The First Steps

By Brian Kaufman

Writing was not my first choice.

The summer I turned nine, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris raced to beat Babe Ruth’s record for home runs. I was a Yankees fan, and their heroics inspired me to play baseball for a living. I would reach my late teens about the time Mickey would retire, providing New Yorkers with unbroken decades of championship outfield play. 

I hate writing, I love having written.

Dorothy Parker

The problem was, I ran the 100-yard dash in about fourteen seconds, and I couldn’t turn on a good fastball. My disappointment was mitigated by the happy fact that I had a backup career in mind.

From the age of five, I wrote comic books, most of which starred my stuffed dog’s exploits. I don’t think there were many words in those comics, and the art was terrible, but I was happy to read to neighborhood kids. They seemed to enjoy the stories.

One early fascination involved the Civil War, thanks to a Golden Books version of Bruce Catton’s history of the war. At the age of nine, I decided to write my own in-depth account of the war, and I succeeded in filling half of a spiral notebook with my take on the conflict.

The first draft if just you telling yourself a story.

—Terry Pratchett

In seventh grade, a classmate approached me with two pages of a story she’d written. It involved a class (surprisingly, a seventh-grade class) on a field trip to an island inhabited by Russian spies. She didn’t know where to take the story next. I had a reputation for having a weird imagination (accurate). She asked me to write a page or two, finishing the story.

I wrote twenty-five pages. 

My friend gave the story to our English teacher. Our teacher was so impressed I was invited to read the whole tale out loud to a few English classes. I realize now that this was my rock star moment—actual applause was involved. 

By the time I was seventeen, I had abandoned other dreams in favor of writing. I submitted my first short story for publication to Penthouse magazine (don’t ask). They were kind enough to send me a rejection slip.

10 Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

Write.
Write more.
Write even more.
Write even more than that.
Write when you don’t want to.
Write when you do.
Write when you have something to say.
Write when you don’t.
Write every day.
Keep writing.

—Brian Clark

Undeterred, I began churning, accumulating more than 300 typed pages of short stories. Rather than send them out, I kept them in a substantial three-ring binder, which is how they came to be discovered—and thrown away—by my first wife. I was angry at the time, but I now think I owe her my gratitude—sort of.

Then I found beer. Fast-forward ten years, spent talking in earnest about writing without accumulating any pages. I call this my George R.R. Martin phase. 

 My final, initial steps toward a life in letters came after I wrote the opening lines to a novel that had been a long time idea. I announced to my wife (with a beer in my hand) that I was “writing again.”

“Really?” she asked. “Or are you just thinking about it?”

Within a week, I had two chapters of my first (unpublished) novel written. It was not my last (unpublished) book. After that, I began my uninterrupted pursuit of Hemmingway’s apocryphal “million words to competency.” 

I’m betting everyone who reads this blog post has their own stagger-step tale to tell. Am I right?

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