Origin Story

I’m not into superheroes, but I do enjoy a good origin story. I like to know where people come from, how they ended up where they are, and what led them to their areas of interest—professional and personal. And if you’re a writer, I especially want to know how you got started. Were you one of those kids who kept a daily journal starting in second grade, never missing an entry? Or was it encouragement from a beloved middle school English teacher? Did you have the support of parents? Or was writing almost an illicit activity, something you hid from friends and family?

I was an early bloomer in adolescence, the first of my friends to need a bra all those years ago, the girl who always looked a few years older than she was. I am a late bloomer when it comes to writing, though, and sometimes I wonder why I didn’t start sooner. The journals of my 20s and 30s are peppered with variations on, “I want to write, but don’t know how to get started.” Somewhere along the way I got the idea that you had to know what you were going to write before you began. I wrote with confidence for school and work. Give me a topic, a page limit, and I’d dive right in, but I didn’t know how to get started with a blank page and no parameters. It seemed there was some magic writers knew that I wasn’t privy to.

black and white photo of Jessica's mom reading a book to Jessica when she was a toddler
My mom, Laura, and me. Even then I took books very seriously.

The written word has always been an integral part of my life thanks to my mom. I was a voracious reader as a young child. Although those early years together were lean times, my mom made sure I always had access to books. As I grew older, when my mom wanted me to learn about something specific, especially something I now suspect she wasn’t sure how to teach me herself, she’d hand me a book. One day I received Period: A Girl’s Guide. Another day it was What’s Happening to Me? A Guide to Puberty. These books may not have answered every single question I had, but they filled in a lot of gaps and gave me something to hold onto through my uncertainty. Not surprisingly, when a new challenge crosses my path I still reach for a book. I want the security of words written by someone who’s come out the other side.

Several years ago what I needed was a parenting how-to manual, the guidebook on raising an adolescent who was struggling in ways unfamiliar to me. I found countless books addressing the tenuous teenage journey, books about kids charting the well-worn course of unpleasant—but ‘normal’—adolescence. Those stories just didn’t resonate. I wasn’t sure what path we were on, but it wasn’t that. Throughout, I journaled furiously, documenting my confusion and helplessness. I didn’t find solutions in those pages, but patterns emerged over time and the practice of writing became my sacred coping strategy. I couldn’t see it right away, but I was following my mom’s lead.

After her own mother died in 2003, my mom embarked on an unusual writing journey at the suggestion of her beloved spiritual teacher and friend, Francis. It began as a question written in her non-dominant hand to a bird who kept appearing at my mom’s window, and an answer that came from who knows where written in her dominant hand. This exchange became a regular practice, and the pages that grew to fill a large white binder contained a deep, expansive wisdom that felt bigger than just my mom.

Four years later, as my mom’s own illness progressed beyond the realm of standard treatment options, I became drawn to memoirs exploring grief, loss, and end-of-life journeys. Some of the authors recounted in such detail that I began to journal more intentionally about what we were going through so I could remember, too. Those stories also gave me a template for exploring some of my greatest fears and a chance to practice resilience along with the narrators. At some point my need to consume the stories of others morphed into wanting to write my own, to find meaning and make connections with others the way those authors had with me.

A few years ago I came across a book proposal my mom wrote, but never sent, while she navigated her third and final journey with cancer. In addition to the binder of spiritual writings, she had a partial draft of a memoir in the form of a blog she began two years before her death. Discovering this artifact of my mom’s aborted writing life felt like a message from her telling me not to wait any longer. It wasn’t my mom’s fault that she didn’t get to share her writing more widely, but what was I waiting for?

I can no longer imagine a life without writing. I’d like to tell my younger self to start earlier, let go of insecurities, and not be afraid of rejection.

I’d love to know your origin story. If you’re reading our blog even occasionally, you likely have at least a passing interest in some creative pursuit. If not for money, then to keep your hands busy while you binge watch the latest Netflix original series, or while your kid is at their weekly dance class. What got you started knitting, or painting, or writing? Who was an early believer, your first encourager? And if you haven’t started yet, what’s holding you back?

2 thoughts on “Origin Story”

  1. So well written and insightful. A beautiful lesson for writer ‘wanna be’s’ , too. And that picture looked so much like you and Benson!
    Loved it!

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Julia, and for your kind words. I love that you see Benson and me in the photo of my mom and little me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *