Lea Wait, here, thinking about the question, “When did you start to write?” It’s a question writers are often asked, but it’s not easy to answer.
Does the questioner really mean “When did you start writing fiction? or “When did you start publishing?” or “Have you always wanted to write?”
I always answer that I decided to be a writer when I was in second grade, just beginning to feel a mastery of words that allowed me to read by myself. I wanted to create stories; to someday have my name on a book shelved with all those other wonderful books in the library. That seemed an impossible dream, so I never told anyone about it. But it never left me.
In the New Jersey suburb where I attended school, students in grades one through six had an hour off for lunch. There was no school cafeteria, so we all walked (or were picked up and driven) home. Thinking back, it must have been a real pain for families (usually our mothers) to always be available for one hour in the middle of each school day. But at the time, no one questioned it, so far as I knew. It was just the way it was, the way all little girls had to wear dresses to school and boys had to wear slacks and shirts.
My home was only about three blocks from my school, and no other children lived near me, so I always walked alone, even in rain or snow.
(My mother would only pick me up at school one day each year: the last day. Her car would be packed to the brim with my two sisters, our current parakeets, and one suitcase each. We headed to Maine the minute that last bell rang in June.)
But from Labor Day until late June I walked those three blocks between my house and the school four times a day. I knew exactly where the sidewalk buckled, and what the houses I passed looked like. I didn’t know who lived in most of those houses, but I knew where an aggressive dog was often tied up and how to avoid the yard that was his domain.
One house I passed four times a day was on a corner. It was large and rambling and mysterious, and surrounded by a high wall. I longed to see the inside of that house, which never looked inhabited, and I made up stories about the people who might have lived there, and why they weren’t living there now.
Books, and the stories they held, were a major part of my life. They had been since I’d lived with my grandmother when I was three or four and she’d read poetry to me and taken me to her local library near Boston to borrow books we could read together.
I told myself stories about what might happen in school, or at home, or maybe in the next chapter of the book I was reading. (I usually ate my lunch quickly and then was able to sneak in a chapter or two before heading back to school.)
I remember the moment, when, walking home in fifth grade, I realized that those stories in my head included dialogue, and were in paragraph formats. My imagination was automatically following the patterns I’d learned from reading.
I didn’t write my stories down — but they were part of my life, and, perhaps more important, part of how I saw and explained my world.
So — when did I start to write? I think it was before I could put words on paper. It started when I “wrote” stories in my head to explain the world I lived in, and that I dreamed one day of living in.
I may have only been in elementary school, a little girl with straight hair wearing a dress and saddle shoes walking back and forth to school, but I was already beginning to use the tools, the words, that would define my life.