I write because I read.
The first books I read on my own were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “LIttle House” series about a pioneer family continually on the move. I was seven, and my family had recently moved from Los Angeles to a small Oregon town at the foot of the Siskiyou Mountains. This was in 1964, but much of “Laura’s” 19th century experience–from her minute observations of new landscapes to her difficulties fitting in at new schools–echoed in my own life. I re-read the books so many times that whole passages would bubble up verbatim in my head as I collected tadpoles in the creek behind our house or lay in the dark beside my sister, waiting for sleep.
At that point, it was no use reading the books yet again. Instead, I fashioned a log cabin out of my mother’s church hatbox and outfitted it with an assortment of miniature dolls and furniture made of empty spools and matchboxes, spinning adventures for this small family as they blazed the Oregon Trail. The narrative was probably a mash-up of things I’d read and things I’d lived–there was, I recall, a baby brother doll, with orange hair like my brother’s made from a cotton ball dipped in curry powder. I’m sure the whole kaboodle looked pretty motley–I’m no good at manuals–but in second grade I wasn’t any good at writing, either. What I wanted was to answer Wilder with stories of my own; to continue the conversation I felt she’d started.
When I took my first creative writing class, in college, our young and handsome instructor imparted tips on craft that seemed revelatory (show, don’t tell; make your characters want something right off the bat). He also urged us would-be writers to read as much as possible. This sounded laughably obvious, like telling members of the football team to be sure to get plenty of exercise. But as the term progressed, it became clear that some students hadn’t–and didn’t–read very much. Their impulse to write seemed less reactive and more organic than mine, to spring from an internal well of imagination I didn’t possess.
“Creativity” was big on campuses in the late 1970s (you could even take a class in it), and it bothered me that a quiz administered by the university psych department revealed that I was too cautious, my habits too orderly, my homework too promptly finished, for me to qualify as a creative personality. And the stories I wrote for the instructor (himself a natty dresser with neat penmanship) were usually a response to something I’d read: about a trip to a new place, a romance gone wrong, an old person looking back on life. Writing, I felt, was an ongoing conversation between someone long dead or far away, and me.
I moved to Spain after college and taught English, and then moved a lot more, to Boston, New York, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Tepoztlan, Mexico. It was several years before I had enough freelance newspaper and magazine assignments to be able to say that I made my living as a writer.
With journalism, the “why” of writing is never in doubt: your editor gives you an assignment, you do it and hand it in–it’s like having homework for the rest of your life. But I continued to write short stories, and here the “why” was less clear, especially after I was married and had two children. I could claim that I turned down assignments and spent money I wasn’t earning on babysitters because it turned out that I actually was creative, because I had a deep-seated drive to invent and imagine. The truth is that some other writer was doing the imagining first, and that was what always got my own wheels turning. Living much of my day in another language, and writing what I hoped were indisputable facts, I looked forward to sinking under the covers at night with a novel or short story collection in English. In the early 90s, before books could be turned into bytes, they were expensive to mail or took up precious space in suitcases, so I chose carefully, and reread a lot. And then I’d want to sit down and reply to my invisible, distant, dear friends.
The British novelist Anthony Powell once said that when writers read they’re always thinking about how they’d have told the same story. I don’t think he meant that they’re nitpicking or criticizing (though they also do that) as much as working out what they’ll say when they get their turn at the mic.
Of all the arts, we view writing as the least collaborative–songs are written and movies made and dances performed and even murals painted with and alongside others. A book written “with” someone else is ghostwritten, maybe bogus. Writing is only properly done alone, we’re told, in that hard-won room of one’s own. To say that you rely on others for your ideas, your techniques, your stories, seems to skate dangerously close to confessing to plagiarism. But I’m not talking here about about passing off someone else’s work as your own. I’m saying that stories, like language itself, evolved from a long-ago mother source. Nobody is born speaking a language–you listen, imitate, practice, until your words sound like you. And you have to know the story–in as many iterations as possible, as close as you can get to the ur-version grunted around the campfire while the mastodon sizzled–before you can tell yours.
You have to keep reading.
Kathleen Wheaton’s articles and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Smithsonian, The Paris Review, Bethesda Magazine, and other publications. Her short story collection, Aliens and Other Stories, won the 2013 Washington Writers Publishing House Prize and will be published October 15. Her website is www.kathleenwheaton.com.