Category Archives: Who I am
Could I write something that stirred up a Great Idea? That suggested an answer to a Great Question? That could change the reader into someone he/she hadn’t been before reading my work?
Graduation approached. I asked one of my professors – one I respected a lot – if I had enough talent to pursue writing as a career. He told me that I could write well enough, but as yet had nothing to say. He recommended waiting a few years. I knew perfectly well that my understanding of life wasn’t sufficient. But I spent half a year trying to prove him wrong. I didn’t particularly like slick ladies’ magazines, but they were the one of the places that published short stories. I couldn’t hope to complete with Salinger in the New Yorker, and my fellow creative writing majors and I scorned Pearl Buck for publishing in the Ladies Home Journal. (I cringe to remember this!) But I figured none of the other Creative Writing majors would know, so I tried writing and submitting short stories to the Journal and other women’s magazines that published fiction. They were unimpressed.
So I turned to the world I’d discovered – the world of ideas, and did post graduate work in philosophy, which, as it turns out, I was very good at. Gotta love that Socrates!
I worked part-time at a nearby library, too, which reminds me that it’s always possible that even the least detail can work to your advantage. My job was at Haverford College, a Quaker college, and I learned a lot about Quakers by default – and used what I’d found to give the character of Elizabeth Warden (This the House) an individuality quite different from most women in the late 1700’s. Or at any other time, for that matter.
I should make mention of Potts’ Plots, too, a detail that turned out to be quite valuable. We Creative Writing majors didn’t just write short stories. We did journalism and poetry and playwriting. Now that was fun! Professor Potts was the teacher, a benign older gentleman who was willing to lend a hand to students in the new major. Of course we dubbed it “Potts’ Plots” and found that we were awful at writing plays. Yet it was instructive, and I recommend all aspiring writers of give it a try because your characters can let the audience know how they are reacting to whatever crisis is at hand only by their actions and tone of voice (which you need to include in the directions). Likewise, they move around according to those directions, and as the author, you’re watching their every move to see if it makes sense. A very important part of writing is that you don’t tell the reader what the character thinks, you communicate it by gestures, actions, and dialogue. It makes for a much stronger style. So Professor Potts actually contributed a lot to my “skill set”.
Meanwhile, having failed as a writer, being too young to be a philosopher, I slogged along at the library until the summer I went windjamming on Nantucket Sound.
Once again I abandoned my career as a journalist and went off to college, starting at Wittenberg in Springfield Ohio, then transferring to the University of Pennsylvania when my parents pulled up roots and moved to the Philadelphia area. At Penn found I writing again.
(Mr. Franklin, of course! It’s his college, after all.)
I hadn’t started college with writing in mind, but Penn had recently set up a Creative Writing major at the time my family and I moved there, and its course requirements bypassed almost all my weaknesses except for French (which I’d rather not think about.) We creative writing majors had a broad choice of electives and were required to write a short story every week, leaving them in a folder at the library so that classmates could access them. In class, everybody got to make comments about the stories they’d read. Out loud. When the time was right, you had to read your story. Out loud.
It was sheer agony. It’s no secret that the author reveals himself or herself in their writing – but who are you when you’re young? Peggy Anderson, of “Peggy’s Troubles” was obviously “me” as a sixth grader. The failed novel I started the following summer couldn’t tap into “me” because “I” hadn’t begun to build an adult identity, and wasn’t a child any more, either. But in college, that identity is gathering, and it is going to be discovered by your readers. Naturally no one knows what part of the writing is “you” and what part has been “made up” – but somewhere in that tangle, “you” are there. What if “I” wasn’t OK? And what if I wasn’t a very good writer? My pretense to talent would be found out. Everyone would know I wasn’t good. Perhaps they’d think I was mediocre, the worst curse of all.
But despite my agonizing, the free range of course selection did serve to broaden my perspective, just like it was supposed to, and my outlook on life was altered. There was more to it than looking nice, being nice, and finding someone to marry. The Great Questions were out there, waiting to be answered. There was Great Art to discover, and Great Music, and Great Ideas. I was definitely unequal to the task, having not been exposed to intellectual excellence before, but it was so exciting that I didn’t even mind being so far behind. At least I was there, where all this stuff was going on, and it was like walking into a greenhouse, where the very air vibrates with growth and moisture lies in layers. If I failed as a writer, perhaps I could be a thinker. Penn was the place to learn how, that was for sure.
Having achieved status as a writer with my sixth grade classmates, (perhaps you remember Peggy’s Troubles) I decided that like Jo March (Little Women), I needed a lair like she had, in the attic. (Ms. March had supplanted Nancy Drew by then.)
The privacy and quiet of Jo’s attic hideout was very instrumental in her success, it seemed to me. If I was going to be a writer, I needed my own space. But unfortunately, the attic was out. My sister was already using ours, so I claimed a domain of my own in the basement. Curtaining off a corner that had a little window, (you know – the kind that’s mostly below grade, with a curved metal retainer to hold the earth back), I found a table I could use as a desk, like Jo was using in the picture) and a lamp (it was a bit dim in the basement).
Pencils sharpened, paper ready, I set to work on the first rainy day. Seated self, arranged paper, picked up pencil…
And discovered that while the office was very cool (figuratively and literally) it did not supply inspiration. How did you write a novel, anyway? Where do you start?
With a heroine, dummy! Her name was Elizabeth van Landingham. She was from a wealthy family, and no one liked her, including me. It was then I discovered the next hurdle: drafting a creative piece soon gets boring, especially if you don’t have much sympathy with the main character. Once you’re done with a draft, working on its style and adding to it will make it come alive, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just kept plugging along and, if I remember correctly, threw the unedited pages out when summer came to an end and, with a measure of relief, dismantled the office and went back to school.
Here’s my alma mater, Harvard Elementary, grades k-8. Impressive, don’t you think? I was entering 7th after my summer in the basement. I don’t think I wrote much after that, until high school and a chance to be a newspaper reporter.
I’m totally excited about having met so many Kingsland readers recently, at the Falmouth Arts Alive Festival. Many had read the first two books of the Kingsland Series, and were looking for the third. Many had read the first, and were looking for volumes 2 and 3. For me, this was the first fair of 6 that I plan to attend, and I’m hoping that more readers will show up in Yarmouth, Sandwich, Brewster, Hyannis or Orleans. When I originally wrote and published this series 35 years ago, I never met anyone (I was living in Vermont). So my summer marketing scheme is a pleasant change of pace.
I’m hoping to “meet” other readers via this blog – you are encouraged to simply say “hi” or “I liked this post”. You don’t have to say why if you don’t want to! (But if you didn’t like it, you do have to say why, so I can respond to whatever it is you object to or disagree with.)
If you’re on the Cape this summer and attend one of the fairs, you’ll find me in this outfit (“The Heir” starts in 1928). Passersby liked my headdress, and everyone got a souvenir who wanted one, because the feather boa was moulting the whole day and little black fluffy things were scattered throughout the fairground.
I guess it’s time to order a “real” one.
My first foray into the world of writing was described in my April 2 post. To continue:
Like most writers, I have always been an avid reader. First came Thornton Burgess’s books:
My father had a whole set of these from his childhood, and I plowed through them all, more than once. But eventually I wanted something with a more human perspective, so the Bobbsey Twins came into my life.
I might not have loved them if I’d seen this cover – in fact, none of the books in my little library had dust jackets. This one is so sweet and sickening I’d have probably scorned it if I’d known. But I didn’t, and there were many books in the set. I read every one I could get a hand on until I met Nancy Drew, girl detective.
Nancy was a great favorite among us girls, and when I was in the fifth grade, a friend and I decided we’d write a mystery novel with a heroine like Nancy. We thought that making up a girl like her, smart, able to solve mysteries that adults couldn’t – shouldn’t be too hard.
(In case there’s anyone who doesn’t know, Nancy’s the 1940’s equivalent of Harry Potter.)
So, my friend and I asked our teacher if we could confer in the cloak room on rainy days during recess. Mrs. Clark agreed nearly instantly, after extracting certain promises about behavior when we were in there. I don’t think she believed we had talent (a little young to judge that, in any case,) but I do believe she hoped this would be a way to keep me out of trouble. In fact, I was a pain in the neck, even when I didn’t mean to be, and I was very lucky that she was willing to go the extra mile instead of banishing me to the principal’s office when it was indoor recess time.
So there we were, my friend and I, now able to take chairs and a table into the cloak room on rainy cold days that winter when the kids couldn’t go out. Our exclusivity was very exciting, but unfortunately we couldn’t agree on a name for our heroine. After several recesses, we decided that each of us would write her own book, though we continued to use the cloakroom whenever possible to avoid the bedlam of indoor recess. But my friend lost interest in this project, and by then it was spring. The playground called.
I didn’t think more about it until the following year when again, indoor recess became a reality. I explained to my sainted 6th grade teacher, Ruth Smith, that I’d been given permission to use the cloak room on rainy days the year before, and could I use it again? She not only gave me permission, but also suggested I read what I wrote to the class. I agreed, though a little reluctant to actually stand up there in front of God and everybody and show what I was made of. But I did, for there were my classmates, who would be given a reprieve from schoolwork while listening to me. But would the kids like what I wrote? Since they’d be getting out of work, I didn’t think the quality of my writing would be a problem for them. I knew no one would make fun of me, but much worse would be their boredom. I could just picture it:
There’s always one person, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, following each word. As for the others…I tried to forget about them. After a few chapters were complete, I DID IT. I told Mrs. Smith that I had enough. She waited until 2:00 that Friday and had everyone clear their desks and fold their hands, with the admonition to listen.
And they did! They listened well. No noise at all. Just me, droning on and on. This would never do! I began to get dramatic, so they wouldn’t fall asleep, and they didn’t! They clapped when I was done, and although I probably hadn’t read for more than 15 minutes, because I didn’t have more than that written. Since our books had been put away, Mrs. Smith gave us the rest of the afternoon to read or draw or even talk (quietly) to each other. Needless to say, I became very popular very fast. And began to write fast, too, because the kids were expecting more the following Friday. In fact, I read every Friday for the rest of the year, about a girl named Peggy who was much like me, always getting herself into some sort of fix that she’d have to figure her way out of. I was savvy enough to always stop just before the resolution of whatever trouble Peggy was in, so the kids would remain interested. I was able to rescue us all from the tedium of having to study late Friday afternoon, but by the end of the school year I was definitely running low on ideas, and was glad when school let out for the summer.
And that was my second foray into writing.
I’m often asked when I began writing, and I answer (somewhat smugly, I’ll admit) “I was eleven years old”. But this is not true. My career actually began a few years before, with the publication of The Bugle. (I apologize for the awkward placement of inserts. Maybe WordPress will help me wrap text around later.)
Now, The Bugle would have disappeared into oblivion (where it belongs) were it not for my mother, who saved each issue. I discovered them when going through her things, and took a few to remind myself of my first writing experience which, until then, I’d forgotten.
I was nine years old, my sister 13, and we were stuck for something to do on a rainy winter’s weekend. My mother had always encouraged creative endeavor of any kind, so we set about being creative, and published a family newspaper. My sister’s printing was nice and neat, as you can see:
But the day arrived, rather soon, when Marcia was no longer interested in printing The Bugle. Undaunted, I forged on by myself:
We had moved to Ohio from the Boston area, and Mrs. Newman was a family friend from our former life. I don’t know what the circled “3” meant – maybe third edition. Please note the weather has been faithfully recorded. There were, of course, other stories of interest:
But the reporter/printer eventually ran out of steam, and so The Bugle was shut down and, the weather no doubt improving, its publisher went out to play.