My Writing Life: 1

It’s interesting for me to consider where my writing life began. An image from my very early years comes to me: I’m holding a blue crayon and I’m “writing” all across the pages of a picture book. By the time I got to first grade I realized that was not the way to treat a book. I also realized that I hadn’t been writing — I had been scribbling lines on paper.

I was first conscious that I enjoyed writing — and that I might grow up to become a writer — when I was eleven years old and wrote a poem, “I Want a Horse.” It was a four-line poem in iambic tetrameter (I didn’t know that then) with a rhyme scheme of abcb. I still remember the poem to this day, and I’m kind of amazed that I chose to have two of the four lines not rhyme. Did I do that by myself? Or was I modeling the quatrain on poems I had heard? I suspect the latter, but I have no way of knowing..

My poem, “I Want a Horse,” stayed in my mind for so many years that, a few decades after I wrote it, I used it (exactly as I had written it) in one of the educational workbooks I’ve written. So the poem I wrote at the age of eleven was published decades later.

For who knows what reasons, after I wrote the horse poem I stopped writing poetry. For a long, long time. I finally took it up again in the early 2000s, and for several years I wrote just about everything in free verse, including my book Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

I published my first book of poetry, Crossing the Skyway: Poems, in 2013. Interestingly, one of the poems in the book is about a horse, and a few years after the book was published I blogged about the horse poem. Writers, as you can tell, use things over and over, but in a different way each time. 

The first time I was published I was sixteen years old, and publication came from the encouragement of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. One of our in-class assignments was to write a personal-experience piece. I wrote about why I hate onions. My teacher strongly encouraged me to send the piece to the local newspaper. I did, and they published it. “Wow!” I thought. “Getting published is easy!”

Of course, getting published is not easy, and I learned that soon enough when I began writing books.

By the time I was in college I was a writer of poetry (only one poem, true), nonfiction (essays, personal experiences, humor, research papers, etc), and fiction. Although I suspect I wrote fiction in grade school and junior high, I don’t remember any of it. The first piece of fiction I remember writing came in tenth grade, when I wrote a short story about a Pony Express rider (horses again!). I remember really liking my own story. Then, several years later, when in college, I researched the Pony Express for some reason and learned that just about every detail I had made up in the story was wrong. Wrong!

Thank goodness that story was never published: it would be too embarrassing to have readers point out the inaccuracies. One thing the experience taught me is this: research fiction before you write it! That’s something I’ve done ever since.

Something else embarrassed me about my high school Pony Express story, and that was the name I gave the hero. Ashley Marathon. It sounded like a such a wonderful name to me when I was sixteen years old. But just a few years later, I began to realize that Ashley (Gone with the Wind notwithstanding) was an unlikely name for a mid-19th century young man to have. Not impossible, but definitely unlikely. The same was even more true of Marathon.

Ever since writing that Pony Express story I have paid careful attention to character names, both first and last. I use three or four different name sources each time I write fiction: Census Bureau information on common first names in each decade, as well as two excellent reference books on the history of last names in the US. 

And I enjoy knowing that a mistake I made early in my writing, when I was sixteen years old, ended up teaching me to research so that I could make stories more realistic.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent free verse book is not about a horse. Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes is about the most famous resident of the Brookfield Zoo.