An old friend from high school wrote about her debt to Davy Jones and The Monkees who inspired her to write fan fiction. Now she’s a mother of three, a blogger on motherhood and crafting, and a soon-to-be published author. She’s also my sister*, I couldn’t be prouder! In typical little sister fashion, I started to think about who first inspired me to write. It took all of two seconds to come up with V.C. Andrews. It’s a long story so I’ll start from the beginning.
By the time I was in the fifth grade I’d started re-reading my entire book collection with a different kind of eye. Back then I didn’t call it editing; I called it making the story better. Say I didn’t like the author’s language or the dialogue between characters felt unnatural. I’d change it. Sometimes whole endings were much too unbelievable. I’d have to change that, too. But mostly, I liked the author’s story and wanted to stay true to their vision. I just thought they needed a little help. (Imagine, the nerve I had back then! I could haven’t been more than ten years old and already I thought I could do a better job than the book’s author and editor.) But what I didn’t have back then was the confidence that I could do more than edit. In truth, I loved “fixing stories” and didn’t feel I was missing out on the actual writing but maybe that’s because I didn’t think I had the imagination and/or talent to write a good book.
You know the old saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Well, I’d come up with my own, ‘Those who can, write. Those who know what good writing is but don’t have the imagination, edit.” Rest assured I’ve since discovered a higher truth. “Those who do, can. Those who don’t, also can — they’re just doing everything else.” Meaning, there are scores of talented writers among us but the real work (other than edits and re-writes) is the discipline it requires to show up everyday and do it.
The following year my mother caught me (again) with a copy of Waiting to Exhale and insisted (again) that it was much too mature for me. She was right. I was in the sixth grade and only 11 years old and the American Girls series and The Baby-sitters Club series didn’t do it for me anymore. She promised to find me something more engaging yet age appropriate and I promised to not rummage through her dresser looking for literary contraband.
One Saturday afternoon she came home with two old and ratty-looking books: If Tomorrow Comes and Heaven. I was a little hesitant as they were significantly longer than any of the novels I’d ever read. “How do you know they’re any good?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, “but I thought you might like them.” There’s another reason I was hesitant. I’d only seen my mother read the Bible and Ebony and Essence magazines. She also had two diet books; the only one that stands out now is the one by Bob Greene and Oprah, but I never saw her read it. That copy of Waiting to Exhale wasn’t even hers, which is partly why I was so intrigued. How could I put my trust in someone who wasn’t a “serious” reader like myself? How could she steer me in the right direction if she didn’t know what was good?
I flipped the books over and scanned the back covers. Heaven told of the story of a young adolescent who grew up in the foothills of the mountains with an evil father and overburdened stepmother. Ding Ding Ding!!! I was hooked! A teen love story in the midst of family dysfunction? Oh, yes! The first two or three pages had fallen out but I hoped I could figure out those first few moments based on context clues. Years later, I received a brand new paperback and re-read Heaven with the first three pages, but that Saturday night, as I read in bed I was in complete awe of Andrews’ storytelling ability. I knew I wanted to write, too. Just like V.C. Andrews.
When my sister turned out our bedroom light, I fished out one of three flashlights I kept hidden under my bed for emergency situations like this. The next morning I dreaded going to church. I wanted to stay home and read as much as I could about Heaven and Logan, the new boy in town, who’d fallen head over heels for her. I knew I’d never be able to weasel my way out of church so I emptied the largest church pocketbook I could find and rammed the novel in. The pages rolled up but so far so good. I only hoped no one asked why I didn’t choose one to match my dress and shoes. And when my father gave me the church offering — two quarters, one for me and one for him — I held on to them for dear life instead of tossing them in my purse so no one would see its contents.
I read the entire twenty minute car ride to church and made it through Sunday school without giving myself away but instead of staying for children’s church during the first part of worship service, I headed up to the balcony where we kids usually ended up. My sister and I never rejoined our mother after children’s church. We always sat in the very last pew so I wasn’t too nervous about pulling out my novel when service began. I read during the bulletin announcements. I read through the first offering. I read through six or seven songs from the choir. I read through the second offering. The preacher went up to the pulpit and I contemplated stopping to follow the sermon but rationalized that I never knew what he was really talking about anyway. And I usually spent sermon time napping. I read through the third offering.
My sister, almost six years my senior, usually left church before the sermon began. She had her license by then and managed to procure the car keys week after week because our mother frequently had church meetings to attend after service. Since an additional thirty minutes at church drove my sister and I up the walls, my sister argued we should at least get to wait in the car and listen to music. But that’s not why my dear sister really wanted those car keys. To this day, I still don’t know what she did when she left church because I never went with her. Not only was I not invited but I knew the trouble she’d get into for leaving church and taking the car was coming soon and very soon. She bribed me with candy and I never ratted her out and later she kept mum about the back pew horror stories.
For the next few years, I spent most Sunday mornings with one of V.C. Andrews’ curled up books stretched out on the back pew. Book by book, I’d started a pretty sizable collection of each series. Perfect attendance, honor roll, birthdays, and stocking stuffer gifts all came in the form of a V.C. Andrews paperback. I wanted to read them all. I hoped the more I read, the more my imagination would grow and I’d come up with my own stories to tell. I embraced the idea of being Andrews’ ghost writer (she died in 1986) especially since later characters and series weren’t as dramatic as “her” earlier works. I’ve long ago abandoned that thought, glad to have evolved and grown over the years. Fifteen years ago, she was my favorite author and my inspiration to be a famous writer. Today, not only am I not the same girl, but I don’t even like that genre of fiction anymore. I read more non-fiction these days than I ever deemed possible as a teenager. And what I write bears no resemblance to the stuff I thought I’d be writing as an adult. But I owe it all to Virginia Cleo for writing a story so well that I began to dream I could do it, too.
So tell me, who first inspired you to write?