GROWING UP WRITING

By Nancy McCabe
Spalding MFA Faculty, Creative Nonfiction

“…reminiscing about my origins as a writer is not just a nostalgic act, but one that helps me to keep sight of the reasons why I write.”

I’m surprised by people who think of writing as drudgery, an onerous task we take on to punish ourselves only because of our unforgiving work ethics. For me, the need to write goes back to my childhood, when writing was just another game, like playacting or drawing. Writing, when I was young, was a pleasure, a refuge, solace, a chance to play, with no need to demand perfection from myself, and writing as an adult, is, much of the time, an attempt to recapture that experience.

Now, my best writing often happens when I reclaim that fearlessness that wasn’t limited by genre or deadlines or negative feedback or lack of experience or materials. Writing served for me as wish fulfillment, exploration, entertainment, vicarious living. At seven, my fondest wish was to live in a house with a balcony and be able to walk to school, so I wrote plotless stories about heroines who walked home from school every afternoon to sit on their balconies.

Chores became stories: while pulling weeds in my dad’s garden, I imagined I was a child laborer, a migrant weed puller, which evolved into a play written with my cousin, though we chickened out when it was time to perform it. I wrote whatever my material seemed to demand, blithely unaware of genre conventions: plays, stories, memoirs, poems, songs, parodies like another collaboration with cousins and my brother, a masterpiece about a lovely hamburger who met up with a hot dog and gradually formed a meal. That’s the way they all became the Brady’s Lunch. I even studied by writing:  a journal of a girl during the Industrial Revolution, a completely static story called “Five Girls Discuss the American Revolution,” which I never showed to anyone but which impressed on me enough information to make an A on an eighth grade history test.

I loved writing so much that I was kind of excited when teachers made me write 100 times “I will not talk when the teacher is talking,” or, in the sixth grade, an essay on “What to Be Quiet Means.” I labored over an essay called “What Watt Two Bee Quiet Means Means,” a parody of my assigned punishment that my teacher checked off and tossed into the trash without reading.

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Some of Nancy’s early writing

I didn’t worry much about deadlines; the Bicentennial issue of my cousin’s and my yarn-bound magazine Smile-A-While, begun around 1975, didn’t come out until 1978, long after the hype was over. I wasn’t picky about materials; my parents were the proprietors of two double knit fabric shops, and I wrote stories on the backs of  green and yellow and blue handbills and stored my work in old fabric sample folders, huge and shiny with pockets and rows of labelled swatches glued inside—“Raspberry, spumoni, willow, orchid kisses.” Before the age of easily available blank books, my cousin and I wrote novels in discarded phone books in red and green ink over the black and white type, just so that our work appeared in bound books.

Of course, now I know that writing is also work—but if I find myself sighing loudly and feeling too frustrated, I try to take a break from serious and difficult material, switch gears, work on a different project, do an exercise, go read a book. The projects that I initially work on just for fun sometimes, over time, turn into something more: when a friend and I wrote a long series of e-mails to each other about rereading our favorite children’s books, my book From Little Houses to Little Women was born; when I set out to write a ghost story as a distraction almost twenty-five years ago, the seeds for my recently published novel Following Disasters took root.

And when I get a rejection, I remember my ninth grade English teacher, Miss Tromble, who announced on the last day of class, “There is only one person in here with the imagination to be a writer.” And then she fluttered her eyelashes at a guy named Jeff who wrote about his parrot who spoke twelve languages. And to this day, I want to e-mail her and say, “WHO DID YOU MEAN, MISS TROMBLE?” But obviously, it doesn’t really matter. People say things, and we go on writing anyway, because in the process, pressures recede, perspective shifts, the world looks richer and shinier, and occasionally the work finds a new form or a new direction or an appreciative audience. And reminiscing about my origins as a writer is not just a nostalgic act, but one that helps me to keep sight of the reasons why I write.  

Why did you start writing, and how do you retain playfulness in your writing process? What do you do, even when writing is hard work, to keep it fresh and fun?


Nancy McCabe once wrote a piece on her childhood writing for Writer’s Digest, but they cut it in half and titled it “Remembering the Magic,” so this is her attempt to redeem herself. She is the author of five books, most recently the novel Following Disasters. She has received a Pushcart Prize and been listed six times in the notable sections of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American series. Her writing has appeared in numerous magazine and journals. She also received a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska.

Below, Nancy speaks about her book From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood:

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