The First Time, Every Time

Do you remember the first time?  I bet you do.

Maybe it was the first time you sketched a picture, and the pencil seemed to have a will, a life, of its own as the lines multiplied, took shape, forming a likeness of something you never realized you could duplicate.

sketch

 

Maybe it was the first time you blended ingredients, without a recipe, experimenting, modifying, taste-testing, never having done anything quite like this before, but knowing, somehow, that the result would turn out delicious in the end.

cooking

 

Maybe it was the first time you aimed a camera, wanting desperately to capture the sunset or the butterfly resting, briefly, on the rough bark of your fencepost, or the city skyline on a clear, crisp autumn afternoon.  You snapped the photo, enjoying the moment, a hunger to reconstruct a sliver of reality at just the right angle, in just the right lighting.

camera

 

I happen to be a writer, and I remember my first time, too . . .

I was in the second grade.  It was fall in upstate New York, the trees showing off with their reds and golds and burnt pumpkin oranges.  “Like a bowl of fruit loops,” my grandfather liked to say.

fallcolor

 

And the teacher, a young woman named Mrs. Mueller, tasked us with an assignment.

“I want you to write about something,” she said, and I can still recall the enthusiasm in her voice.  “About anything you want.  It can be about your bicycle or your cat or your mom or your sister.  Anything!  The only requirement is that it needs to be at least a full page in length.”  At this news. a collective gasp rose from the throng of second-graders.  A whole page?  To the seven-year-olds in the room that October day, Mrs. Mueller might as well have asked us to write an epic poem on par with Paradise Lost.

paradiselost

 

But for some reason, the assignment didn’t intimidate me.  Perhaps I was spurred on by the dreamy fall landscape, the woods and fields caramelized after the long, hot summer.  But that night, in my room, I sat on my bed, using one of my father’s old hard-back books as a support for the sheets of loose paper I had ripped out of my notebook, and wrote my first short story.  The thing was?  It did not end up a single page in length.  When I finished, I had written a four-page story.

I called it “The Magic Key,” about a boy and his friend who discover, well, a magic key in an abandoned house on the edge of town.  The house, reputed to be haunted, is full of cobwebs and creaky, ancient doors that groan when opened.  The boys venture into the house on a dare, and when they find and take the key, they soon realize it can unlock portals to places they never knew existed–places where caterpillars talked and beagles soared on dark brown wings, and where, if you wanted something badly enough, if you wished with all your might, you would receive whatever you asked for.

magickey

 

Today, looking back at “The Magic Key,” I realize the story is laughable.  Events just happen, one after the other, as the plot careens wildly out of control.  Events and developments that would normally require entire chapters occur in a single paragraph.  But none of that mattered then, nor does it now.  “The Magic Key” will always hold a special place for me.  When I read it, I remember myself at seven years old having a ball, creating something out of nothing, letting the story tell itself.  I remember the high I felt as the ideas poured in so fast and so loud, my pencil could scarcely keep up.  I remember feeling like I could burst, the thoughts and feelings and words needing to come out, onto the page.  They were no good if they remained locked inside, faces without names, skeletons without muscle and tissue and skin.  And when I was finished, when I triumphantly scribbled, “The End,” in bold strokes on the bottom of page 4, I felt on top of the world.  On top of the universe.  There was a sense of accomplishment, of expressing myself in a form that just felt right.  From that day on, I was hooked.  I wanted to be a writer.

writer

 

I’m pretty sure Mrs. Mueller was surprised when I placed “The Magic Key” on her desk.  “Four pages!” she exclaimed, and I admit, I beamed with pride when she smiled.  The next week, when she returned our stories, she had given me an A, and a smiley face on the top of the first page.  She wrote a little note, saying the story showed imagination and that she enjoyed it.  At the time, seven years old and still in the afterglow of my first creative writing project, I just smiled again, digesting her words easily, lightly, like cotton candy at the fair.  But as I grew older, as I reached my teen years and beyond, I would sometimes wonder what Mrs. Mueller really had thought.  After all, she’d expected to read a short essay on my dog or my grandfather or what I had done the previous summer.  She had most assuredly not expected “The Magic Key.”

I remember one night, when I was in college, I dug out that old story and read it.  I winced.  It was awful.  Mrs. Mueller’s complimentary remarks now seemed a taunt, a mock, a cruel joke.  But then I read the story again, and this time I smiled, laughed even.  And I traveled back in my mind, to that day, years earlier, when the words came, unasked for, and the story wrote itself in a barrage of sentences and ideas that gushed out of me like a geyser.  I remembered how, as I wrote that old story, I wasn’t concerned with how good it was, or how it would be received, or how it might be critiqued.  I just created it.  Better yet, I let the story create itself, and I got out of the way.

creativity

 

It was a reminder of sorts, knee-deep as I was in critical essays on Dickens and Shakespeare and Hemingway, analyzing literature from the inside out, studying symbolism and point of view and theme and character.  Somehow, it seemed, the fun had been taken out of writing.

shakespeare

 

It’s still something I struggle with from time to time.  There are days when I try to write, and nothing comes because I’m being too analytical, too worried about the merits of what I’m creating instead of simply creating.

“Don’t think,” Ray Bradbury once said.  “Thinking is the enemy of creativity.  It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.  You can’t try to do things.  You simply must do things.”

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant certainly knows all about being self-conscious. Insecure, too often worrying that he doesn’t measure up, he invents stories about himself, trying to appear as “more” than he really is.  When he meets Heather, a girl who becomes his friend in the variant town of Colbyville, she tells him he should just be himself, that he doesn’t need to pretend.  He’s good enough the way he is.  He wants to believe this.  He tries to grasp on to it.  He longs to believe in the dream, in the possibility–that he can, ultimately, be anything he wants to be.

At the end of chapter 20, the text reads:

“He looked up, at the infinite black canvas of the sky, at the stars, which shimmered like precious jewels.  She had said that maybe our dreams lived up there, among those stars.  All we needed to do was believe.  And remember.

And reach.”

That’s the kind of feeling I had, all those years ago, when I wrote my first story in the second grade.  That’s the kind of feeling I believe we all share when we allow ourselves the freedom to do what we love without worrying about the end results.  Yes.  There is a time and a place to look at your results.  There is a time when the red editing pen must come out and the cold, analytical process of revision must trump the hot, volcanic flurry of creation.

editing

 

But when I approach the blank page, when I am about to begin a new story or a new scene or a new chapter, I try to remember that assignment from the second grade.

We all have, I think, our own personal “magic key,” if you will–something we can look back on and remind us where we started, what we love, and why we do what we do.

Or, put another way and again quoting Ray Bradbury, “The stars are yours, if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

stars

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

67 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Eva Acharya
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 15:03:50

    Mike, this post is beautiful! Thanks for sharing an anecdote from your life. And I agree, we have got to abandon our doubts and write. 🙂 great work!

    Reply

  2. Bonnie Marshall
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 17:22:25

    Amen.

    Reply

  3. Sherri
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 17:24:11

    Another wonderful post Mike. Let that creativity flow! My first ever story was called The Telephone. My mum still has it and not long ago I read it. I was 11 when I wrote it and yes, it was awful. It was a mystery, or supposed to be!
    When my younger son was 16 he decided he wanted to play the electric guitar. Apart from piano lessons as a young boy he had never had any formal lessons and had never picked up a guitar. I taught him a few basic chords and from then on, for years, while studying for school, he taught himself. By the time he was 19 he fulfilled his dream of being accepted to the prestigious BIMM (Brighton Institute for Modern Music) on audition alone.
    Two years of ‘studying’ music killed all his creativity and he didnt touch his guitar for a couple of years. He is 24 now and back to his guitar, writing and recording his own music (he hasn’t given up the day job however!) but he has his spark back. Thought you would be interested to read this 🙂

    Reply

  4. Minister Gertrude Ferguson - Founder & CEO- Enough Tribulations
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 17:38:23

    Beautiful piece that reflects memory and deep thinking. God bless.

    Reply

  5. Fashion Mayann
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 18:02:27

    What touches me the most in this wonderfully written post is the fact that you knew what you wanted to be at 7, and thanks to your passion, dedication and hard work, you’ve made it : you truly have become an amazing writer !

    Reply

  6. jenniferkmarsh
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 19:39:43

    That’s a really beautiful quote from The Eye-Dancers. There’s something very special about the stars…

    Reply

  7. Katie Sullivan
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 20:34:18

    That was really lovely, Mike.

    Reply

  8. Sam Han
    Sep 26, 2013 @ 22:23:04

    “Thinking is the enemy of creativity.” I’ll remember this. Thank you for showing so much enthusiasm every time you touch the subject of creativity. It makes me feel like I am able to do it too. Sometimes, I feel like I’m running out of steam and have nothing to blog about, suffering temporary dissatisfaction. But God works in wonderful ways, I find posts like yours and get motivated again. Your “posts” are like Mrs. Mueller (not mocking, I think she thought this 7 year old has lots of potential!) and when I get caught up with what people are “really” thinking or if I am writing proper English, it’s like your “Somehow, it seemed, the fun had been taken out of writing.” Thank you for this post. I hope you understand what I am saying, lol… Have a great weekend Michael 😀

    Reply

  9. laurie27wsmith
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 01:40:30

    Great post Mike, I tweeted it. Very impressive thoughts on the creativity of writing.
    Laurie.

    Reply

  10. tonyroberts64
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 01:55:09

    Brings a smile to my face.

    Ah yes. My first time.

    It was “An Ode to My Pet Rock”.

    Reply

  11. stormy1812
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 02:48:05

    Sometimes I think thinking is an enemy of virtually all things haha. Of course, this is coming from someone who has a tendency to overthink everything. It’s a curse. I like the idea of not squashing inspiration, wherever it comes from, wherever it goes, just go with it. I agree, the editing and yuck process can come later. I just finished reading through that chapter of the book, fyi, and that was a wonderfully described scene of hope. Looking forward to how it all wraps up. 🙂

    Reply

  12. honeydidyouseethat?
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 02:55:42

    That’s it?? My son showed me a cartoon. It’s drawn by an older brother who wrote down his little brother’s stories. Can’t remember the name, but it’s brilliant. You must post, “The Magic Key.”

    Reply

  13. Mary
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 13:37:27

    Beautiful post – I remember The First Time . . .

    Reply

  14. mjdresselbooks
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 14:34:18

    As an educator, I remember many stories from students who didn’t know they were writers until they were given an assignment, such as yours in the second grade. Once they had that label, they soared in that department. It was my seventh grade teacher who first told me I should be a writer. I was lucky that in later years, as an adult, I got to thank him for that encouragement.

    Going back to your Ray Bradbury quote– One thing I love about NaNoWriMo is it allows you to just write without thinking. (Much)

    And I definitely remember my first time…

    Great post, Michael.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 27, 2013 @ 19:09:04

      Thanks so much! And you bring up a great point about teachers. Often teachers are the ones who encourage young writers. That’s always very nice when it happens . . .

      Reply

  15. jjspina
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 16:24:14

    Wow, Mike! You wowed me again! You have an incredible gift that reaches and teaches those that read your powerful prose! You take me into your spell and hold tightly until the last word….. I don’t want the words to end! Thank you for sharing!
    Loved it!

    Reply

  16. teagan geneviene
    Sep 27, 2013 @ 18:45:54

    That was a lovely post.
    A while back I saw a video interview of Ray Bradbury. Inspiring man.

    Reply

  17. leighla93
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 15:12:53

    Great post Mike. 🙂 I remember when I was in 2nd grade, I could not write a story. I was a fresh immigrant from the Philippines and only knew very few words. I’m glad though for great teachers that really help us find our creativity! You could well be one without knowing it. Where is “The Magic Key”? I was expecting to read it. 🙂

    Reply

  18. Joëlle Jean Baptiste - Author
    Sep 28, 2013 @ 20:03:21

    Hi The Eye-Dancers
    I nominated you for your good blog with The Versatile Blogger Award!
    http://joellewrites.wordpress.com/category/awards/
    Best Greetings

    Reply

  19. mcwoman
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 15:41:02

    Good reminder to all writers who are eight years old or older. Self-editing in the creation stage is like putting yourself in a closed elevator without power. Just writing is what we need to do on the first draft. Leave the editing to the editors. There will be plenty of time to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite . . . well you get the picture.

    Reply

  20. Holistic Wayfarer
    Sep 29, 2013 @ 17:55:09

    Mike, this is precious. Good intro, and I enjoyed hearing your story. I like the title The Magic Key. I grew up in NYC, went to Stuyvesant High. I wanted to say thanks for the ongoing support. I am grateful for the faithful reading.

    Cheerleading your way,
    Diana

    Reply

  21. Michael Lane
    Sep 30, 2013 @ 05:04:27

    Very inspiring, thank you.

    Reply

  22. ampbreia
    Sep 30, 2013 @ 16:33:00

    Yes it is a volcanic flurry. What a succinct way of putting it. I know that feeling. Great write and I’ll bet The Magic Key was good too. Maybe you should write it out now, expanded into its full potential. Meanwhile, I’ve nominated you for the Liebster Award. Check out my blog for details.

    Reply

  23. BeWithUs
    Oct 01, 2013 @ 13:24:50

    If there are no first times, there will be no room for any possible improvement…thus, all the first times should be memorable (whether good or bad)…

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking post and Happy October, my friend!

    May this month be a beautiful and inspiring one for you and your loved ones!

    Take care and be well, always~ Cheers!! 😀

    Reply

  24. Ralph
    Oct 01, 2013 @ 21:04:42

    Great post Mike.I resonate with the paragraph about not thinking ….. do !! That’s the way I post. Have an idea and let it run. See where it goes. No editing. Publish.
    Well done Mike. Ralph 😀

    Reply

  25. WordsFallFromMyEyes
    Oct 05, 2013 @ 05:33:29

    Aren’t teachers just precious giving us special first times with writing. Unforgettable, really.

    I enjoyed this, Mike. I just love reading of people’s lives. I love it when people write as well as you do, and I can step into where you were. Great stuff.

    Reply

  26. ladyofthepen
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 19:34:07

    Great post! It truly was so much simpler when we were children. There was no inner critic just the page and a universe of possibilities. I do miss that stage of being a writer, it was simpler and purer. But we have to mature and grow and try to imply structure and discipline while keeping that joy of writing from childhood.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Oct 08, 2013 @ 13:38:33

      You’re so right–that inner critic becomes louder and louder, doesn’t it? But as you mention, that discipline and structure are necessary. I suppose the best we can do is try to find a balance between the discipline on the one hand and the joy we had when we were children on the other.

      Reply

  27. Charron's Chatter
    Oct 08, 2013 @ 20:17:36

    I wann’ see the Magic Key! Mine was “Starlight” a surprisingly gruesome story about horses, of course…My Dad kept it, and i have it…wow.

    great post Mike.

    Reply

  28. seductivevenice
    Oct 16, 2013 @ 22:49:33

    Great piece! I recently gave this topic (your first time writing) to my Creative Writing class for journaling time. I’m going to show them your blog post now!

    Reply

  29. beebeesworld
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 17:30:41

    Thanks for continuing to read my blog. beebee

    Reply

  30. mummyshymz
    Nov 15, 2013 @ 17:37:07

    Thank goodness Mrs Mueller did not kill your passion… I think she was wise woman who saw the potential in you. Great story about your life!

    Reply

  31. thewhisperingpen
    Sep 04, 2014 @ 15:19:51

    So glad your teacher gave you high marks. I feel that is a sign of an excellent teacher. To encourage. Do you think you would still be writing if she would have said, “This is too long and you are rambling. What were you thinking when you wrote this?” Loved this post.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 04, 2014 @ 18:28:48

      That is a great point! I’m sure had my teacher responded negatively, that would have really affected me, especially at such a young age. I still think I’d have been a writer–it’s so innate. But it no doubt would have set me back for a while!

      Reply

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