Ever wonder why it is that super heroes get an “Origin” but regular people just seem to have a boring old “Biography”? I don’t think that’s fair and so I’m not going to post my biography – I’m going to post my origin even though I have no super powers (that I have discovered yet!).
No matter who we are or what our career or passion, all of us have a sequence of key events in our lives that define who we are and who we will be in the future. These don’t need to be huge dramatic events – most of us can’t recall that car chase in our past that made us decide to get out of the secret agent business. The types of events that contribute to our origin can be simple, quick, and quiet or they can be enormous and earth-shattering. You might be a painter and one of your origin memories is that time you sat on the beach for the world’s most amazing sunset and thought, “I need to paint that.”
For me, it started really early. I was very young and I was bored one day and, as usual, expected my mother to be able to supply me with an infinite list of exciting things to do. Finally, after about 10 minutes of me badgering her for ideas, she got mad and said something like, “I don’t care, go write a story or something!”. And so I did, and I liked it. She would come to regret that decision as I nearly drove her insane with the constant clattering and smashing of keys on her old-school hammer-and-ribbon typewriter.
The next memory that comes to mind is me being in a creative writing class in summer school when I was probably no more than 12 or 13. There was a contest at the end of the semester and three summers in a row my stories were in the top 3. I liked that, but not for the reason you might think. I remember thinking how awesome it was that a story I’d written was entertaining enough to an adult that they read it from start to finish. I didn’t even care that I’d won a contest – the feeling that I got when I realized that words I’d written were so interesting someone was able to get through all 10 or 15 pages was a feeling that I will never lose and will always crave.
Next was in high school. High School is a mix of horrible memories and decent memories. There are parts of that period of my life I would love to have erased from my memory completely, and other parts I wish I could relive over and over again. It was near the end of my Ancient and Medeival history class and we had to do research papers. I remember there were 3 or 4 pages of possible topics and all of them bored me to tears. Buried deep among the awful topics was one that caught my eye: Write a narrative from the perspective of Rafael’s apprentice. I spent hours and hours building index cards doing research and even had my mother take me up to the UMass library. I had stacks of notecards filled with facts about Rafael’s life. When I was done, I’d written a narrative from the perspective of an apprenticate of Rafael’s. This apprentice was on his way to Rafael’s funeral and, as he walked from his home to the funeral service, he mused about his surroundings and about the life of the man who had taught him so much – I’d managed to work each of the facts on my cards into that story. The Ancient and Medieval history teacher told me that it was one of the best papers he’d ever read. That moment marks another point in time where my brain started to accept the inevitable truth of me being a writer. It wasn’t because I got a good grade or even because the teacher thought the paper was great… It was a defining moment because the other students in the class who heard that paper read aloud enjoyed the narrative. They sat quietly and listened the whole time it was being read and they truly enjoyed the story. Them learning a bit about Rafael was just a bonus. To me, it was all about the story, and it always will be.
There are dozens of little memories of me getting these euphoric feelings as I was able to convert a scene from the goo floating around in my head to something on paper (a process that is far more difficult than people give writers credit for). Finally, I remember being in college and skipping a software engineering class because I was almost finished with my 750 page fantasy book. I’m pretty sure that book would be considered trash by modern writing standards, but that’s not the point. The reason that memory is part of the origin of who I am is because I felt that it was more important to get the story out of my head than to pass a college class. At that moment, making sure that my characters had the right closure to their adventures was more important to me than a career in programming; more important than academic or financial success. At that moment, there was only the story, and nothing else. That’s when I started realizing that I was a writer.
Granted, I’m a writer who is also a damned good architect and programmer and somewhere after college I lost the way. I let the self-doubt, the loathing, and the fear take hold of me and I gave up. Writing computer software was easy and writing fiction was hard. Damn hard. And it was intimidating. I ignored all the stories floating around in my head, buzzing at me like gnats, for years and years until one day I woke up and said to myself:
“Why didn’t I see this before? I’m not a programmer who can write stories… I’m a writer who creates software to pay the bills.”
It seems like a simple statement of fact, but it took me 20 years of pretending to be a software engineer who can write to realize who I really am.