When Did You Decide to Become a Writer?

James Scott Bell

Can you identify the moment in your life when you made the decision I am going to be a writer?

What did it feel like? 

Perhaps the best novel about a writer, Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden, captures this singular passion. Early in the novel young Martin is at sea, returning to San Francisco, when the idea takes hold:

And then, in splendor and glory, came the great idea. He would write. He would be one of the eyes through which the world saw, one of the ears through which it heard, one of the hearts through which it felt. He would write–everything–poetry and prose, fiction and description, and plays like Shakespeare. There was career and the way to win to Ruth. The men of literature were the world’s giants . . . Once the idea had germinated, it mastered him, and the return voyage to San Francisco was like a dream. He was drunken with unguessed power and felt that he could do anything . . . To write! The thought was fire in him. He would begin as soon as he got back . . . There were twenty-four hours in each day. He was invincible. He knew how to work, and the citadels would go down before him.

Back on land, Martin sets out with zeal, up to 18 hours a day of it, to realize his writing dream:

He was profoundly happy. Life was pitched high. He was in a fever that never broke. The joy of creation that is supposed to belong to the gods was his. All the life about him–the odors of stale vegetables and soapsuds, the slatternly form of his sister, and the jeering face of Mr. Higginbotham–was a dream. The real world was in his mind, and the stories he wrote were so many pieces of reality out of his mind.

I can pinpoint the day I took the big dive into writing. It was in 1988 and I went with my wife to see a double feature. The movie I really wanted to see was Wall Street. The movie it was playing with I didn’t know that much about, except that it starred Cher.

That movie was Moonstruck, and it knocked me out.

I was a practicing lawyer at the time and had been told writers were born, not made. I had believed that for ten years.

But Moonstruck was so good I knew I had to try to learn to write, even if I failed. I was determined to use the study disciplines I’d picked up in law school to find out how to write fiction. In my journal I wrote: Today I have decided to become a writer.

And I was soon lost in the joy of creating, like Martin Eden. I still remember those early years of writing and discovering as primarily joyous.

So when did you decide to become a writer? Was it a specific moment? A particular influence? And what did it feel like when you started on your quest? 

44 thoughts on “When Did You Decide to Become a Writer?

  1. I knew I would be a writer before I could read, when I would make up stories to go with the pictures in my picture books. Writing isn’t something I do; it’s who I am, and who I’ve always been.

  2. I still don’t know if I am “going to be a writer”. I didn’t know I would write anything until 2005 after I started what eventually became my first novel, Karl’s Last Flight. And even then I didn’t really consider doing this for long term until that one finished and the next one started and folks started liking them. Still today, three books in and a fourth nearly done I’m still not sure “I’m a writer” except that there are at least four more books waiting to come alive on paper.

    But I do know, with no shadow of doubt, that I was always destined to make stuff up and was born to tell stories, both true and not. I realized I was born to be a story teller at about 6 years old, when my step-father declared me an insufferable ham. Once I realized he didn’t mean I was a pig, I took that title as my destiny and have never looked back.

    So if “being a writer” means writing novels or short stories, I guess it started six years ago. But if it means “being a storyteller” that reality came to pass the day God knit me together in my in my mother’s womb, and the first story was carried aloft in the notes of my primal cry after mum squeezed me into this blue-green globe.

  3. I’ve always been a story teller. I had to be; growing up in a rural area with limited social outlets, I spent a good deal of time on my own making up stories.

    Then one day, assisted by my Globemaster and a platoon of toy soldiers, I created a story so exciting I felt I had to write it down. The result was 7 handwritten pages; my first ‘novel.’

    I recall that afternoon very clearly, but I can’t tell you the date. I do know I was about eleven, and I think it was in the autumn. Many years have passed since then and writing has always been a part of them. I can now–with only moderate cringing–call myself a professional writer, but I am not yet a novelist.


  4. Andrea, that’s what it’s all about, right? Story telling. You knew.

    And Basil, from one insufferable ham to another, I understand.

    I did actually have the desire to write down my stories early, writing and illustrating “novels” in elementary school. There were bouts of creativity in high school and college. But the decision to go after writing as a serious pursuit was later.

  5. In thirty-six years of medical practice, I wrote professional papers and textbooks, but never thought of writing outside the profession. Then my wife died, and I journaled as a coping mechanism. Friends urged me to turn those thoughts into a book to help others, but I had no concept of how to do it.
    I attended a writer’s conference, where this guy named James Scott Bell helped inspire me to write–not just the non-fiction book that became The Tender Scar, but novels as well. Now, three and soon to be four published novels later, I have one thing to say: “Jim, it’s all your fault.”

  6. Doc, you are Exhibit A (if you’ll pardon the lawyer terminology) that fiction as a craft can be learned at any time. You have been diligent in your pursuit and deserve to be where you are.

  7. I’d written a few things in high school, but nothing for almost thirty years, aside from an annual poem to put inside Christmas cards instead of a letter. One day I wrote a short, Mickey Spillane-inspired story that included many thinly disguised friends as characters. That went over so well my co-workers asked for one about them. After I changed jobs the same thing happened. The stories were so well received I decided to try to write for an audience wider than people I’d see at work every day.

  8. Dana, keep after it. Mickey sold a few stories in his time! As he put it once, “I’m a commercial writer, not an author. Margaret Mitchell was an author. She wrote one book.”

  9. Wanted to write: since writing my first sentence in first grade.

    Got Serious: Sometimes I still question whether I am “serious” or not when I struggle so much to put in time between the day job and everything else. But my “getting serious” year was 2002. Like a lot of people, after 9/11 I decided if someone was going to slam a plane into my building, it was going to be while doing a job I liked (that part hasn’t worked out–I left THAT job, but I’m still in a miserable line of work).

    But thats when a friend asked me to co-author screenplays with her. While it turns out screenplay writing didn’t grab my interest (tried to like it for 3 years) I decided in 2005 to start chasing what I really wanted to do–novel writing. So here I am, still scratching and clawing my way through the learning process. 😎

    BK Jackson

  10. I can’t remember a time I didn’t write. Until 2003, I wrote short stories. Oh sure, I took classes on novel writing. But, the commitment to truly put the bones of a book together happened one evening after work. A group gathered at one friend’s restaurant, after closing. Sitting in a circle, designed after Marcia Wieder’s ‘Dream Circle’, we went around, each sharing one of our dreams. When it came my turn, I remembered something I’d read earlier that day from Jack Canfield’s book ‘How To Get From Here To Where You Want To Be’. “If you could do anything…” I chose write. Lucky for me, my friends would not settle for the simplicity of the answer. They asked me to choose three things I would do to follow through. The most beneficial of these was to attend my first writers’ conference, The Thirteenth Annual Maui Writers’ Conference. I continue to attend other writers’ conferences. Even though I am yet to be published, my passion for the art grows each time I sit down at the computer. Thank you, Mr. Bell, for all you share with us.

  11. Jodi, that’s a great story about a “moment,” like the one I had. I’m also reminded of George Bernau, a lawyer here in California, who almost died in a traffic accident. So in the hospital he did some reassessing and decided he would write, even if he never published anything, because that’s what he most wanted to do. He had a mega-debut with PROMISES TO KEEP.

  12. It was Stephen King. Specifically, it was his memoir, “On Writing.” The book contained a challenge to write a short story about (of all things) domestic violence. However, the female was to be the aggressor. He invited people to send them in (he got about 8K) and he posted a few on his website (and begged folks to stop sending them in).

    The contest was long over by the time I read the book. However, I took the challenge. As a lawyer I was working almost exclusively in domestic violence and had met a few abused men. They have unique characteristics. So,I wrote the story.

    I entered it into an online writer’s workshop and got some feedback. My fundamentals were not good. I worked on it. The next story was for a little fanfic contest. I got better. By the time I outgrew the workshop, I had a trunk novel and a portfolio of pubbed short stories.

    Mr. Gilstrap’s brilliant “Threat Warning” has me reconsidering the trunk novel. TW has such a crisp and clean 3-act arc and some of the same themes I was chasing that I was inspired to pull it back out. It needs a chapter 1/page 1 rewrite, but the bones are there. The portfolio of shorts is going up on Kindle this year as a reprint anthology. I also write for a monthly humor blog and have a local paper interested in reprints of those strips.

    I’m not getting anywhere fast. But, Stephen King created another monster.


  13. I knew I would be a writer when, as a kid, I had to share a bedroom with my three younger brothers, and they would make me tell them a story every night after we went to bed. At first, I retold them the plots of books I had read, but then I started making up my own stories and held them spellbound each night, always stopping with a cliffhanger so they would beg me to keep going . . . They still talke about some of the stories I told (40 years later) and I got hooked on writing.

  14. I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was about six. The teacher asked “what is your dream job” and I answered “I want to write a novel or two”. But I didn’t say that aloud, because I thought it wasn’t very cool.

    I was writing some little things at school, tiny stories and poems, but noting significant. When I came to high-school, I almost didn’t write at all. I had to study math hard, which I hated, just to please everyone else. Worst of all, I had no time for writing. I started blogging early, though, which I still love.

    Then I quit university after one full year, because I realized I really wanted to write. What I didn’t understand before was that I needed to fucus and work on it. It was only two weeks before NaNoWriMo. I’ve never heard of it before, but I gave it a try, without any skills or knowledge about writing. I survived it and enjoyed it very much. The novel I wrote sucks, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve written a new one, now I’m editing it and I know it’s going to be a good one.

    Oh, and it’s thanks to your books, too, because they helped me a lot with my writing. They not only gave me all the answers I needed, but also a lot of enthusiasm to write. So thank you very much, Mr. Bell!

  15. Hana, thanks for the kind words, and congrats on doing what you love, and for jumping right into NaNoWriMo. I know that gets some bad ink, but to actually finish a novel that way is a tremendous help. Of course it will largely “suck,” but you are learning disciplines for a lifetime. And now you’re writing and fixing things. You are growing as a writer. Onward and Godspeed.

  16. Uh…this is terrible, but I discovered in college that a certain type of woman was attracted to men who could tell good stories or write half-decent poetry. That, of course, has nothing to do with my motivation for writing presently.

  17. I am a reader. I read everything from day one. Billboard signs, street signs, then magazines and books. Poetry was a passion in high school. Looking back, most of it was garbage, but I loved it.

    I told everyone I wanted to write but never started. I went back to school to finish a degree. Research papers were fun for me. Perfect scores, all of them. It wasn’t until I took a class in LA education when a professor informed us that if we were to teach writing, we had to learn to write.

    After a few assignments, she encouraged me to put my poems and short stories out there. She said I had a natural gift, a unique voice.

    I took the plunge. Now I am a finalist for the RPLA competition in Florida for a flash fiction story. Have my poems up on Scribd.com. Wrote a magazine article for an educational association magazine. And I am writing a novel.

  18. Lisa, go to it. When you write a variety of things, your writer’s mind grows in wonderful ways. Ray Bradbury advocates reading poetry every day, for example.

    You’ll have some good results.

  19. I never had a moment when I thought “I want to be a writer” – it was more like a series of moments where I lamented not being one – when I put ‘career’ ahead of pursuing my dreams. At high school I wanted to be a writer in various forms – journalist, poet, playwright etc. but I was always made to feel that this couldn’t really be a job so I became a lawyer instead. It was many years later when my soul finally cried, “let’s do it, let’s pursue the dream” but it was subconscious thing. I didn’t realize what had happened until I had actually written my first novel! I’m just thankful the inner me took over and told the rational me to put all the career nonsense aside and go for the dream!

  20. Clare! That’s why I went to law school, too. Told you can’t really learn to be a writer, and c’mon, it’s not something a mature adult really does for a LIVING.


    Glad we didn’t listen.

  21. Another lawyer? This is starting to look like a Bar Association cocktail party, just a lot more fun. Lawyers are storytellers for a living. I think we read more, write more and talk more than just about any other profession.

  22. I have a tale of how I came to be where I am today, but the story is excessively long for a comment on a blog post. I will summarize.

    From earliest childhood, I had an intense interest in anything and everything “science.” Before I had reached junior high school, I had built a “science lab” in a spare bedroom of my home. I dabbled in all things science, such as astronomy, biology, chemistry, electronics, geology, mathematics, meteorology, physics, and more. Playtime was devoted to science and science fiction/fantasy. I created universes of galaxies, planetary systems, and worlds, all with their own biology, chemistry, geology, and meteorology. The stories I told, were adventures in these worlds, adventures of my imagination.

    As a child in school, I excelled at everything except spelling, which resulted in the school system treating me as a looser and actively drilling into my head that I could never be a writer. Unfortunately, I succumbed to the fallacy of that message, which kept me from pursuing my desire to write my stories of science fiction and fantasy adventures.

    After graduating college I lived a long and successful career in information technology, but after almost three decades, my job was shipped offshore and I was abandoned, dumped in the rubbish heap, thrown to the proverbial wolves, and left to die. Unable to find new employment, I went in search of a new career and new opportunities for the future. In so doing, I have come full circle, returning to my original love: science fiction/fantasy.

    For three years now, I have built upon my experiences in technical writing, public speaking, and upon my love and skill in storytelling by teaching myself the finer points of fiction writing, and by writing and writing and writing. I have four “legends” planned at this time, but after writing hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of thousands of words on the first legend, still striving to learn the skills I need and to hone those skills to perfection by writing and rewriting, I have come to accept that my first book is really five books, and I must adapt.

    I am excited. I am having fun. And, I am afraid of the future because my limited resources will soon run out. However, I am dedicated, persistent, and stubborn. I will make this endeavor a success!

    Wow, this is still too long. I am verbose. That is why my first book has turned into five.

  23. Lester, you told a tale there, and your story sense is obvious. So is your work ethic. Those are the two non-negotiables if a writer is going to have a shot at breaking through. Wishing you success and a more secure future.

  24. That moment was a series of moments. I’ve written in one way or another since I was a child. My very bad poetry morphed into journalling and years later I remember converting a journal entry into a devotional to share with a friend in crisis. After that there were devotionals and book reviews submitted for a national church magazine. In retrospect I realize these were baby steps toward ‘being a writer’, but at the time I didn’t recognize them for what they were.

    In 1999 I was approached to be the canine consultant for the filming of the movie, ‘Best In Show’, and it was during that experience I discovered the delight that accompanies converting reality into fiction. In 2000, I began my first novel. I still didn’t consider myself a real writer, but after attending my first conference (SiWC) in 2004, when I heard, “If you write, you’re a writer,” I decided I was indeed a writer… I’d been heading in that direction for a very long time and it was all I really wanted to do.

    Published articles, book reviews, and short stories make me a writer, but my (so far) unpublished novels make me a dreamer. As I write, I dream of being an author, and it all goes back to a magical moment on a movie set in the fall of 1999.

  25. Hey the best book about a writer is the timeless classic, David Copperfield! Which also happens to be my favorite book!

    And I knew I wanted to be a writer three years ago, when my uncle’s wife made me realize fiction is the greatest art.

  26. I always wanted to be a writer but it wasn’t practical, and I also wanted to become a nurse. Once I was in grad school to get my MSN, that’s when I decided to become a novelist. Keeping the day job, I wrote one book after another until I started selling.

  27. Mike, good thoughts over on your blog. It just shows there are many paths to the same place.

    Nancy, you did it in a practical way that I would commend to anyone. I never advocate giving up that day job too soon.

  28. My father was a marvellous oral storyteller and my whole family were bookworms. I loved books from the beginning, especially novels of far off places.

    I was bedridden for several weeks shortly after my twelfth birthday and during that time I began writing a novel on a portable typewriter. Telling a story on that typewriter was the most exciting experience I’d ever had in my short life. The novel foundered on page fifty but I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I’ve written over thirty published novels now and I still love storytelling – it’s part of who I am and when I’m not planning or writing a novel, I don’t feel complete.

  29. Vanessa, my grandfather was a great storyteller, too. He was one of the top 10 Encyclopedia Britannica salesmen during the depression. He passed that down to my dad. So it must be in my genes somewhere.

  30. I actually made that decision twice. The first time, I was 11 and had just written a story for English class. I had so much fun with it, and it turned out pretty well. I thought, what could be a better life than to join the ranks of my heroes (at that point, primarily Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain)?

    Then life happened. My time was eaten up by childrearing and work, and my confidence evaporated. I got more and more miserable. I envied all creative people and felt cheated because I “didn’t have the freedom” to emulate them.

    Finally, when I was in my mid-40s, I saw that a college classmate (Janet Fitch) had written a bestseller. I figured if she could do it, I could do it. And I began.

  31. I can’t remember a specific time when I consciously decided I wanted to be a writer. I would make up stories and started writing them down. My desire to write gradually grew until I wanted to be a published writer and share my stories with others.

  32. Eighth grade in Sister George Ann’s class. We dissected a poem by e.e.cummings. When I saw what cummings did with words to tell a story, I said to myself. . . I want to do that!

    It’s been a long haul getting here. 🙂

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