A different kind of article: What makes a writer a writer?

Did you know I’ve been a writer since the third grade?


No joke.


I was fortunate enough to experience a distinct and significant turning point marking my conversion from being just another geeky child who carefully pressed pencil to lined paper and traced letters while struggling to learn the difference between verbs and adjectives, to being a writer. I quite literally crossed the threshold from being a run-of-the-mill paragraph constructor to being an actual accomplished journalist, and once doing so, there was no looking back. From that moment forward, I knew I had what it would take to be a prolific and impacting author one day.


The year was 1982 and Halloween loomed on the calendar as the trees began shedding their foliage and the air shifted towards being colder and brisker during my short early morning walk to the bus stop. I was an 8-year-old student at Grundy Avenue Elementary school. I’d already been pegged as a gifted student, which meant I was afforded advanced educational opportunities including progressive language arts assignments (e.g. I attending reading group with the fourth graders), exceptional extracurricular activities (e.g. I spent a lot of time in the library), and the classification of being “smart” (e.g. I was a nerd). In practicality, being gifted translated primarily into being bored with the basics of the banal curriculum and me constantly searching for newer and more entertaining ways to finish my classwork. I also really, really liked it when the teacher said I did a good job.


It was the start of a new marking period, and we were commencing an integrative creative writing model into our learning regimen. The assignment was to compose a scary (but not too scary) story with a happy ending. The message I was supposed to transfer, in prose, was that good things come from something that at first glance, might not seem so virtuous on the surface.


As an adult, looking back on this particular task, I cringe with anxiety. I have enough life experience to know when things are bad in the first place, they are probably all-around bad, and you have little chance of pulling out something good from it. As a naïve and crowd-pleasing child, I faced my duty with the assured confidence only those who have no concept of failure can possess (e.g. the very young) and set forth to create my story.


I wrote a fictitious tale where the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the long and twisty underground concrete and steel structure that connects Long Island (where I grew up) to New York City, developed some form of irreparable damage, resulting in the structure splitting directly in half and breaking apart. As a consequence, Long Island lost its attachment to the mainland, and began floating away, towards the Atlantic Ocean. Panic ensued and the doom of the island and all of its’ inhabitants seemed imminent.


Amidst the terror, the protagonist of my story, a simple schoolgirl, who’d just happened to complete a unit of studying magnets at her school, brainstormed an idea to have everyone on Long Island donate all of their metallic belongings and bring them towards the Westernmost tip of the island. Simultaneously, she urged all of the residents of New York City to gather their resources and built the world’s largest magnet. Her goal was to have the magnet attract the metal, and bring the island back towards the city. At first, people dismissed her idea as too simplistic and childish to be successful.   But when all other attempts at stopping the island from floating away failed to be helpful, the people reluctantly agreed to her plan.


As the laws of physics would dictate, Long Island slowly, but surely floated back towards New York. The tunnel was repaired, and everyone was saved!


I stood motionless, barely able to control my breathing, as my teacher silently read the rough draft of my story without comment. I distinctly remember being unable to garner any sense of emotion from her stony facade as her eyes darted rapidly across the page and she digested my juvenile ramblings. I anxiously awaited her opinion with equal parts enthusiasm and fear.


Without missing a step, she finished the story, placed it down on my desk, and whispered into my ear, “You are going to be a writer someday.”


Those simple words, which I am sure were so fleetingly stated, and not anything my teacher would ever remember uttering, are to this day, indelibly etched into the synapses of my gray matter.


Of anything she could have said at that time, she chose to tell me I possessed the ability to write. Her ability to complement my talent is something I carry with me to this day. She could have chosen to say, “good job”, or “nice try.” Those mediocre phrases would likely have slipped through my ears and mind as quickly as they were uttered. The fact she chose to not only compliment my work, but also to be so affirmative in her declaration, instilled within me a remarkable sense of confidence and resolve. Even as a child, I knew I needed to commit to putting my pencil to paper and find a way to get all of my complicated ideas down, because I was a writer.


I possess no formal training in the finer nuances of grammar, character development, or editing.   I have a hard time remembering when to use “who” or “whom.” I have to trust my spell check more times than I would like to admit. I suffer from chronic changes in tense and a passive voice that is so passive; I miss picking up on it from time to time. Each of these, among dozens of other inadequacies, suggests I am anything but a “real” writer.


Despite innumerable shortcomings that make me a terrible writer, I’ve never forgotten what I was told way back in the third grade, and I’ve worked very hard to make sure I could believe in myself the same way my teacher believed in me. Experience affords me the understanding of three specific character traits I possess that have enabled me to continue writing, no matter what the negative voices (who are equally as loud inside my head as they are outside out my brain) say.


I have a never-ending stream of consciousness and inner dialogue that I am compelled to record in written words. Whether grabbing my journal so I can write down a few remarkable terms or phrases I’ve thought about or heard, or scribbling out randomly connected ideas and mind scenes, or typing out longer paragraphs that eventually mesh into stories, I must document the words that scatter throughout my brain, or I am discontent.


I am, and always have been, an avid reader. I read constantly – books, journal articles, magazines, and yes, even blogs. Readers make the best writers because they tend to absorb it all. They learn what works and what doesn’t, and how to nurture their own voice through the process of reading other people’s work. Reading gives me infinite ideas about things to write about.


I have an insatiable and all-knowing inner critic who forces me to read, re-read, and re-re-read my own writing with tedious attention to detail. I am constantly attempting to speak my mind more efficiently and more significantly. I want to write better and I say my piece in the best possible way. I’m never quite satisfied I’m capable of achieving this goal. The critic makes my eyes hurt and makes me see things that aren’t there and pass over those that are.   I love/hate this critic with all of my soul.


It’s difficult to not feel resentful towards those who are more successful at writing than I am because it’s a rather random process who gains notoriety and who falls behind. Still, it’s hard not to taste sour grapes when I witness vapid celebrities publishing books or authoring blogs that do little other than chronicle their mundane daily activities. And it’s exceptionally challenging to keep up with my writing when I feel my voice just isn’t being heard.


Maybe the answer isn’t to quantitate the followers or the funding, but rather to truly believe in the significance of the work I’m putting out there, and to ensure I really believe I believe in everything I say.


I’ve been a writer long before the word “Blogger” made it’s way into the dictionary and I’ll be a writer long after computers become so obsolete, all we need to do is think of stories in our heads and they’ll be published. I know my current writing success is based partly on talent, partly on luck, and partly on the good fortune of having a third grade teacher who inspired me to push my creative voice to it’s maximum decibel, regardless of those people who tell me I’ll never be any good at doing so.


Maybe if I could just figure out how to recapture even just a portion of the hubris and wonder I possessed as an 8-year-old I could remember the essential fact that at the center of it all, I’m a writer. And I’ve always been one.

How about you?

What inspired you to become a writer?


(And I own the rights to the story about Long Island floating away… so don’t go copying my idea! )

2 thoughts on “A different kind of article: What makes a writer a writer?

  1. Elliott Garber says:

    Really enjoyed these reflections. I had a similar experience with an affirming teacher, but my story was a medieval murder mystery in the sixth grade. Rather than just a grade written at the top of the story, my teacher wrote out a whole paragraph about how she thought I had real potential and would one day become a famous author. I’m not there yet, of course, but I do keep the dream alive and love hearing about others who are following along the same journey.


  2. jintiledvm says:

    Elliott – so great to share having inspiring teachers. It reminds me of the important role I play in the careers of vet students, interns, and residents that I interact with each day. And makes me feel so humble (ok – inadequate…) in my ability to pass on that inspiration.


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