Mark WarrenMy earliest memories of writing paint an image of me at six or seven sitting at the card table that my parents kept stored in a closet off the den. It was always a rainy day; otherwise, I would have been outside. (To this day, rainy days bring out the best in my writing.) I don’t know why I chose that portable table as my workspace. I did have a desk in the room I shared with my brother – a place where I did homework and wrote letters and such. It seems that creative writing always merited that ritual of unfolding the card table legs and claiming an independent site in a room less traveled. So I sequestered myself in our living-room, a place utilized only when unfamiliar guests visited.

I began by estimating the length of my work and appropriating the correct number of blank stationery papers from my father’s desk. Opening a drawer of that desk was against parental law, but I did it regularly and was never prosecuted. So provisioned with brand new sheets of paper, I stacked them carefully and folded them at mid-length to make an 8 ½" by 5 ½" booklet of blank pages. Then, by opening the pages flat again and punching holes at the fold line, I threaded yarn along the “spine” of my book, tying it off on the outside. Therefore, it must be said: Before I was a writer, I was a book binder.

Then began the writing.

That moment before touching pen to paper was always an exciting one. The pristine blankness of the paper suggested endless possibilities: adventure stories, science-fiction, family drama, animal fables, etc. The sky was the limit. It was entirely possible that my book-to-be might be a masterpiece. In fact, many were...if my reviews at that age can be believed.

Adobe MoonSoon, lost in my work, I leaned over the paper and listened peripherally to the scratch of my pen, while my main concentration focused on the story. Never structuring an outline, I followed that creative path known as “winging it.” (Sixty-something years later, I still work that way.)  Each time that I arrived at a particularly memorable scene in the tale, I saved half a page for an illustration that I would add later.

I grew up in the time of illustrated novels. I loved turning a book’s page and discovering an artist’s conception of the text I had just read.

I should mention here that I grew up in the time of illustrated novels. I loved turning a book’s page and discovering an artist’s conception of the text I had just read. Often, to protect the picture, a sheet of onion-skin paper – something like tissue – was built into the binding. This gossamer layer made the illustration seem all the more precious. So, naturally I wanted such additions of artwork to enrich my book.

I was careful not to overdo the number of drawings. Allowing only one every few pages, I was determined not to be confused as a comic book writer. I was a novelist.

If I could, I would include here one of those early works. But I can’t. In my forties – when still I had not published anything outside of articles in my high school newspaper – I lost everything in a house fire. Everything. Paradoxically, it was that fire that would spawn my first published book.

Up until that life-changing conflagration, I had been working on my magnum opus novel for quite a few years. On the night that a lightning bolt set my house ablaze, I was many miles away coming home from a job. Sadly, my one and only hand-written copy of my book was at home. By the time I pulled up to the smoking ruins, everything was charcoal black. Everything, that is, except my novel. It glowed a bright orange. Apparently, it died hard.

By the time I pulled up to the smoking ruins, everything was charcoal black. Everything, that is, except my novel. It glowed a bright orange. Apparently, it died hard.

The loose-leaf notebook encasing my writing had been a big one. It was four inches thick with lined paper, every line filled with scribbles, every margin plump with notes, corrections, and impromptu additions. It seemed an insurmountable task to replicate it. For months, the idea was so depressing that I simply could not bring myself to try.
I should ease back into writing something less ambitious, I told myself. Yet getting back to pen and paper seemed always to take a back seat to other post-fire activities. So many things seemed more pressing. Like figuring out where to live.

As it turned out, losing my home ushered me into a Native American tipi, where I would live for the next two years in the mountains of north Georgia. In such a lifestyle, living is a full-time occupation, but once I was settled into the rhythms of tipi-life, write I did. And what better to write about than the primitive path I had chosen? It was this story that would become my first published book, a memoir entitled Two Winters in a Tipi.

Seven published books later, I can finally say that I am, officially, a novelist. That memoir of my tipi years, it must be said, was the first steppingstone. If it took a fire to get me where I am today, then so be it. I am grateful for the flames. I keep some of that fire inside me to this day, and on a good day I feel a spark catch and the flame build, as writers have probably experienced since the beginning of the written word.