I wrote my first real story when I was 16. After seven months of junior-year high school literature study, the assignment from my English teacher – Mark James, a wise-cracking Englishman whose talents extended to the stage — was a short story of five to 10 pages.
I wrote 31.
The story exploded onto the page over the course of several days in a feverish blur, filling every line and many margins of sheet after sheet of college-ruled binder paper. What came out was virtual Stephen King fan fiction; I brazenly borrowed plot elements from his classic 1975 vampire novel ’Salem’s Lot – an early favorite – and transposed them onto a smaller cast of characters whose speech patterns suspiciously resembled my high school friends. It was all exuberance, and precious little craft. But it was a start.
Over the years, I made fresh forays farther down the same path I traveled that first week. I took a stab at expanding my initial awkward effort into a novel, but soon abandoned it. Later, I completed a pair of unpublished novels, getting a better feel for the process even as I struggled to find a voice of my own and an original story to tell.
Along the way, at certain defining moments in my life — when I got married, when each of our kids was born – moments arrived when it felt like the world had tilted on its axis. Everything stopped, even though nothing did. As my eyes unfocused, my vision nonetheless went crystal clear, like I could see the line running all the way through my entire life leading up to that single, inevitable, impossibly magnified split-second. I could see it, and I knew with complete certainty that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Writing is a leap of faith, the thoroughly implausible belief that you can translate the world of your imagination onto the page and convince the reader to see it through your own eyes. The hardest part, as Wampus creative director Mark Doyon and I have discussed many times, is believing you can do it — because you have to keep believing it, over and over again. It’s a long race. Some days you’ll run on inspiration and exuberance; other days it comes down to nothing more than pure, dogged persistence. You have to want it. You have to want it bad.
I still have those original 31 pages. They live in an old dog-eared file folder that I pry from its deep-storage file box every decade or so. I wonder now at the innocence and marvel at the effort, the intensity of purpose it required to finish them at a time when 10 pages of writing often seemed like an impossible mountain to climb. I think about what I would say if I could whisper in the ear of my 16-year-old self.
I thought about it again last night, just a few hours before Believe in Me went on sale and my world tilted on its axis once again. I felt that line running down the length of my life brighten and hum once more, and just for a moment I could see myself, alone at my desk amidst the chaotic debris of my teenaged existence, head down, eyes on the page, dreaming up a fresh new universe of possibilities. And here’s what I said to that younger version of myself: don’t give up. Ever.