Today’s piece is written by Cathryn Humphris, who was a Story Editor on “Supernatural.” Now she’s a professional picketer.
To hear my family tell it, my love of storytelling became apparent at an early age. My Grandma remembers me at two years old, holding up a book and calling her over to “come hear me read!” Skeptical, she listened as I proceeded to babble through a complicated narrative. When I put the book down, she reached for it, amazed at her tiny granddaughter’s skill. It was then that she discovered I’d been holding the book upside down. I’d made the entire thing up. And my Grandma knew, right then, what it would take me years to figure out: I was a writer. It was in my blood, and my soul, and no matter how hard I tried to fight it, it was all I was ever really cut out to do.
My mother, mostly as a way to keep an over-active toddler out of her hair, taught me to actually read when I was four. I fell in love with books quickly. I would find a quiet corner of our house and sit for hours, devouring story after story, lost inside my own head. In elementary school, my teachers noticed my passion, and they introduced me to a wide array of new books. One day, my second grade teacher handed me the first book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever met me that I was hooked immediately. The books had everything I loved: compelling stories, full of twists and turns; dramatic settings; and most of all, a plucky heroine who was smarter and faster than all the boys. I devoured Laura’s stories, and I immersed myself in her world, often dressing up as her, carrying my lunch to school in a tin can just like she had (you’d think I was completely friendless, right? Luckily I was good at kickball, which was enough to keep the boys in my class interested in me. That changed upon puberty; my athletic prowess flew out the window overnight. Thankfully, by then I knew enough to shun the costumes, at least in public). Back then, I thought life was pretty good – lots of books to read, trees to climb, and boys to chase. But then a truly amazing thing happened. I discovered a television show called “Little House on the Prairie.” It was based on the books I so loved, and it actually brought all my favorite characters alive on screen right in front of me!! This was an astounding discovery; I could come home everyday, grab a snack, and plant myself in the living room, where I could watch the adventures of Laura, Mary, Carrie, Ma, and Pa embodied by living people. The beautiful pictures inside my head were now outside, for the whole world to see! I was blown away, I couldn’t get enough – and I knew, deep down, that I had to be a part of this.
It took years for me to discover how it all fit together (someone writes this stuff besides Laura Ingalls Wilder? How does that happen? And will I still get to dress up if I’m the writer?). In the meantime, I wrote, in any medium I could – short stories, newspaper articles, even the occasional poem or song (thankfully all lost long ago). I had another epiphany in junior high, after a friend and I snuck into in an R-rated movie. Afterward, instead of reveling in the gore and violence and explicit sex we’d just witnessed, we spent hours discussing the story. Why was that clue revealed so early on? Why was the supporting character’s storyline suddenly dropped? And what the hell motivated the villain to do that stuff anyway? I couldn’t stop re-thinking the movie. I was just as obsessed with television, which I watched hungrily, running the gamut from Moonlighting to LA Law to Knots Landing. All week I would wonder about the shows – what would Maddie and Dave bicker about this week? What case would Sifuentes take on? After the episodes aired, I would find myself dreaming about the characters. New plotlines, romances, and complications developed unbidden inside my head with increasing frequency. (To this day, I know I’ve really cracked a script when I start dreaming about it.)
Like so many other writers, I belong in the camp of people who hate writing. I hate it with a passion… the endless hours spent trapped in a room alone, terrified that this time nothing’s gonna come, or that what does come will completely suck. I often wonder why I ever thought it would be a good idea to write for a living. I wish I could do something else – make widgets, or file papers, anything that would guarantee a concrete payoff. Instead, I sit, for hours on end, and I stare into the corners of myself and face down my darkest demons. It makes me completely miserable. Unfortunately, for me, the only thing worse than writing is not writing. Because then I never get past the sitting, the staring, the terrifying blank page, past myself, to the place where I can hear my characters. Slowly, softly, they start talking… and then they start walking, and interacting, and heading off on yet another amazing journey. And suddenly I’m typing so fast that it’s all I can do to keep up with them, and I’m loathe to move a muscle because I might miss something. Finally I’ll have to take a break, and I’ll look at the clock and realize the entire day has passed, and I have something down on paper. Something that’s half-finished and maybe no good at all, something that will require all kinds of editing, and I’m already dreading the prospect of sitting back down again and facing all my same fears tomorrow. But I’m also deeply, reverently satisfied, because I know that I’m one step closer to bringing the characters and stories that keep showing up in my head out into the world. To me, it’s always felt like that’s where they belong. And so, despite my hatred of the process, despite my fears, despite the fact that I rarely get to wear a costume, I’ll sit back down again tomorrow (or perhaps the day after, if that’s all I can muster) and try again to serve my characters, to tell their stories, to share them with anyone who will listen. Because I love them. I love getting lost in them. And I’m convinced the rest of the world feels the exact same way.
WHY WE WRITE is a series of essays by prominent – and not so prominent – TV and Film writers. Conceived by Charlie Craig and Thania St. John, the campaign hopes to inspire and inform all writers. If you’d like to comment, or tell us why you write, visit the Why We Write WordPress site or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.