I’m frequently asked why I decided to become a writer, and what my childhood was like, as if it might de-mystify the process of becoming a successful author or clarify a ‘recipe’ of a personality type, so the person asking can decide whether they, or their friend or loved one has good odds of becoming one, too. Not only is there no such recipe for success, all the writers I know had remarkably different childhoods, and remarkably different reasons for wanting to be a writer.
I’ve always shied away from the question in the past. Dude, past is past, as Dani would say. But because of something that happened recently, I’ll shine a light down a dark alley.
At 12, I was a geeky nerd. A brain. I hated that word. People copied off my tests unless I put both arms around them and ducked my head over the paper, which I usually didn’t because it didn’t bother me that much that people copied. I found it flattering and interesting, especially if the guys copying were cute.
In ninth grade, we had to split off from the common middle school and go either to public high school or private all-girls Catholic school. You guessed it: I went sans boys, kicking and screaming all the way, on a scholarship. My sister had gone there before me, my little sister went there after me, and my sister’s daughter followed.
Three important happened to me in adolescence, the first of which I’ve already discussed elsewhere (Eros and Thanatos, romance novels and Harlan Ellison, aka Sex and Death.)
The second involved neither choice nor anything for which I bear responsibility: I had long, vibrantly red hair.
The third was all choice and all my fault: me and my best friend Esther (last name omitted so doesn’t hunt me down and kill me for telling this and I’ll soften it by pointing out that she was smarter than me (but a little geekier:) made a cognizant and intelligent-or-so-we-thought decision to change our image at the ripe old age of twelve and a half. We decided to start smoking Marlboro reds. Nobody thought the druggies were geeks. Therefore we would no longer be considered geeks.
We failed to consider that we would then be considered druggies. It wasn’t one of our finer plans.
But I blame the red hair for most of my problems. In a town as small as the one I grew up in, it made me ridiculously noticeable. I couldn’t get away with anything. Nothing. I can’t tell you how many times I heard over the high school loudspeaker “Would Karen Marie Moning please report to the principal’s office immediately!” after the smallest, slightest bending of the rules. Always only me. I would go dragging in and the principal would load me up with demerits for sneaking off campus at lunch to King’s Tavern--which, I might point out, yes, I did but with no less than 7 or 8 friends walking right beside me a fact that I groused long and loud about to the principal (not that I’m a snitch or anything) because it got old after a while to always be the only one getting in trouble, and her frosty reply was “we can’t recognize them from a distance. You can’t be missed. That hair! You should do something with it!” Think Rowena here.
After the third or fourth such incident, I did. I fixed her, or so I thought with appalling shortsightedness. I went home from school one day, perilously close to suspension from accumulated demerit points, and cut off all my hair to about an inch long. Back in those days I had no money unless it was corn detassling season, and hair dye wasn’t easy to come by. I still had red hair. All I’d achieved was it now looked stupid. If memory serves, class photos were a few days later. I burned that yearbook. . I acquired a collection of hats. It didn’t help. I became recognized because I was the only person in our small town that wore hats.
By sixteen, I’d been permanently expelled from private school. My graduating class (at the public high school) had something like 75 people in it. I was ecstatic to leave my small hometown behind and vanish into Purdue University with 45,000 students! I was finally, blessedly invisible. Anonymous. Nobody noticed me. I no longer stood out. I was in heaven.
Fast-forward seven years. I’d graduated from Purdue, and was working in insurance arbitration and litigation, sitting in a gray office with gray carpet, feeling myself getting grayer everyday. Still had vibrantly red hair. If I was late for work—and I frequently was—everyone noticed.
I decided to become a writer for three reasons.
1. I figured I wouldn’t have to work as hard at being a writer as I would at a real job. I deserve any hate mail I get from other writers for that comment.
2. I couldn’t stand driving in rush hour traffic anymore. I could hear the clock ticking the minutes of my life away. I teetered on the razor edge of road rage whenever I got behind someone doing the speed limit in the fast lane because everyone knows you can go a minimum of 7 miles over the speed limit most of the time and not get pulled over, and added up by miles, that was at least 9 minutes of my life they were wasting by driving too slow in the fast lane. It’s called the fast lane because people are supposed to speed in it, right?
3. I thought I would be invisible. A name on a book. No one would ever see or want to know me. They’d only want my books. I could be a complete isolationist, a lone wolf, give into my nature at heart. I’d learned young and well that visibility was directly proportionate to culpability.
By the time I was seventeen, two phrases had become inextricably linked in my mind:
Being noticed—Bad. For. Me.
The gratitude and relief with which I embraced life as a writer was immense. I would be anonymous, solitary, words on the spine of a book, a placeholder on a library shelf, unnoticed, uncared about unless the story wasn’t up to snuff.
By now you must be wondering what brought on this spiel.
I got a unexpected box in the mail today, filled with letters, cards, and gifts from all those people who weren’t going to notice me or look beyond the spine, who would read my books and never even think about me. Cards from people who’ve been concerned, with what I’ve gone through recently, people who wanted me to know I wasn’t alone, to offer words of strength and encouragement, to say “hi, I hope you’re feeling okay,” and to share their own struggles and triumphs. I’ve been sitting here for hours, stilled by the moment, searching for words to express how it makes me feel. Not only am I not invisible, I’ve got a connection with my readers that astonishes and humbles me. How many writers have so many fans that are also friends? I’m blessed.
For those of you who are still worrying about the cigarettes, don’t. I quit smoking many years ago. I was pissed off for an entire year but I survived it.
Today, as I absorb the outpouring of love from you, I realize I am completely over that other small childhood problem I had, as well.
These two phrases have become inextricably linked in my mind:
(Yes, yes, I’m going back to my office now. I know it’s the only way I can really thank you. The Barrons scene is coming along nicely. Well, as nicely as anything Barrons ever does.)
(For those of you who are now going to postulate that Dani is my Mary-Sue (which no longer means quite what it used to years ago) give it up. She's no more my Mary Sue than every other character I've written.)