Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Writer’s Education, Part 1


I didn’t grow up aching to write. I didn’t know I would be a writer until I was out of college. So it follows that I didn’t spend my college years writing a first novel that would become a brilliant senior thesis, landing me an agent before graduation and a lucrative book deal before deciding which MFA program to grace with my talent, insight, and humility. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

I went to school for cinema. I’ve always loved movies and wanted to learn everything about them. I took screenwriting courses as an underclassman, but never considered expanding writing studies beyond an English Composition 101 writing class. So I felt thoroughly under prepared when I recognized that, for better or worse, I would live out the rest of my adult life as a writer.

A revelatory combustion occurred on a snowy February afternoon. I was a few months out of college, living with cousins in Easton, Connecticut. Relations nice enough to let me crash in the spare bedroom for twenty bucks a week. I wasn’t working, so I had some time on my hands. Officially I was still finishing up my senior thesis film, but that certainly wasn’t paying the rent. On a sunny snow-brilliant Sunday afternoon while my host family sat in the next room doing crosswords and watching a movie, I set out my Smith-Corona typewriter on a TV dinner table, pulled up a folding chair, and started pounding away. It was like my fingers were taking dictation from some hot primal force.

I wrote 30 pages. It was a cacophony of ink on paper, not to mention an extreme display of productivity I’ve never equaled. When finally I finished, fingers cramped, mojo spent and sleeping in a corner, I stepped out of my room into the stunned faces of my cousins. I figured they were pissed that I had made such a racket on their day of rest. But cousin Tempe said, “Wow, what are you working on in there? You typed all afternoon.” I looked at the clock on the VCR. Three hours had passed so quickly for me that I hadn’t noticed it getting dark. “I don’t know,” I said.

Those 30 pages turned out to be the beginning of a novel. Another 150 or so joined them on the pile until I ran out of story. That novel begot another, basically a rewrite of the first one that I was able to take to the end, even after I’d run out of story. And from that novel came, finally, another very similar novel, sharing the same themes, locations, and many of the same characters. If you look at novels in terms of time, I spent about ten years on the process of writing one novel.


For years after that cold February afternoon when I made such a racket and became a questionable commodity in my cousin’s eyes, I wondered if I was a writer. Even though I continued to write. I didn’t have the writing background. I hadn’t had the right education. I had spent my college years parsing movies reel-by-reel, frame-by-frame. I wasn’t writing story after novel after poem. So what made me think I could be a writer? How naive. How utterly self-centered to think that anybody cared what I thought about or wrote.

Aside from not majoring in creative writing or choosing to pursue an MFA, one of the biggest hurdles to clear was my cruddy grammar skills. I had none. I must have been asleep in the right high school English class because I couldn’t have told you the difference between a dangling participle and pluperfect tense. Plus, my spelling was atrocious. My drafts were riddled with grammatical blunders, syntactic nightmares, and tense problems. Overall, I was an English teacher’s heart attack in a handy human package. So how did I continue writing without getting totally disheartened?

6 comments:

Cynthia Sherrick said...

I love this story of your writing journey! I can't wait to read more. :)

Liz's Mom said...

Oh, you are a writer, I know for sure since I have been shown some of your work.

Everything you write keeps me interested and wanting to read more.

This blog post is great!

Muriel said...

Very interesting! That's the first time I've heard about your first writing experience. Where was the photo taken of you at about ten years old???? from Muriel (better known as Dell's Mom

Robin Smith-Johnson said...

Hi Dell,
I love this story about your very first real round of writing (at Tempe's house no less). I also have never seen this pic. of you as a little boy. Where is this? I can't place the house. Love, Robin

Liz (made in lowell) said...

Fantastic post, so interesting! Can't wait to see what happened next...

Dell Smith said...

Thanks for reading. Part deux is in the works. Now, that picture. That was taken in Florida on one of our (my) first trips down there. I remember took a week off from school and my teachers loaded me up with homework. So, that's why I look like I'm ready to jump out a window. Homework on vacation. I think this was on Siesta Key. Mom, correct me if I'm wrong.