I don’t clearly remember when I started writing for the joy of it, but I do remember when I fell in love with words. I was a tiny six, perhaps seven, sitting in the back seat of my Dad’s bright yellow Renault hatchback as he gave my mom and me a ride to school.
Mom taught at my school, although always a lower or higher grade than the one I happened to be in–avoiding a conflict of interests, I suppose. Dad would buy a newspaper first thing in the morning, and I was tasked with reading the day’s feature stories out loud to him during the half hour it took to get to school.
Whenever I stumbled over words I didn’t know, he would help me pronounce them, but wouldn’t tell me their meaning. My job was to make note of those words and look them up myself in his massive, navy blue, cloth-bound Oxford English Dictionary when we got back home that evening.
Looking up words in the dictionary was a great adventure for me. I couldn’t wait to rifle through those tissue-thin pages, searching for the meanings of those words; going off on rabbit trails to related and unrelated words that beckoned to me from all over. I loved it! I still do.
And so it was that the weekly spelling bee in my second and third grade classes became my favorite memories of those grades. Our teacher would give us a list of words to memorize each week and then test us the following week. I almost always aced the tests; I hated getting words wrong (still do).
As we got older, Dad introduced us kids to children’s books that didn’t have pictures in them. I remember being in 4th grade and absolutely loathing those reading assignments. We tried to cheat by reading only the beginnings and endings, but Dad always found us out when we couldn’t tell him how the story had progressed. So we started reading the books from cover to cover. That was probably when I fell in love with writing.
While reading these books under duress, I discovered wonderful stories that transported me to completely different worlds. I imagined the people, places and events described, and became obsessed with discovering worlds outside the realm of what I knew from personal experience.
Fourth grade was also when we began to write essays in earnest, based on a given topic, or an opening sentence. From all the reading that I had done, I found it quite easy to create imaginary worlds, people, places and events in my essays. I had so much fun doing it, that it didn’t seem like work at all. English was one of my favorite subjects, next to Math (go figure).
I was 11 when my English teacher asked the class to write our own version of a major pan-African sporting event that Kenya was hosting that year. There was so much excitement around those games–in personal discussions, on television, in the newspapers. I gave the essay my best shot.
Once we had turned in our essays and our teacher had graded them, he pulled me aside and asked whether I had copied a newspaper article for my essay. The question was absurd because we had written the essay in class, within an allotted time frame, under his watchful eyes. When I answered in the negative, he said to me:
You write so well! You should consider becoming a journalist.
That was the first time I became remotely aware that I had some talent in writing. My parents were not thrilled by his pronouncement, and they shot down the idea of me pursuing journalism.
You wouldn’t make enough money to live on. Forget about journalism and think of a career with better pay.
And so I did. Forget. For 8 years. But that’s another story. I never stopped writing, though; I couldn’t help but write. It’s still one of the things that brings me great joy.