Growing up as a reader, I never considered being a writer myself. It didn’t really occur to me that people like me wrote the books I was reading. I do remember writing a story or two as a Junior higher, but it was strictly for entertainment value, not because I thought I’d some day be a writer and sell it. In high school we had an English class where we got to write a couple of “fiction” items. I read both of my pieces and both were generally well received by my classmates. I do remember getting criticism from a classmate on one story that I wrote, about how it wasn’t very realistic, and that kind of upset me. His story was better received than mine and was highly praised by the teacher. It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered he’d plagiarized the story from an SF anthology. I found it out when he loaned me that book, apparently forgetting that he’d taken his story from it. I never confronted him about it.
I don’t remember exactly deciding to become a writer. I remember that when I started college at Arkansas Tech University I began thinking about it. In my sophomore year at college, while living with my brother and his wife, I wrote a western novel called “The Bear Paw Valley” on an electric typewriter my mom had bought me for school. It was essentially a Louis L’Amour pastiche. I was so unfamiliar with the writing process that I just started typing at the top of page 1 and typed straight through to the end without even putting in chapter breaks. What an idiot, I was. But I still like “some” scenes from that book and, in fact, years later I polished up one particular section and sold it as a short story called “Killing Trail.”
Another influence on my wish to write was an essay class I’d taken with a man named Francis Gwaltney, the only writer who’d ever come from my home town of Charleston, Arkansas. The class didn’t have anything to do with fiction but it did help me focus some energy and thought on writing. Eventually, I took my western novel to Gwaltney, who read it and told me that it was “unpublishable.” He was correct.
However, Gwaltney also told me that I had talent and that he’d like to see something else from me, something more contemporary, more about what I knew. He even told me he’d send the result to his agent. I immediately started a new novel, mostly autobiographical, but before I’d completed more than a couple of dozen pages Gwaltney choked on a chicken bone and died while celebrating the publication of his latest book. I took that as a sign that I was not meant to be a writer and gave it up.
(Only two more parts to go).