Friday, December 23, 2005

When Did You Know?

I'm often asked when I knew that I wanted to be a writer.

I knew in fifth grade, in December of 1979. I was 9 years old.

I wrote a poem called "Cool Santa's Jingle Bells" and read it to my class, and my teachers praised me like praise was going out of style. My parents also heaped on the praise, and I was forced (though not very reluctantly) to read the poem at our Xmas dinner for all the relatives who then (you guessed it) praised me highly.

Was the attention I got for this poem what made me seek attention into adulthood? Maybe. But I really think there's something in me that makes me want to create things, whether I get praised from them or not.

I'd done a lot of writing prior to that poem, though I never considered it writing. I'd put stories down on paper to entertain myself, much as other children drew pictures.

But after this poem, I suddenly realized two major things. First, that my writing could make people other than myself happy. And second, that I was apparently pretty good at it, because it only took me about twenty minutes to write that poem, during a math lesson.

As I grew, I continued to write stories. But when I got a video camera in 1983 I began to make movies, and my passion changed from the written word to the visual expression of it.

The movies quickly became pretty elaborate, and usually involved me murdering my younger brother (they were rip-offs of Friday the 13th.) We had a large back yard, with woods, and after several dumb jokes and some first person POV stalking, I'd chase him into the woods and cut him in half. We accomplished this effect by burying Mikey in the dirt up to his chest, then making a fake chest that he stuck his upper body through. Add some fake legs, stuff his body cavity with animal organs from the butcher and jackrabbit pumps filled with blood, and I'd drive a knife into his chest and pull out his entrails while bloody squirted out from six different hoses and he screamed like crazy.

Ah, my teenage years...

My interest in video lead to film and TV, and to Columbia College in Chicago where I took classes in both, as well as creative writing.

I got A's in film and TV, and C's in writing.

During college I made some pretty good movies and videos. A 16mm film I did called INVADER used everything I knew about SPFX and filmaking and produced a 50 minute epic of car chases, miniatures, chainsaw fights, beheadings, dismemberments, alien vomiting, and even a sex scene. It played in a local festival, and audiences dug the over-the-top horror mixed with humor.

Also in college I did some cable tv, some corporate video, and some theater improv, along with writing. I knew I'd wind up doing something creative with my life.

After graduation, getting a job in Chicago during a recession proved impossible. I'd written a lot up to that point; three screenplays, two plays, four sit-coms, two novellas, and hundreds of short stories.

Since no one would hire me for TV or film (I went to LA for two weeks to try to get agents interested--they weren't) I decided the only venue left open was writing. So I wrote a novel, and got an agent immediately, and you know how the rest of the story goes (if you don't, visit my website.)

But I can trace all of that back to that one poem in 5th grade...

Cool Santa's Jingle Bells

Well, all the cool eleves in town came walking down the street,
Saying "Have a cool Christmas" to everyone they'd meet,
Everyone was waiting for Santa's clock to ring,
So he'd wake up, walk the street, and listen to them sing,
His song wasn't very good, but it wasn't very bad,
It wasn't very cheery, but it wasn't very sad,
"Hiya Cool Santa!" the elves started their song,
"Did you have a good night's sleep, and was it very long?
If not Mr. Groovy, then please get some more sleep,
For you must guide the reindeer, up the ramp, and it is steep,
After you jump the ramp and sail into the sky,
You will say, "C'mon you dudes!" and the reindeer will start to fly,
Man, you are quite a site, in your hipster glasses,
And your sleek black coat, which is leather and made in Frances,
You are the coolest dude of all, bringing toys to boys and girls,
From mini bikes to mini trikes, and hip China dolls with curls!"
Santa thanked the elves for the song that was just right,
Then he yelled, "Have a cool Chirstmas, and to all a cool good night!"
The elves scampered all over, to watch the sleigh take off,
The Ruldolph in his dark sunglasses gave an awful cough,
The neato sleigh went straight down, Rudolph landed on his head,
Then Dasher, Dancer, Prancer... then Santa, was he dead?
The elves ran to the place where Santa's sleigh had crashed,
Prancer was all mangled, Rudolph was all mashed,
But Santa stood up from the pile in the pitch black night,
And then he snapped his fingers and the reindeer were alright,
He got in his sleigh (which now was okay) and yelled as he rode out of sight,
"A very cool Christmas to all you dudes, and to all a very cool night!"


So how about you? What made you decide that your words were so valuable that other people might enjoy them? What set you on this tunnel-vision path of hard work and depression and disappointment?

What age did you know you wanted to be a writer? And why?

  • Is it a quest for self-expression?
  • Is it fame?
  • Money?
  • A desire to work out of your home?
  • A need to see your name in print?
  • A fire burning in you that forces you to create?
  • A need for acceptance?
  • External forces?
  • Nothing better to do?
  • A higher calling?
  • A love of reading?
  • Boredom?
  • Other?

In order to know where we're going, we must know where we came from...


I've posted a link to the four Flash Fiction winners on my website, on the Contest page, for a limited time. If you want to read the stories that won, now is your chance.

Also, remember to download BLOODY MARY for free today at

You have to sign up and give them a credit card number, but you DO NOT get chraged. It's 100% legit. And you can also download WHISKEY SOUR for a measley four bucks. If you read my blog, but haven't read my books, this is a quick and simple way to ease your conscience and pay me back for all of the entertainment and information you've received over the years.

Or, you could just send me the 30 cents in royalties.

Happy Holidays!


Author-Gerald said...

Yay! First to comment!

With me, it was the piece of descriptive writing I did for my 'O' levels (aged 16 here in the UK). The paper asked for a piece of writing about one of a few scenarios, one of which was a seaside harbour. The sights, sounds and smells came to me like I was there, and I wrote and wrote and wrote, and (I think) it was beautiful. I got a top grade.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I started writing because I knew writers make millions of dollars and drive fancy cars and date really goregous women.

Then I woke up.

For me, the desire to be a writer was born when I read the first installment of Westlake's SOMEBODY OWES ME MONEY in Playboy magazine. I was twelve.

Over the next few years I wrote a bunch of Westlake and, get this, Richard Brautigan rip offs -- all short stories or fragments -- that friends, either politely or otherwise, seemed to respond to.

That was good enough for me.

Jude Hardin said...

At the age of 42, I finally ran out of excuses not to write a novel. I started reading a lot of fiction and books on the craft. I've always been fairly good at writing, but I really didn't have a clue how a novel was put together. I'm still learning.

But I've always been a writer. The first time I got any attention was in second grade. It was a poem, something about the Navajo Indians. The teacher read it for the class, which made me feel great.

In college I published some poetry and non-fiction. I was fortunate enough to work with Maxine Kumin, Stephen Spender, Jon Silken and Leon Driskell. Sue Grafton would stop by Leon's office some days, presumably working on a little mystery called A IS FOR ALIBI.

I've always written something (songs, poems, short stories) but never, until recently, thought I had the big N in me.

Time will tell if any of my books are salable. Even if they're not, I'll keep writing them. It's just something I feel like I have to do.

Jude Hardin said...


When I was twelve my friends and I were sneaking Playboys too. I'm pretty sure we didn't read any on the articles, though.

Nerd. :)

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Merry CHRISTmas!

I've got to go get Bloody Mary!

Adam Hurtubise said...

Nice Post, Joe--

First thing I ever wrote was in first grade. I wrote a "book," about 8 pages, folded up, entitled "The Christmas That Didn't Come." Whole premise is that Santa got sick one year.

I wrote shit like that for years, and got nice feedback from my parents and grandparents.

But in 9th Grade... that's when I first thought about being a writer.

My 9th Grade English teacher, a guy named Nick Alicino, a writer himself, got me hooked on it, by telling me mine was good, and helping me improve it.

The same guy got me hooked on Bruce Springsteen, at almost the exact same time, which is the reason that writing and Springsteen music go hand in hand with me.

After that, I knew I was going to write. I just didn't think it would take me so long to get started. When I started my own business, almost 6 years ago, I finally made the time to work on my novel.

Fifteen months after I started, I had a first draft. Six months after that, I had a second draft. Then I took it through enough drafts to get agents interested. Two years after I finished the first draft, I had an agent.

The really interesting thing to me is that there are 2 other people from my tiny little high school who've published novels, and both of them either dedicated or gave huge shout-outs to Nick Alicino.

Of course I'll do the same thing. Unfortunately, my acknowledgment will go to "the late, great Nick Alicino."

Neat topic, Joe... I blogged along a similar line the other day.

Cool Santa's Jingle Bells is still funny.


FizzWater said...

What age did you know you wanted to be a writer? And why?

I wrote my first two books in Mrs. Parker's 5th grade class. But I didn't know I was a writer. I was just trying to make my friends laugh.

When I saw BUTH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID for the first time, I knew I wanted to write movies, but had no idea that "normal" people could do that.

I thought movies were created by special elf-like people that were made in a factory in La Jolla.

So I didn't pursue it.

Then, in my early 20's, a girl introduced me to Graham Greene, and I knew halfway through THE POWER & THE GLORY that I wanted to write.

Then, about two years later, I read my first Travis McGee novel and knew what I wanted to write.

I never thought about money or fame. I never knew there was money to be made for a writer. With the movies, I just had a bunch of stories in my head that I "saw" as movies. That later became television.

With prose... I'm still trying to find my way, but from that first Greene book, the desire has never left me.

And I have no idea why.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Captain, I didn't sneak the Playboys. They were given to me by my beautiful next door neighbor (read: female) when she was done with them. I don't know if SHE read the articles.

Hopeful Rabbit Productions said...

"What age did you know you wanted to be a writer? And why?"

I actually don't know how old I was when I knew I wanted to be a writer. I always had a way with creativity when it came to stories, probably since I was nine, I think. But I never actually started writing books until 2004, when I started high school. I kept thinking it was creativity flowing out of my hands. But the actual dream of becoming an author didn't come to me until towards the end of high school.
The fame and money is sort of like a bonus, though I wouldn't mind some extra cash right about now. Mostly a quest for self-expression. Definitely a need to see my name in print, but I have a hard time believing that seeing as I have too much fear of rejection and haven't even sent one book to a publishing house.
There will always be a fire burning in me that forces me to create. Just a few weeks ago, I finished a book and should have continued on one of the five "hardly a beginning" books. Instead a day or two later, before my college course started for the day, I started doodling with words and ended up starting a completely different book. (Never thought I had such darkness in me.)
I feel as if writing is like breathing. I cannot live an entire day without writing something in any book I have incomplete. Sometimes I actually force myself to write something. I have been in over three/four dozen writer's blocks since 2004. I have one right now in fact, with every incomplete book I have. Lol.

Diana Murdock said...

Hey Jon. I've been checking out your older posts, working my way to the more recent, because it's time I put more effort into the marketing part of my writing career. So here I am loving this post. So appropriate. I had blogged about my ah-ha moment. It's interesting how we figure out this particular moment in so many different ways.

Diana Murdock said...

Hey Joe. I've been checking out your older posts, working my way to the more recent, because it's time I put more effort into the marketing part of my writing career. So here I am loving this post. So appropriate. I had blogged about my ah-ha moment. It's interesting how we figure out this particular moment in so many different ways.