Inspiration: How I Became a Writer



When you're eight years old, living on a military base in the middle of a desert, surrounded by fighter jets, deafening sonic booms, and smooth-pressed uniforms, there's nothing you can't imagine. Secret fort under a hill? Check. Coded messages left behind through gold balls? Check. The general leading a plot to betray the base? Seems reasonable - just as reasonable as the legends spreading around the base that sharks lived in the dry lakebeds!

I met my fellow detective (who went by the pseudonym Harper, just in case any villains figured out that we were hot on their trail) at Edwards Air Force Base, a tiny, isolated military base in the Mojave Desert of California. At first, there isn't much to see. The ground is littered with tumbleweeds, creosote, and snakes. The dry lakebeds shimmer as though they're filled with cool, refreshing water, but when you get closer you realize that's only a trick of the desert to pull you in. The wind batters you relentlessly, screaming past your car.

But the moment you step on the base, a little of the mystique becomes clear. You'll be told not to pet the kittens that live on your roof. Why not? Because they're not actually kittens - they're mountain lions. You'll be told to shut your windows whenever the wind blows, or when the street sweeper goes by, or when somebody's doing construction. Why? Because breathing the dirt can cause a fatal disease known as valley fever. You'll be told to keep an eye on the ground. Why? Well, for one thing, because you don't want to get bitten by the poisonous rattlesnakes that lay out in the sun and get grumpy when disturbed. But more importantly, if you look closely, you'll see tiny owls popping their heads up from the ground. They'll stare at you like they've never seen anything like you before, and then solemnly disappear back into their holes like groundhogs. 

Harper and I were initially shocked by our surroundings. I, for one, had moved to Edwards from Ohio, and I'd never imagined that a place like this actually existed. I poked and prodded the joshua trees, wondering if they were real, or if someone had planted them there to give us an illusion of trees. I reached my hand into a creosote bush to grab a golf ball and found myself face-to-face with a hissing snake. I reluctantly put my toys away to come inside whenever the dust started to swirl higher in the air. There were some things about Edwards that were inconvenient at best, or even dangerous if you weren't careful. But it was so different from what I was used to that I was intrigued, too. 

Harper was just like me - marooned in a strange environment that offered the alluring prospect of danger, with plenty of room left over to add more danger with a little imagination. We initially bonded while doing charity work (at least, that's how I remember it - her story is a little different) but we soon extended our friendship to solving mysteries.

There were plenty of mysteries to solve at Edwards, but the one that struck us immediately was a very simple anomaly we observed right in our own neighborhood. Between our two houses, there was a dirt hill. Above the hill was a golf course, separated from the neighborhood by a tall chain-link fence. One day, when we were exploring the hill, we noticed that there were numerous golf balls that had somehow made it over or through the fence. We couldn't rationalize this, because the fence was taller than us (and therefore must be extremely tall, we thought!) so we came to the (obvious) conclusion that someone had put them there. And why would they have done that, if not to leave a message? And who would they be leaving a message for, if not the secret fort that (obviously) must be under the hill?

Our imaginations took flight at once, and soon the Mystery Under the Hill, as we called it, had a whole body of canon lore, including:

1. All golf balls are secret messages. All markings on them are important, especially ones made with Sharpie.

2. There is a fort under the hill inhabited by the Secret Golfer. The Mysterious Golfer is leaving him messages through golf balls he plants on the hill.

3. Somehow, even though the dust underground is poisonous, the Secret Golfer isn't dying in his underground fort. Maybe the pipes on the hill are his ventilation system??

... and so on. 

We had many exciting adventures surrounding that mystery. We ran from innocent (and probably terribly confused) pedestrians at night, explored the hill with our flashlights, and kept a careful record of what color the flag on the golf course was. The lore grew, and the adventures we hadn't had yet - but wanted - grew, too. We hadn't yet saved the base from whoever was living under the hill, but we were determined to do it. We anxiously told our dads - both colonels at the time - that they needed to do something about what was going on, otherwise the base might get taken over and destroyed from the inside. They played along, adding an extra layer of intrigue to everything we'd imagined already.

And soon, the body of knowledge we'd gathered became too big for us to memorize. So we started writing it down - in bullet form, at first, but that didn't satisfy either of us for long. We wanted the action to be recorded for posterity, and we wanted to embellish it a little, too. I'd never taken Harper on a vacation to my favorite beach, but I thought that perhaps, if I wrote about it in my notebook, it would feel more like it was coming true. Or maybe it would come true if I planned and hoped hard enough. 

I opened my neon pink notebook that I'd been keeping track of "clues" in, and I wrote my first story. Harper, her sister, and I managed to ensnare the Secret Golfer and turn him in to the general, who rewarded us with a ceremony in front of the whole base. Deep down inside, I knew that would never happen. But the beauty of writing it down was that, in some sense, it went from fiction to reality. Reality in a parallel universe, to be sure - one that I'd created with my pencil - but I found it almost as satisfying as experiencing the real thing. 

Military assignments don't usually last very long. About a year into our adventures, Harper and I both moved away from Edwards. That didn't stop us from continuing the mystery - apparently, the Secret golfer was just so invested in these nine-year-olds that he had to follow us to our new homes! We wrote long emails to each other detailing the strange events we experienced - and some of them were very far-fetched indeed - and unknowingly strengthened our writing skills. 

We soon recognized that we loved to write, even when the mystery wasn't involved. A few months later, Harper and I both wrote our first novels. Hers was fantasy, mine was historical fiction. We traded books and offered each other encouraging feedback. 

That's the simple, childish story of how I first began writing. As simple as it seems, though, it had a lasting impact on my life. Because here I am, still writing, just like I did when I was eight and the world was full of mystery and storytelling potential! 

A story like this could serve to make any number of points about writing. Don't give up on your dreams, for example. Eight-year-old you might know just as much about what future you wants as you do now. But the thread I see weaving clearest throughout my experiences is that inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. As writers, there's nothing we should overlook. An old building, a path through the woods, a random passerby on the street - any of these things can become entwined in our writing. There are two primary skills that all writers should have, besides basic knowledge of grammar: one is research, and the other is observation. To quote Sherlock Holmes: "You see, but you do not observe." As writers, it's our job to not only see, but also to observe, and to turn those observations into fuel for creativity.

Eight-year-old me wouldn't be surprised that I'm still writing. After all, back then, storytelling already felt like my natural way of expressing myself and turning thing I wished would come true into stories that I could experience through writing. Golf balls may be a rather unique inspiration, but the point is - it worked.


Bonus: present-day me at the famous hill!



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