How I Became a Writer

by Mary E. Lyons

When people ask where I'm from, I always say the South. I was born in Georgia, and by the age of eleven I had already lived in five southern states and eight southern towns. That's why most of my books concern the South: it's my way of finding home.

Moving around was hard for a little girl. I didn't know it at the time, but reading provided an instant escape. If I felt uncomfortable with a strange neighborhood or a new school, I glued myself to a book and forgot it all.

I come from a family of hungry readers - no matter where we lived, Dad made sure that visits to the library and newsstands kept us full. Mom had a hard time getting us to put our books down long enough to eat real food. It was okay to prop a book against a cereal box at breakfast, but we all had to obey the no-reading-at-the-dinner-table rule.

Growing up, I loved the idea of being a writer, although I didn't write much at all. In the sixth grade I spent my afternoons with a girl who lived up the street. We sat on her porch swing every day after school. Together we wrote scraps of poetry and dreamed up sappy titles for romance novels. But I was much more interested in reading books than in writing them.

Life has a weird way of sending us what we need to complete ourselves. When I was a reading teacher, I discovered that my eighth-grade classes enjoyed stories by woman writers and African-American writers. They especially loved the humorous folktales collected by Zora Neale Hurston. There was no biography of her in the school library for the students to read, so I wrote my first book, Sorrow's Kitchen: The Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston.

History classes have always made me yawn. All those wars, battles, treaties, and dates - what a bore. But to write about Zora I had to understand what life was like for a black woman in the first half of the twentieth century. I had to relearn everything I had studied years before in high school and college: World War I, the depression, World War II, the civil rights movement.

This time I studied with Zora in mind. Her difficulties and triumphs reminded me of the ups and downs in my own life. Because I found a way to put myself inside the past, history finally made sense. Now I like learning history, especially when it is told from a woman's point of view.