Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, part I

I’m often asked how I became an author, and by way of answering, I point to a book I wrote when I was all of six years old — “Jim, the Talking Fish.” Written and illustrated by yours truly, bound between two pieces of blue construction paper and tied with yellow yarn, it was my first novel. I crack a few jokes about the “book,” but then make clear that so early in my life, storytelling was already in my blood. What I usually leave out, for brevity’s sake, is that this was hardly the only book I wrote, illustrated, and bound at that age. There were several. I don’t talk about those others, because I can’t remember all the salient details.

There’s something else I leave out as well, and I really shouldn’t. Ever.

I wrote those books because I had a first grade teacher who encouraged me, and all of my classmates, to write. To create. To dive into our imaginations and explore. And I kept on writing because all through elementary school, and middle school, and high school, I had opportunities to write. I had teachers who encouraged us to write, who required us to write. And not just reports and such. We were required to write fiction, or to write about ourselves, or to journal.

When I was in seventh grade, I was in a team-teaching program at my middle school. Five teachers taught a group of about 100 students on a rotating basis. We were divided into classes of twenty, and we were with our cohort throughout the day, moving among the team of teachers, who covered English, Social Studies, Math, Science, and French. It was an amazing program. All the teachers were excellent. And for the second half of the school year, we 100 students were assigned to keep a journal as part of our regular homework. We could write whatever we wanted, but we had to write pretty much daily.

I still have the journal I kept that semester, in its original folder. I wrote poetry. I wrote about my life. But mostly I wrote stories. Every night before bed, I would put on my favorite music, and write for a half hour, or forty-five minutes, or, if a story really took hold of me, an hour. On some of those nights, my mother or father would come into my room wanting to know why I was still up. And seeing that I was writing, they would quietly retreat from my room and let me keep working.

That’s another thing I tend to leave out when asked about how I got started. I became a writer, in part, because when I was young my parents encouraged me. They loved my stories and kept nearly everything I wrote throughout grade school. They also held on to that journal.

My public high school, in our admittedly privileged town in the suburbs of New York City, was remarkable in many respects, and we had great teachers in many subjects. But no academic department was more impressive than our English Department. Starting my sophomore year, I had one outstanding teacher after another, including one man of incredible energy and passion and creativity who taught every one of us Coe kids — from my oldest sibling, my brother Bill, to me — spanning an age gap of fifteen years. All of those amazing teachers, who I name here — Duke Schirmer, Rose Scotch, Michael DiGennaro, and Phil Restaino — because they deserve to be named, encouraged us to write and spent as much time critiquing our prose as they did the substance of what we wrote. They held us to exacting standards, but did so with humor and compassion and a sense of mission that made us appreciate the importance of the written word.

I write because I love it, because I’ve been passionate about crafting stories for as long as I can remember. And because when I was young, the most important adults in my life — my parents and my teachers — encouraged to me to feed that passion, to follow it wherever it might lead me (to a point — more on that in next week’s post).

Today, we live in a world driven by science and technology, and the recognition of this has, by necessity, changed so much about how we educate our children. Math and science have taken primacy in school curricula. Language skills remain important, of course. But the arts have become afterthoughts. We also live in a time when school budgets have been slashed and teachers and school administrators alike have seen their opportunities for career advancement shackled to student performances on standardized tests. Education professionals have no choice but to devote more and more time to preparing students for those tests, leaving less and less room for passion and creativity in American classrooms.

I believe this is a tragedy, and I hope for a day when test scores will cease to matter so much, and once more students will have ample time during their school day to write — and paint and sculpt and sing and play instruments and act and dance. I fear, though, that this day will be a long time in coming. In the meantime, in today’s education environment, even the most dedicated of teachers will be hard pressed to do for their students all that my teachers were able to do for me in a simpler time. And so it falls to us, as parents, friends, and mentors, to support and inspire the next generations of young creators.

Without such people spurring me on in my youth, I would not be an author today, and I assure you I’m not alone in that regard.

Have a wonderful week.