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“When Did You Know You Were Meant to Be A Writer?” Eight Gotham Writers Reveal Their “Aha” Moments

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We recently asked our community of writers about when and how they knew they were destined to be writers. Read some of their stories below.

Suzanne Munshower

“Suzanne is talented. She will make a fine writer.” Those were the words my sixth-grade teacher wrote in my report card. Me? My thought was, Uh uh, lady,  I’m going to be a Broadway actress. And so I went from high school to college as a drama major and then to New York as a college dropout who wasn’t much of an actress at all and onward to the job of choice would-be stage stars to become…a waitress.

When that wore thin, I threw an omelet at a short-order cook and decided I would get a job in advertising. A copywriter sounded like fun. “No, sorry, we have clients looking for entry-level copywriters, but not without a college degree,” one prim women after another at employment agencies told me. “How about insurance underwriter?” 

“That’s not even writing. How about a job as an editor?” I was hired as an editorial assistant for a romance magazine. I worked the slush pile and learned to edit. When it dawned on me that the non-slush writers were being paid five times my weekly wage per story, I asked if I could try my hand at it and was given the go-ahead. My first shot, “I Gave Him the Key to My Chastity Belt,” made the front cover. I was twenty-two. I was making real money. I was a writer now.

Jonah Estess

On a train ride to Washington, DC, I finished reading Earnest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. The ending brought both me (and my mother, with whom I was traveling) to tears. Never before had a book transformed my worldview so deeply. Soon afterwards, I attended President Obama’s first inauguration. His speech, which set the tone for his entire presidency, showed me that speechwriting was another way to tell powerful stories, some that could be told and others that could be written.

Now, as I write my dissertation on the history of coinage and currency in American life, and as I begin my speech writing career, I remember these moments to remind myself of the deep power of good storytelling.

Carole Lieberman, M.D.

I  knew I was meant to be a writer when I was in elementary school in New York City, and I won an essay contest sponsored by Smokey the Bear and the U.S. Forest Service. The essay was something about the ‘fire triangle’ and their slogan ‘Only you can prevent forest fires!” I won a book of short stories by O. Henry, which included The Gift of the Magi, and a monetary award, as well.

I remember it being a big deal – the teachers were very pleased that one of their students at P.S. 214 won the contest, and the kids were impressed. These days, when one of my books wins an award, I still feel just like that little kid winning my first literary award from Smokey the Bear.

Jerry Manas

I wrote short sci-fi stories from when I was about twelve through my teens, but back then I never thought of being a writer. I wrote my own little superhero comics as well. If anything, I thought it would be fun to do music for films. As a kid, I’d play with toys and hear a whole movie soundtrack in my head. 

In high school, one of my favorite classes was Creative Writing (my first big project was writing a short story from the first-person POV of a basketball!!). But I still didn’t think of myself as a writer.

Flash forward to my early days in management. One thing I always prided myself was taking great notes and organizing abstract thoughts into simple instruction. I started by making notes for myself. Then I’d share it with others, who found it very useful. I ended up developing lots of training content (I guess you could call it tech writing). 

I was also a reader of management principles, and kept seeing inspiring quotes from Napoleon, so I began devouring books on (and by) Napoleon and found many principles that applied to business and project management. I also learned then that most of what we’ve been taught is propaganda, which holds true in many areas of history. So I wrote an article on Napoleon on Leadership. In the early 2000s, I got it published on a popular management website as an 8 part series for $200 a part. Then I wrote a 12-part series on the Roman Empire.

But I still didn’t think of myself as a writer. I figured at that point, I had so much research, and that articles come and go, but books last longer, I might as well write a book. I pored over books on writing and getting published, etc. and structured a full outline, proposal and sample chapters. I read books on writing query letters. I landed my first agent after sending out 22 query letters. I got my first book deal in 2004-ish with Thomas Nelson as a lead title in their new Nelson Business Line (now Harper-Collins) with a book called Napoleon on Project Management. I received a good advance as well. That’s when I started to think: Maybe I can actually be a writer!

Actually I lied. That’s when I told my wife if I ever decide to write a book again, to shoot me. 

But several months later, I got the bug again. I ended up writing four other nonfiction books, but then thought: Hey, if I can write nonfiction, why not novels? After all, as a film buff, and story buff in general, what I REALLY always wanted to do was write fiction.  Of course, my agent only handled nonfiction, so it would be starting from scratch. But I had to try.
I knew writing fiction would be a whole different animal, so I did my research first. I read countless books on the fiction process, on plot, conflict, dialogue, suspense, etc., and watched many YouTube videos, subscribed to blogs, etc. I still do! 

A friend’s husband I ran into at a school reunion had a loose concept for a story, and we agreed to do it together, since I told him I was looking for a good story to do. Though he wasn’t actually a writer, I suggested additions to the story, characters, etc, and we agreed that I’d do the writing and we’d collaborate on the story.

The book, a sci-fi thriller called The Kronos Interference, which we published through a small startup press (which meant it was, for all intents and purposes, self-published), ended up being selected to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2012 with a starred review. I ended up writing another novel after that, and also began doing developmental editing for other authors (something I enjoy). I also landed a top agent, Al Zuckerman, by virtue of the Kronos success, and I’ve been working with him on developing a new novel.

Meanwhile, everything got put on hold when a Marvel artist I knew from doing Comic Cons asked if I could write graphic novels. I ended up writing several issues of a graphic novel series, and now I’m part of his production company pitching screenplays to Netflix for a TV Series.

Through it all, I love editing, especially developmental editing, as I’m a born teacher at heart, and love helping others realize their dream. I’ve even done a few pro bono ones for some that had no money but a story I felt had real merit.

So, to conclude a VERY long answer to a short question: When did I know? I think it wasn’t until after my first novel (after I had already written four nonfiction books and contributed chapters to several others), that I thought of myself as a writer, with comfort in both nonfiction and fiction. What the future holds, I have no idea!

Marlayna Glynn

I was raised on horror, both within the house and in the many books I read. My shelves were lined with Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury. My interest in and writing psychological thrillers was way beyond my grade school peers.

By the age of twelve, I was writing stories about the black plague, snippets of which I would later weave into my first memoir. It wasn’t until my forties that I was able to make a living telling a powerful story. I am proud to now own a publishing company dedicated to the art of storytelling, horror notwithstanding. 

Celeste Giampetro

I was a shy kid but I found my voice through writing. I wrote everything and anything I could: from long notes to my best friend in class to letters over the summer to anyone who would read them to short stories and poems I’d submit to journals. That early experience made me feel present and heard in the world — and still does.

Sara Dahmen

I’ve always been a writer since before I could spell properly (I have old notebooks full of stories where people go to the “vigge” – the “village”) but it’s always been something I love to do so very much that identifying myself as a “writer” until very recently felt ostentatious. I was taught that writing is a nice hobby, but to never expect it to be more than that. I’m originally from a small farming community where saying one is a writer is considered…a bit too far out there. Fascinating, isn’t it, how things we are told as children carry through so long and far? Even after I was traditionally published by HarperCollins, it sounded strange in my own ears to say I was a writer! But I say it now. I’m a writer because I have always been one!

Amy Klein

I got in trouble for a spoof I wrote of one of my eighth-grade teachers for my elementary school yearbook. I learned how to speak truth to power and became a muckracker.  

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