January Theme: Firsts (Sarah Dooley)

One winter day, I trudged out of the school building and cut a path through shouting crowds and deepening snow toward the waiting bus, which would take me across town to our current rental. I was 16, and I had been writing as long as I could remember, but everything I wrote came from a brainstorming session: "What can I write about? What should happen first? What should happen next?" Lately, that hadn't seemed good enough.

I was feeling distant from my classmates, distant from my family, distant even from the snow I usually loved. As I climbed aboard the bus and took my seat, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why was I so distracted lately? Why did I have this feeling that something was about to happen, that something was supposed to happen -- that I was supposed to make something happen?

As the bus rumbled to life, I leaned my forehead against the glass, gazing out at filthy tire tracks in the snow.

Seconds later I sat up straight, so quickly that my backpack fell to the floor and the contents scattered. Ignoring the snickering students around me, I dove for the nearest form of paper and a writing utensil -- a chemistry notebook and a blue Bic. I hunched over the notebook and started pouring something onto the page that I hadn't so much as thought about beforehand. I didn't know the characters. I didn't know the setting. I didn't know the plot. All I knew was that something had been forming, in my heart and in my pen, for days, and it was time to let it loose on the page.

By the time the bus reached my stop, I had written three pages. Six weeks later, I had written a novel.

It was not my first novel-length piece of writing -- I'd written that a year or two before. (Something about flying horses? I can't remember.) Nor was it the first novel I would take seriously enough to revise and prepare for publication -- I wouldn't write that until my late twenties (that would be Livvie Owen Lived Here). But it was the first novel that wrote itself, the first novel that arrived fully-formed in my pen without ever stopping to consult my head. It was the first time a piece of writing swept me away.

That novel is an example of every type of writing mistake. It's a mess, but I love it dearly. It lives on my desk as a reminder that there are stories out there waiting to be told, and we writers need to keep our pens at the ready.


  1. So comforting to read this! I do the same thing when I write! Instead of trying to tell the story, I let the story tell me. I find that characters don't talk to you, if you try to force a world upon them. I have a novel I finished in 2003 and haven't done anything with. You've inspired me to get cracking on it :-)

  2. I love this post--you capture the thrill of the "Aha!" beautifully here.


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