Kit Reed Guest Post–“How I Learned to Write”

For me, it was all about learning, never about teachers, but I couldn’t stop hoping there was a magical How-To-Book-That-Explains-It-All-To-You. Or a great coach who would love to tell me all about How It’s Done.

P.S., there wasn’t, although there used to be a Famous Writers School claiming that for a down payment and your monthly contribution, they would. I did a story about their correspondence course for the New Haven Register back in the day, and was gifted with a dozen hefty volumes. I handed them off to my mother, one of those nice old ladies who said she “always wanted to write.” She never did. People who say they want to be writers don’t always mean what they say.

I started writing before I knew how to read; I couldn’t even print. I was four, and my mother did the printing, dutifully copying my question: “Is that all right?” in the middle of the story and dutifully reading it back to me. I made her erase it and covered the mess with an illustration: Harbor the Easter-basket bunnyrabbit running away from home.

The next one, also “Illustrated by the author,” I printed all by myself. And the next. And the next. I’ve run my own shop ever since. My third-grade effort, “Harbor and Shamrock Wilson,” made me really proud. Harbor’s plane crashed in Africa and she met an African princess named Shamrock. Shamrock turned out to be her long-lost sister, so she got on the plane with Harbor and they went home. There were others in the series, up to and including Harbor comics, and at some point I sent them all to Reilly & Lee, the Oz books’ publishers, thinking, Hey. My flapcrap was already written: “Kitten Craig is twelve years old and she has her own horse.” They sent me a really nice letter thanking me, but, no.

The great thing about being an only child, particularly an only child that other kids don’t like, is, a. you have your very own stuff and it always stays where you put it, and b. you spend most of your time alone inside your own head. Sober reflections. Imagined conversations. What you wish you’d said instead of what you actually said. What you wish would happen, instead of what usually did.

By the time I was reading too much and summer meant being put to bed long before it got dark, I had a Western extravaganza playing inside my head before I went to sleep — not a serial, exactly, but, yeah. Kids on a ranch; Dick and Daisy, Brad and Brenda and Rusty all had their own horses and they were all six, seven, eight, nine years old, and I think Rusty rode out with me; we all had our own horses and plenty of friends, wish fulfillment much? I was at least eleven before they rode off into the land of the uncreated for the very last time.

I missed them, but I was too old to bring them back. And old enough to know that wish fulfillment wasn’t anything I wanted to write. My mother was a vicarious hypochondriac; go heh kaff kaff and she’d put me to bed for the day. It beat going to school. Books, lined notebooks. Drawings. Aborted short stories, an aborted script called “The Banditti.” Best line evah: “‘Good heavens,’ Deanna ejaculated.'”

Other kids hated me in a whole batch of grammar schools up and down the East coast; I was “the new kid” so many times that I never figured that one out, the why. Another problem: I read so much that I had an outrageously big vocabulary, which meant I spent too much time being called up front to read my Thing out loud. Like they would learn from that. Or, because Sister Clarice thought listening to a smart sixth-grader would be a good example, in front of the whole seventh grade.

So some of the kids hated me because I was smart, but I think most of them hated me because, no matter where I went, I was Not Like Them.

Are you bored yet?

High school: trying to assimilate. Pretending I was dumb. Boys. Boarding school. Nope, I didn’t write anything much until college — one poetry class my roommate and I took to ghost verse for some idiot who idolized the teacher; one overenthusiastic woman who… I wish I could remember! One senior thesis approved so I could avoid a research paper — short stories, all in a folder somewhere, and then, and this is important:

The newsroom of The St. Petersburg Times; The New Haven Register, back when it was a real newspaper. Guys with cigars who expected you to get it written and get it right and get it done on deadline, no errors, no apologies and no excuses. That’s where I really learned to write.

And the most important thing I learned? No whining. Ever. 

In my day, I’ve had three busted novels, all of which still break my heart; shit happens. After my first couple of sales I averaged 220 stories a year for three years. None of them ever saw print, but back when I was trying to write science fiction, I got great refusals from great editors: “you write too well to be writing this kind of crap,” –Fred Pohl, ed. If. And I sent a note with my story to famous agoraphobe H.L. Gold, editor of Galaxy: “Dear Mr. Gold, how does this grab you?” “Right down the throat and by the lunch.” –H.L. Gold.

That’s how I learned to write.


About the Author

Born into a Navy family, Kit Reed moved so often as a kid that she never settled down in one place, and she doesn’t know whether that’s A Good Thing or not. As a kid, she spent two years in the tidelands of South Carolina, in Beaufort and on Parris Island, both landmarks on the Inland Waterway. It’s a very good thing in its relationship to Where, in which the entire population of a small island vanishes. Her fiction covers territory variously labeled speculative fiction/science fiction/literary fiction, with stops at stations in between that include horror, dystopian SF, psychothrillers and black comedy, making her “transgenred.” (The pitch line for this new novel came to her overnight: Everybody on Kraven Island is gone. Even they don’t know Where.)

Recent novels are Son of Destruction and, from Tor, Enclave, The Baby Merchant and the ALA award-winning Thinner Than Thou. Her stories appear in venues ranging from Asimov’s SF and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to The Yale Review and The Norton Anthology. Her newest collection is The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book of Stories, from the Wesleyan University Press. She was twice nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Tiptree Award. A Guggenheim fellow, Reed is Resident Writer at Wesleyan University, and serves on the board of The Authors League Fund.

2 thoughts on “Kit Reed Guest Post–“How I Learned to Write”

  • July 9, 2015 at 10:53 am

    “People who say they want to be writers don’t always mean what they say.”

    I can’t remember who said it, but it’s true: many of those who say they want to write actually just want to have written.


Leave a Reply

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