A Thanksgiving Story

On November 25, 1975, two days before Thanksgiving, I decided to become a writer.

I made this decision while sitting at a small desk in a roadside motel in Newberry, South Carolina, a long way from my home in Phoenix. Back then I worked as an internal auditor for a large forest products company, and I traveled to sawmills and paper plants around the country verifying things like inventory levels and accounts receivable.

It was late in the evening, and I had just finished reading Stephen King’s first novel Carrie. I knew Carrie wasn’t likely to win a Pulitzer Prize, but it had kept me up late for a few nights when I should’ve been sleeping, and I was trying to figure out how King had accomplished that. I turned over the book to look at his photo, and that’s when it hit me: This is what I want to do.

It wasn’t the first time I had thought about becoming a writer. I had been writing short stories from the time I was old enough to know the difference between a noun and a verb. When I was ten years old, I told a visiting uncle that I wanted to become a writer, and he said, “It’s almost impossible to make a living as a writer, Billy. Go to college and study something more practical.”

So I went to college and earned an accounting degree and went to work as an internal auditor. It was a good job, and it paid well. I’m sure my uncle was proud of me for making a practical decision. And five years later, here I was in Newberry, South Carolina, making the decision to give it up and become a writer. This wasn’t the impetuous thought of a ten-year-old boy, though. I’m going to do this, I promised myself.

I knew it wasn’t something that would happen overnight. I had bills to pay, so I couldn’t immediately give up my job as an internal auditor. I started writing nights and weekends. I spent the first year writing short stories that nobody wanted to publish. By the time I decided that writing novels might work better for me, I was getting up at 4:30 in the morning so I could write for two hours before heading to my downtown office. I started taking the bus to work so I could spend the 45-minute trip writing instead of dodging traffic. I closed my office door at lunchtime and spent that hour writing. As I moved up the corporate ladder, it became more of a challenge to carve out time for writing. My job often required fifty to sixty hours per week, and my lunch hours were often used for meetings rather than writing. Through it all, though, I always made sure to spend the first two hours of every day writing.

I always looked forward to Thanksgiving because it meant a four-day break from work. Spending time with family and friends was a big part of Thanksgiving, of course—and so was writing. Four days away from my corporate job meant a lot of writing time.

I sold my first novel to Leisure Books in 1980. Over the next seven years, I managed to write and sell four more novels while juggling a demanding corporate job and a growing family. Finally, twelve years after I made that promise to myself in a roadside motel, I was able to move into a fulltime writing career.

Which brings me to the subject of this little essay: Why did I do it? Clearly, the need to write was a monkey on my back. Why?

After all these years, I still don’t know the answer. But I know that a lot of other people wrestle with the same monkey. Stephen King wrote his first five novels while teaching high school English and living in a house trailer with his wife and young son. He was unable to sell the first four novels. By the time he sold Carrie, the publisher had to notify him by telegram because his phone service had been disconnected for nonpayment. His in-laws were surely thinking, If that boy has so much spare time on his hands, why doesn’t he spend it doing something that pays the bills?

Over the years I’ve worked with hundreds of writers trying to break into this tough business. In countless phone conversations, letters, and email exchanges, I’ve heard the quiet desperation that seems to be a common denominator: “I need to write. That’s all I want to do. How can I make it happen?” Writers are willing to give up a lot in their pursuit of the craft. Many have given up promising careers in other fields. Some have given up far more.

Why is it so important? This need to write seems to be hard-wired into some of us. It’s like the need to find shelter in a storm, or to seek a friend’s comfort in a time of grief. Trying to ignore the need to write is like trying to ignore the call of a basic human instinct.

In that motel room in 1975, I stopped trying to ignore the need-to-write itch, and over that four-day Thanksgiving weekend, I pulled out my little Smith-Corona portable typewriter and wrote a science fiction short story. The only thing I remember about that story is that I was unable to sell it. It’s probably in a box around here somewhere. All I know is that once I made that firm decision, I felt like a real writer.

And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’m getting a lot of writing done over this Thanksgiving weekend.