How I Fell in Love with Writing: From Middle School Mania to Life-Long Passion

I think that YA books proved to me that my voice and my stories were valid and worth putting on the page.

Most English majors or writers that you meet will tell you how 1) they were avid readers in their youth, with their noses perpetually dipped in books; 2) their reading capabilities far exceeded that expected of their grade level; and 3) they identified with Harry Potter houses in the same way that some people live by their astrological signs.

Confession: as a kid, I didn’t meet that description.

When I was in elementary school, you’d be more likely to find me directing soap operas with my Barbie dolls, watching Jackie Chan Adventures, or reenacting scenes from Peter Pan by myself in the backyard than reading a book. I journaled often and enjoyed writing in school–I even asked my fifth grade teacher if she could assign more essays. I loved creating characters and stories, but with the exception of Lemony Snicket’s The Series of Unfortunate Events, I didn’t have that zealous obsession with literature that a lot of writers had as children.

That is, until middle school, when a relative gave me a Borders gift card for Christmas. (Moment of silence for Borders’s demise.)

I found the Young Adult (YA) section on the second floor. The book spines burst with color–rainbow patterns that stretched across the shelves, drawing me in. I pulled some books out to read the synopses, pleasantly surprised to find that these were stories about people my age, or just a few years older, and in the contemporary world. That warm, glowing, glittering feeling of connection sprouted within me.

Among the wide selection, I came across a familiar title: Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen by Dyan Sheldon. I’d seen the movie with Lindsay Lohan. What would that story be like on the page? I wondered. This book was my first purchase at Borders, and the first YA book that I’d ever read. Though I found the narrator of Confessions to be, well, a bratty drama queen (should’ve expected that), the book instantly hooked me to the genre.

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It wasn’t long before I discovered Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen and…well. Eventually, my bookshelf looked like this:

My relationship with books became much more crucial when I was in ninth grade, when I, like the archetypical coming-of-age novel protagonist, underwent a loner period. Books (and the characters in them) became my dearest friends, my safe haven.

Around this time, I began to really delve into creative writing  on my own, totally inspired by all of the books that I read. I think that these YA books proved to me that my voice and my stories were valid and worth putting on the page. So, when I wasn’t practicing the violin or doing homework, I’d write teen dramas inspired by television shows that I watched, like One Tree Hill. Eventually, I started to write semi-autobiographical works in which all of the things that I wished happened to me…happened.

And that’s the kind of self-indulging motivation that led me to write my first full-length YA novel.

You see, in middle school, as I developed a love for reading, I also cultivated an obsession with Fall Out Boy and their bassist/lyricist, Pete Wentz (or as I used to call him, Peter Lewis Kingston Wentz III, because I was a creepily fanatical and newly hormonal twelve-year-old with Internet access). I memorized lyrics, collected posters, learned the band member’s biographies, joined their fan club–what the Beatles were to girls in the sixties, Fall Out Boy was to me.

So, one day, when I was in seventh grade, I got out a purple spiral notebook and decided that I was going to write a story about it. I transformed myself into thirteen-year-old protagonist Grace Parker and recreated Pete Wentz as Pete Wenston (very clever, right?), the new boy in school and love interest who happens to be in a rock band. Everyone in my actual middle school manifested as background characters in my novel in one way or another. As I wrote more and more, I ditched the notebook and shifted to the computer, writing everyday until I finished at 293 single-spaced pages.

The novel, as you can imagine, was painfully cheesy and amateurishly written, exploding with clichés, mispellings, and narrative inconsistencies. I didn’t write it with the intention of showing anyone (though, some friends pried it out of my hands, so to speak) and that’s probably why it was so easy and fun to write. I wasn’t overly critical of myself as I am now, because I wrote it purely for the pleasure of writing.

And I didn’t stop there. Within the next year, I wrote a  sequel in which all of the characters are in college (talk about a time-jump) and two more lengthy novels; one was about a garage band that gets a record deal and the other was about the shenanigans that went down at a music camp. I guess you could say that by fourteen, I was already prolific. 

Once I decided that I wanted to “be a writer,” it all became significantly more difficult. I wrote less, even avoided the blank page altogether, my creative faculities shut down by self-doubt and self-inflicted pressure. It took me a long while to realize that a New York Times best-selling title didn’t make you a real writer. Writing makes you a writer. With that epiphany,  I found my voice again.

I went on to attend a creative writing program during the summer before my senior year of high school as part of the California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA). This experience–four of the best weeks of my life that I will undoubtedly cover in another blog post–solidified my passion for storytelling, validated my abilities, and showed me that I existed within a community. Writing, I realized once again, connects me to people, places, and things–it is my way of making sense of the world and finding my place in it.

In college, I enrolled in short story workshops and, just last week, I completed a senior thesis. A novella, the longest work that I’ve written since middle school. I can say that I have matured dramatically as a writer over the last few years in terms of style, subject matter, and technique. I’ve somewhat departed from YA in terms of both reading and writing, but I will never lose my appreciation for the genre and its significance in my own narrative.

I’m excited to see what will come next in the saga of my writing career. Who knows? Maybe, someday, I will actually achieve that New York Times best-selling title. Regardless, one thing is certain: I’ll keep on writing.

Welcome to my blog!

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Hi friend! Thank you for stopping by my little corner of the Webverse.

You’d think that after finishing my senior thesis (lots of pages, lots of coffee, and not enough sleep), I’d take a break from writing to hibernate or binge-watch B movies on Netflix for at least a century. And yet, here I am, composing the first post for this blog, an idea that’s been marinating in my mind for at least two years. Having just completed a milestone and being very much caffeinated, I decided to leap into it, to do more…doing. Though, this blog will showcase a lot of my thinking. 

As you may or may not know, my name is JoAnna, capital “A” included. I am a soon-to-be university graduate, bookworm, fiction writer, violinist, and visual artist. I love coffee, guinea pigs, and romantic comedies. This is beginning to sound like an online dating profile, so I’ll stop the brief bio here. 

On this blog, I will transcribe my general musings on life, as well as geek out about writing and reading fiction. I like to talk about short stories and novels not only as an adoring (or critical) reader, but a student writer, evaluating the works for technique. As Austin Kleon said:

Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.

That’s why my posts about fiction would more accurately be called “studies” as opposed to “reviews.” Even if I don’t like something that I’ve read, I know that, at the very least, I learned something from the experience of reading it. I’d rather not quantify my relationship with a story using a rating scale. Though, I will certainly make reading recommendations!

I will occasionally write about other forms of storytelling like film and television–perhaps I’m saying that because I’ve been in a Gilmore Girls craze lately, and I really want to talk about it. (Ditto Jane the Virgin.)

In short, this blog is a new adventure for me. I’d love for you to join me!

Till next time…

-JoAnna