What were the signs?

by Alex

More lessons from the convention circuit.   Last week I said I was shocking myself with what was coming out of my mouth as explanation of how I became a writer.    After all, I really didn’t make the conscious decision until well into college, but the signs were there.  So this week I thought it would be fun to ask you guys – What were the early warning signs for YOU?

Here are some of mine:

– Putting on plays in my neighbors’ garage, starting probably at age eight.

– Reading  – oh my God, the reading.   Everywhere.  While walking home from school.   Facing backwards in the family station wagon on road trips, without a trace of motion sickness.   In the closet with a flashlight when I was supposed to be doing chores.  In bed with a flashlight when I was supposed to be asleep.

– Being able to trance out so far into a story that my 4th grade teacher would have to literally take me by the shoulders and shake me to get me back into the classroom.

– Writing all the time, too.   Especially in math class.   Perfected the art of diligently “taking notes”  when really I was just writing everything that was happening around me.

– Performing in plays but being more interested in story beats than in my solos.

– Directing the senior class plan and rewriting around all contingencies – combining characters when people dropped out, doing the choreography myself when the choreographer broke both wrists…

– Seeing my first one-act play performed in college – my characters walked out on stage, live, and I realized that even though it was Berkeley I was never going to have to do heroin.

– Later, all those lectures with all those writers where they said,  “Well, statistically only two of you are ever going to make any kind of living at this…” and just knowing that it would be me.

All those things and more.   But what I found myself recounting last week in all my deluge of public speaking, the pivotal moment in my writing career – the real beginning, I mean – was the summer I spent in Istanbul as an exchange student.   Sixteen year old American girl – with this hair – loose – on the streets.   Well, it was brutal.   I was sexually harassed everywhere I went.   There were numerous abduction attempts.   The political situation was incredibly volatile, too – a dozen college students had been gunned down in a political protest, so all that was in the air.

I realized a world of things that summer, but three things in particular.

1)    No matter how disadvantaged any of us feel, sometimes – parents who don’t understand us, no Hollywood connections, not enough money for college,  whatever – we are still infinitely lucky to live here in the U.S., where it is written into the Declaration of Independence that we have the unalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

2)    No matter how lucky I think I am to be an American, I am infinitely MORE lucky as a woman to have been born in the US.  Because if I’d been born anywhere of 99% of the world, I would be well and truly fucked.

3)    I realized I was going to die.   Maybe that very afternoon.   At sixteen.   It was probably around the next corner, or down that alley.  Now, usually as a privileged American you don’t really GET that you’re going to die until around age 40.  It’s called a mid-life cirsis and it makes you do crazy and risky things and turn your life upside down because you suddenly realize you’re actually going to die.  But I had my midlife crisis at 16, and I decided that if I ever made it back to the States alive (which I did, and miraculously unraped), I would exercise my right to the pursuit of happiness and follow my dream – which at the time I thought was acting but soon realized was writing.

But the impulse to FIND that – came out of that summer.

So those are my moments.    How about you?

13 thoughts on “What were the signs?

  1. billie

    Wow, Alex, intense story about Istanbul.

    Other than that one, many of yours match mine. I have photos of myself as a toddler with a yellow legal pad and blue ballpoint pen in hand, the pages filled with “pretend” writing since I didn’t actually know how to make letters yet. How can someone want/try to be a writer before they know how to write? I don’t know, but I did.

    My mom still has old novels from that era where I crossed out the author’s name on the title pages and “pretended” to write my own in its place.

    I make sense of the world by writing, and I walk around with little stories telling themselves in my head, pretty much all the time. It isn’t something I decided I wanted to be – more like it’s just who I already was when I came.

    And while the desire to get published and get paid for some of this is present, it is actually secondary. I couldn’t decide to stop if I wanted to.

    As usual, great post for a Saturday. I have come to rely on it!!

    Reply
  2. Jeremy James

    In hindsight, the symptoms were obvious:

    1) Reading aloud all the “animal attacks man” stories in FIELD & STREAM magazine to my grandpa at age four.

    2) Writing elaborate poems for my mom on Mother’s Day until at least junior high when that shit wasn’t cool any more.

    3) Lampooning my entire psychologically disordered family in a short story that got passed around the teacher’s lounge when I was in sixth grade.

    4) Winning a science fiction short story contest in Current Science magazine during my sophomore year in high school.

    5) Newspaper staff, yearbook staff, a room full of journals and notebooks…

    6) Sleeping EVERY single day in algebra.

    But despite all that, I started college with a major in Mechanical Engineering and a full scholarship playing football. Amazingly, I was miserable. Couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it had something to do with not writing? So I switched majors…to *psychology*, with a minor in writing.

    Fast forward to crappy day job in social work. The only thing that kept me sane was waking up at 5 AM before work every day and writing some really dark horror stories.

    Naturally, I went back to get a Masters…in *information science & technology*. (Did I mention I’m a slow learner?)

    That took 2.5 years. At the beginning of every semester, I would start work on a new novel to ease the pain of all those matrices and do-while-loops. At mid-term exam time, I’d abandon the book in favor of actually passing my classes. Education, two. Writing, zero.

    Masters degree in hand, dot com bubble just having burst, I naturally moved to Southern California and became…a personal trainer. But this time, I did it with writing firmly in mind. Coaching gave me a flexible schedule with lots of time to write. Problem was, at $100 an hour vs. 0.009 cents per word, it was tempting to just work 16 hours a day getting people in shape instead of write.

    Finally, I went to the Maui Writers Conference, met my wife, and realized for the first time that I never felt more “normal” than I did in a room full of writers. I’d made a decision, which my wife supported: From now on, writing is my #1 priority.

    Reply
  3. JT Ellison

    Alex, as always, beautiful perspective. You know yourself so well as a writer that its stunning.

    I’ve been digging through my memories to see if I have the answer for this. I don’t have a good one, but I’ve got a blog coming Friday examining my path.

    All I know is I wrote up to college, didn’t write for twelve or so years, then came back to it and felt like I’d come home.

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    I like Jeremy and Billie’s reminiscences. My own would be more accurately titled, “How I Knew I Had To Be A Mystery Writer.”

    • My first writing effort, at seven, was called “The True Book of Fairy Tales,” where everyone died “a sad and gruesome death.”

    * I have always been a voracious reader, even picking up a book when stopped at red lights.

    * Ninety nine percent of that reading was mysteries. My library is organized geographically, based on where the murder took place.

    * I still haven’t read Jane Eyre.

    Reply
  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    The signs:

    I1. started writing poetry soon after holding my first crayon. Really.

    2. acted, sang, wrote for class and school newsletters from elementary though high school. Wrote hundreds of songs, too.

    3. argued with multiple choice tests and adored essay questions (still do).

    4. wove magnificent tales for the therapist I had to see after ditching two weeks of school in 5th grade. Truly, my only memory of the “punishment” was telling the man these long, twisty tales based on picture cards he showed me. God, that was fun.

    5. realized as a foreign exchange student in France that keeping a journal would keep ME sane. (France is also where I started reading for pleasure — at age 16; I was a late bloomer.) Same realization all over again when I lived in Hong Kong.

    6. discovered the correlation between my moods and writing — No matter how I felt before I picked up the pen, I felt better afterward.

    I have to write.

    That need would be there no matter what.

    It’s glorious to be able to affirm that while creating a lifelong career.

    Reply
  6. Elaine Flinn

    When did the writing mania hit me? Too many years ago to mention – and then you’d know how old I am.

    But it was my first visit to a library as a child. I saw all those wonderful books and knew I was home.

    Reply
  7. Mike MacLean

    Jesus Alex, how I do I follow a story like that?

    I’ve never been a foreign exchange student in a politically volatile country (what were your parents thinking?).

    My love of reading started with comic books—my first mystery/thrillers. I read for pleasure in jr. high and high school. Got on the school paper, then later took a shot at a journalism degree in college (what else could I do? Writing was the only thing I was marginally good at.). Started questioning my journalism dreams when I realized I only read the paper’s A&E section, maybe followed by the front page. Had my “ah ha” moment after a feature writing teacher had us write some fiction to broaden our skills. I’ve never thanked and or forgiven him for that. Then I took every creative writing class I could (except poetry—despite being half Irish, I just don’t have it in me).

    Ironically, other than in creative writing classes and term papers, I didn’t write in college. I guess I was too busy being educated to have time for much creative exploration.

    Pretty boring story compared to sexual harassment and foreign intrigue.

    I did get hit by a car along the way which helped pay for school. So… that was fun.

    Reply
  8. Elaine Flinn

    When Alex was one of my guests at OTB – she told us about her horrible experience and that’s why I didn’t remark on it today – too scary to contemplate again!

    It goes without saying that we’re all glad she was street smart enough not to fall victim and is here with us now – alive, well, kicking and full of piss and vinegar. Characteristics that make her so loveable. 🙂

    Reply
  9. toni mcgee causey

    Wow, Alex, a stunning story.

    I did the same reading under the sheets, on vacations (you were eerily describing me there). My dad had to get up at 2:30 in the morning to go to work and I’d shut off the light and had to endure the thirty or so minutes it took him to shower and dress and leave the house. I had to wait ’til I heard his truck turn the corner before I could turn on my light again, or he’d see it and I’d be in trouble. I’d read ’til four and get up at six-thirty for school. How I didn’t fall asleep every morning in class was a simple miracle.

    I put on plays (especially on rainy days) and charged admission (made a killing); I was usually the one called on to tell a story whenever a bunch of us were gathered for something, and as soon as I’d finish one, someone would ask for another. I didn’t realize this wasn’t normal until much later.

    I think, though, the crystallizing moment for me was when I wrote a poem about a particularly bad time (though the event was disguised) and a friend wanted a copy. I gave her one, and before I knew what happened, people I didn’t even know were coming up to me, asking for a copy. At first I thought it was some sort of cruel mocking, but they were sincere and several told me privately that reading that had helped them through something. It was like a taser zapping my brain — the idea that I could actually connect to people through writing (when I had been so horribly shy before, so completely inept at social stuff), it was a revelation, and it opened up the world for me.

    And like you said, with writing, I never have to do heroin. I could never give it up.

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  10. Guyot

    I won’t bore everyone with my reading history, or how I wrote “books” back in 5th grade to make my classmates laugh.

    I’ll cut to my second year getting paid to write television. I met Michael Connelly. I’d never read him. Had never heard of him. He was the creator of the show I was working on.

    He told me about his novels. I mentioned that I’d buy an audio version since I had a long commute to work. He gave me unabridged versions of THE BLACK ECHO and THE CONCRETE BLONDE.

    Holy crap.

    See, I never had one of those “I can do better than this” moments so many writers have – you read a bestselling book and think you can do that.

    I read/heard Connelly’s Bosch books and was blown away on so many levels. I wanted to give people that same feeling. I wanted to blow someone away with my words. But I knew I couldn’t.

    I wrote stupid TV stuff. I hadn’t tried prose since the 5th grade. I had cool ideas for TV series (crime stuff – my first love), but I was just a low level hired hand of a writer. A story editor – glad to be employed writing other people’s ideas.

    Then Connelly told me I could do it.

    I’ve thought about it a lot since that day in Santa Monica, and I cannot ever remember a moment in my life BEFORE THAT where someone told me I could do it. Not a parent, not a teacher, not a friend, no one.

    Until Mike Connelly said I could.

    From that moment on, everything changed for me as a writer. I got better. I got out of my own way. I wrote those crime pilots I had in my head… and they got me more work and more money than anything I’ve done in Hollywood.

    I wrote prose. Got three short stories published out of three attempts. And after a rough start that has been documented here, I’m even finally tackling the novel.

    So, regardless of whether I ever find success with prose, I already owe Michael Connelly a huge debt on many levels.

    But he doesn’t know it. I’ll tell him someday, hopefully over a beer and some seafood, looking out at some body of water so blue it hurts your eyes. That’s my dream anyway.

    It’ll probably end up being an email.

    Thanks, Mike.

    Reply
  11. Charlene

    Early warning signs?

    There were so many.

    1) How about the fourth grade in Mrs. VandeKamp’s class when every Monday one student was chosen as a story subject. All 29 other students required to write a half page short story on said student. While all of my classmates groaned at the weekly assignment, I couldn’t wait to start — and usually cranked out three pages per week.

    2) Fast forward to sophomore year in HS when history seemed to repeat itself. English teacher Mr. Bartman required us to write a three-page “chapter” per week for an episodic novel using character or setting guidelines he would scrawl on the board. Based on the five or ten pages I wrote per week, I technically wrote my first “novel” when I was 15. (Probably total crap and never published, of course, but finished!)

    3) Took a hiatus from journalism to nurse my sick husband. While faking my way through a secretarial position, I began what would eventually be my first novel. This could possibly be proof that everything happens for a reson. This very bad job was the impetus for accomplishing one of my life’s goals.

    Crappy job = Finished book!

    Thanks for the opportunity to share.

    Reply
  12. Alex Sokoloff

    Wow, such great stories… I knew that was the question to ask.

    So sorry I wasn’t around for the discussion – I was at the Horrorfind convention in Baltimore this weekend, with hotel internet problems plus the usual convention whirlwind.

    It’s amazing to hear how similar the signs are (Toni and I practically had the same life, obviously!) Jeremy’s story also hit a lot of nerves – it would have been so easy for me to go the psych/science route, too – it was only that summer in Istanbul that woke me up.

    (Mike – my parents, of course, had no idea what I was going through – it didn’t occur to me to tell them. My father grew up in a politically volatile country and my mother told me years later that she only let me go because she thought I’d run away from home if she didn’t. I was floored. Even at that age I knew that running away = prostitution.)

    Charlene, Mrs. Vandekamp’s short story assignment is FASCINATING.There’s an element of sadism there – fourth graders writing stories about each other? Very dicey…

    Thanks a million for sharing, everyone… I’m going to be rereading and aavoring all day.

    Reply

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