PAMELA BROWNING

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How to Begin a Writing Career

July 25, 2013

Tags: Writing, learning to write, the writing life

Live in a small apartment with your parents. Be four years old and know how to write your name. Look for chances to write your name everywhere.

Notice that the brass doorknobs are on your eye level. Study the scratches on the doorknobs. Maybe they were made by someone's ring. Or the point of a pin. You find a pin on the floor. You draw a line on the brass doorknob, and the scratch looks like the first mark of the letter P, which is the first letter of your name. Write the whole P on the doorknob.

Stand back to admire your work. This is fun! The doorknob's bright shiny P makes you think that it would be good to see your whole name inscribed, so you add the A and the M. My, you're proud of your efforts!

Your mother is busy with the new baby. Her name is Candy, and if you knew how to write it, you'd write it on the next doorknob. But you don't know how to spell your new sister's name, so you might as well write PAM on that doorknob too. And the closet doorknobs and the bedroom doorknobs and even the big front doorknob.

You are much too quiet, so your mother comes looking for you.

"Pam! What are you doing?" she asks, though this is perfectly obvious. You proudly show her all of your handiwork, and she is appalled. She scolds. She does not mention that your actions show creativity. She mentions washing your mouth out with soap, which is usually reserved for sassing her, but maybe that's what writing on doorknobs is, in a way. Or at least according to how grownups think, which is mysterious.

Your mother has to get back to the baby, so she gives you a Rainbow Note Pad, sits you down at the kitchen table, and says, "If you want to write, do it on a piece of paper."

I wrote. Scribbles and scribbles, page after page, with my limited spelling vocabulary providing at least two story lines: KILL BILL and BILL KILLS. My mother thought those stories were too violent, so I eventually expanded into fairies dancing on sunbeams and dogs following me home. I progressed. I learned about chapters and rhyming and, later, wrote essays created from my fourth-grade spelling list. I won the county spelling bee. I worked on school newspapers and accumulated journalism awards. I grew up and published a lot of books and traveled the world to research them. It was more fun that I ever could have envisioned when I first picked up that pin.

Whenever anyone asks me how I got my start as a writer, I say that I was inspired by doorknobs. And that my writing opened doors for me even back then. My name stayed on every doorknob in that apartment until we moved some years later, and I can truthfully say that my first writing efforts gave me as much pleasure as anything I've written since.

If you're a writer, how did you get your start?