I get asked this question, or some form of it, often. It seems to be one of the “stock” interview questions people have. The dark reaches of my mind think colleges or just their professors slip a few bucks to interviewers hoping they will steer the answer towards “I enrolled in Program X and University Y. Without Professor Smith I would never have become a writer.” Perhaps it is because I have stumbled into some interviews where writers said something like that which makes the dark side suspect such things? Who knows? I do know that it is rather boring and typically one of the questions which never makes it into the printed interview. Why? Because the boring question doesn’t get an answer with “sales potential.”
So, knowing full well I am alienating every institution of higher learning, I will once again provide my answer. Not only will it offend everyone trying to sell you a magic bullet for becoming a rich and famous writer, it will strike fear into the hearts of parents around the world.
We didn’t have computers and video games when I was a child. We barely had television. Just a handful of channels on black & white. If you made your kids watch black & white television today you would probably be brought up on some kind of charges.
One of my grandmothers lived in the other house on our farm. She had a sister who visited from time to time. They both loved to write letters and insisted I write letters as soon as I could make the crudest looking words with a pen. They also liked to tell little stories of their childhood in the letters and insisted I do the same. None of this “How are you? I am fine.” stuff for them. I would be admonished in a grandmotherly way if I hadn’t written anyone within the past couple of weeks. Yes, in rural America we lived and died via the Post Office. The admonishment mostly consisted of them reminding me of how happy I was when I got a card or letter in the mail. Back then birthday cards could even have money in them so it was a double treat! So committed to me developing at least an appreciation for correspondence was my grandmother that she would walk to the end of the lane and put my birthday card in the mailbox instead of making the much shorter walk to our house or phoning and telling me to come get it.
Why am I a writer? Because grandmothers, aunts and cousins all insisted that I write them as a child. Not just a few lines scribbled on a page, but the story of my life at that time as I saw it. Whenever a few sheep got out of the pasture they wanted to hear about the ordeal we went through getting them back in. If our dog got doused by a skunk they wanted the details of how we suffered. For those of you who have never lived rural or owned a dog which got doused by a skunk, just let me say it is at least a hundred if not a thousand times worse that what you smell when they spray a passing car. The dogs always feel a sudden need for love and cuddling afterwards, not just immediately, but until the smell is gone. Those tricks with tomato juice and special dog shampoo you hear about, they are about as effective as trying to unload a truck load of sand with a teaspoon. In the end, skunk has to wear off and the dogs never learn.
I’m a writer because I had to be. If I wanted to have communication with a relative I had to put a stamp on an envelop. If you want to know why most new writers seem to suck take a good look around. Video games, hundred word or less “flash fiction,” and the 140 character Twitter have all attempted to dumb down human communication to the point of it losing all appeal. Parents today have a better chance of hitting a state lottery than they do raising a child which can actually write. The ability to craft a yarn out of the insignificant trials of life starts as a child, putting pen to paper then stamping the envelop.