that in third grade I started a mystery novel involving girls at a riding camp, a creepy light in the woods, blushing crushes on boys at the camp across the lake, and lots of galloping horses on hillsides. That was the year I also wanted to become a nun and a spy. Some might imply that was a similar career trajectory. It was also the time when I discovered art.
I abandoned words and my novel, though surely it was destined to win a Pulitzer in the “Best Book by an Eight-Year-Old” category, and I dedicated myself to drawing cartoons. Shnickles the duck wreaked havoc in the barnyard and Gertrude the figure skating horse managed repeatedly to embarrass herself with her less than graceful spins and jumps. By the time I got to high school, I was knee-deep in oil paints, charcoal and ink and was more eager to create silk screen prints than to shop for a silk prom dress. Every brushstroke held emotion. Every painting, drawing or print revealed a secret. A story. Visual subtext. Of course, that’s me looking back. At the time, I was just flinging color on canvas.
At the School of Visual Arts, I discovered the perfect career for people who like to make stuff up—advertising. There was only one problem: as hard as I tried, I was a dreadful designer. Though I wouldn’t admit it, what fascinated me most were the concepts, the stories the print ads, radio and TV spots could tell. The product? Oh, yeah, we’ll work that in. After two years freelancing and later on staff at a public relations firm as the industry’s worst layout artist, a former teacher suggested I write some copy and repackage myself. A copywriter was born.
I embraced the writing life. People would ask, “What do you do?”
I’d stand straighter and say, “I’m a writer.”
“Really, you write books?”
Apparently, I wasn’t a real writer. Real writers produced bestsellers. I was more drawn to…well…drama. I dabbled in playwriting and wrote scenes that made Eugene O’Neill’s work look like Neil Simon on laughing gas. I was trying to be deep, people. Isn’t that what a real writer does? Truthfully, it was pretty awful. So I stuck with advertising and learned to write tight, to edit ruthlessly, to tell a story in 30 seconds or in just a few sentences, to think visually, to hear music, sound effects, smell the scents around me, to write under pressure, to work as a team with artists, marketing people, directors, producers, audio engineers and, of course clients. I learned to compromise and adapt, to take criticism and offer advice. I learned to fight for a concept, and sometimes even just one word. I learned to take on the personas of the brands I sold and write in different voices. I learned that advertising agencies throw the best parties and creative people pull the best practical jokes. But that’s a whole other blog!
Eventually, I made my way on the stage first as a back-up singer, then performing improv shows, writing and performing sketch comedy. I learned about character, setting, conflict, scene development, timing, emotion, taking risks and most of all, that story is king. It has its own journey and I was there as part of a group to discover it. When I look back, I notice that every creative endeavor, from grade school cartoons to making up songs on the spot, was all about telling a story.
Still, I didn’t write fiction, until I read about “flash fiction.” A story in a thousand words or fewer? If I could entice someone to buy cookies in one paragraph, this genre just might be my cup of (fill in your favorite brand) tea! I realized as I created characters and allowed their stories to emerge, I was improvising. Only now my fellow actors were on my computer screen. The stories grew. They became a little more layered. I saw patterns develop and themes vibrate under the surface. How exciting. How painful. How funny. I didn’t plan it. It was organic. It was transformative.
Every blank page is waiting to tell a story. My job (and yours, if writing is your passion) is to start typing and trust that something will happen.