once upon a time

The #SixteensBlogAbout topic for the month of February is how and why we started writing, but I can't answer that question. I don't remember how or why I started writing. I was only a kid and it probably wasn't a terribly momentous occasion. I do, however, remember the first story I wrote. It was about alligators with pink eyes who lived in caves in the hills. At twilight their eyes would glow. The narrative was only a few sentences long and somewhat lacking in plot or character development, but I remember the setting being very important: those dark hills, those shadowy caves.

I like to think I've improved as a writer a bit in the intervening decades, although I will admit that I still secretly believe that properly communicating the ominous feel of dark hills and shadowy caves is often more important than pesky little things like plot. I wrote that story about the pink-eyed alligators when I was about seven. I don't remember why. Why does a seven-year-old do anything? My father read to me and my sisters all the time, and he wrote his own stories, mostly dark fairy tale retellings in which nothing ever ended well for anybody, especially not frogs, so the possibility of putting words to page was always there.

I don't think it's that important, what I was thinking when I was seven. What is important is that once I started writing down my glowing pink-eyed alligators, I never stopped.


I still have nearly all of the stories I wrote as a child and teenager. They are amazingly bad. I love them for how bad they are. Mostly they consist of strange scary things happening right before people die horribly, which is exactly the kind of story I'm still writing nearly thirty years later, so I guess it's true that you ought to start as you wish to go on.

I have piles of short stories from my middle and high school years. I wrote them in Wordstar on our old Sanyo computer and saved them on 5 1/4" floppy disks; I wrote them on my mother's electric typewriter where I had to XXXXX out the parts I wanted to change; I wrote them in journals and notebooks and on yellow legal pads. I remember carefully copying and converting dozens of files at the student computer lab at Iowa State University during a high school summer internship because I realized both the type of storage and the file format were going obsolete, then doing it again in my basement office in the Geology Department at Brown, and again in the geophysics grad student office at CU long after everybody else had left for the night.

They're all safely stashed on external hard drives now. It used to take me hours to copy all of the files; now it only takes a few seconds. (At no point during any of this was I studying writing or literature at any of those schools. I was studying, in order: tree fungus epidemics, sedimentation rates in the South China Sea, Indian earthquakes and Tibetan tectonics.)

In that mess of files and notebooks there's a story about a young woman who dies after seeing a witch's ghost dancing in the rain. There's another about miners who die after hearing tommy-knockers in the dark. A man who dies trying to rescue his bride from Poseidon. A family in the Alaskan wilderness whose mysterious cat doesn't so much die as melt into the snow. There's a story about a small mountain town terrorized by a wolf-like creature in which a good 75% of the word count is unnecessary adjectives, which is only halfway funny because I still write like that and probably won't ever stop.

I went through a period of, oh, about ten years in which I never gave any characters names at all. There are multiple stories about nameless people having chance meetings with nameless hitchhikers on dark, empty highways, or lying in the dark contemplating the futility of existence while the walls of drafty old houses oppress them. Nobody dies in those stories, but everybody feels vaguely unsatisfied and confused about the lack of direction in their lives. (And, presumably, about their lack of names.)

When I was in high school I stepped up my game and wrote a novel. It's a mystery about teenage girl investigating the murder of her sister's boyfriend. It features both a swimming pool and a pond stained completely red with blood, a mysterious boy who lives in the woods and communicates by quoting entire Romantic poems and choice lines from Dante's Inferno, threatening messages composed in verse, a curmudgeonly old man who turns out to be a wise friend, excessively lengthy passages of italicized inner monologues, and a shocking twist ending wherein we learn the waifish older sister who is receiving ominous death threats has been sending them to herself because she was the one who murdered her boyfriend in the first place. The first paragraph has three colons and four semicolons.

It's glorious, and it's gloriously terrible. It's like peeling back the layers of my fifteen-year-old brain and having a look at what was squirming inside. I know there are stories I've lost or misplaced over the years, but I never got the urge to throw any of it away. It never occurred to me. I've been lugging it from house to dorm to apartment for my entire life. I guess I'll keep on lugging it around. I like to have them; it reminds me that nothing worth creating comes from nowhere. And there are some things in there I might want to repurpose in the future. Ideas and images and flashes of story don't go away or become less tantalizing just because they're lodged in a scribbly teen angst journal or a thrice-or-more-converted computer file that began life back in the dark ages on a DOS machine in my father's basement.

The pink-eyed alligators aren't in there. That story went the way of the dinosaurs and the 5 1/4" floppy disk, lost forever to the prehistoric past. I'm a little sad about that. I'm sure it was great.