Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Writing Days (and Nights) of My Life

Posted by Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford

There is a certain loneliness in growing up as an "army brat," moving from place to place among other habitual movers, most of them wary of forming permanent attachments under the relentlessly transient circumstances. As an only child, I was also one of the few kids I knew who lacked the company of siblings. My grandmother did live with us, and she shared a room with me until I was 12. She was an excellent cook and a loud snorer. She was also functionally illiterate, having been forced to drop out of school in fifth grade to get a factory job. My obsession with reading (and not with cleaning!) was incomprehensible to her. In retrospect, I am so sad for what she never had the chance to appreciate.

Not to sound too loser-ish, but Ramona and Laura Ingalls Wilder and even the Bobbsey Twins were my ever-reliable friends. I remember spending one sweltering summer day (my grandmother didn't believe in air conditioning or even open windows) writing a "bridge" between On the Banks of Plum Creek and By the Shores of Silver Lake, imagining what had transpired in the unusually long gap between the two installments. (Apparently I was 20 years ahead of HarperCollins in foreseeing the Little House tie-in market.)

In short, I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a writer.

In fact, by high school, my oft-articulated (and, dare I say, unusual) aspiration was to write children's books and soap operas (given my love of serials, continuing characters, and my grandmother's daytime TV habit).

A number of caring souls had persuasively made the case that it was highly unlikely that I would ever earn a living as a fiction writer. I considered a variety of divergent career paths (and in fact came thisclose to accepting an Army ROTC scholarship to become a linguist -- in which case I might be writing this post from Iraq or, more likely, not at all). The one career I never considered was teaching.

Despite my tremendous respect for the excellent teachers who have shaped my life (Mind Games is dedicated to them), I knew I could never be one of them. One of the things I enjoy about writing is the ability to carefully consider every word before I commit to it. The idea of extemporaneous anything makes me sweat.

So I embarked on my pleasantly solitary writerly life, with a large dose of secretarial work to support my aspirations. My first professional byline, unlike Carmela's vaunted anthology, was in Soap Opera Weekly Magazine.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles and became an unpaid intern and then a writers' assistant on my favorite TV show, Days of Our Lives. My 80-year-old grandmother, a die hard fan of a rival soap, would get up from the couch every day (no remote control) and switch the channel to the end credits just to see my name.

Meanwhile, I did some writing for hire -- mostly notably of several mystery novels under a certain pseudonym that I am forbidden to disclose, but which any amateur detective worth her salt could deduce. One of my editors was the great Olga Litowinsky, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to have learned from her.

During my early Days days, when I was too poor to afford a car, I took three buses (four hours) from Burbank to Marina del Ray to attend an SCBWI conference. My first novel was the poor-man's version of Piper Reed. I received an encouraging critique from the then-vice president of Bantam-Doubleday-Dell, who advised me to submit the novel to his executive editor... who rejected it. Nonetheless, I continued diligently working on a sequel. At the following year's conference, I received a devastating critique from another writer, who had not a single positive comment about my manuscript. (Teaching note to self: always find something nice to say!)

In 1998, I enrolled in the MFA in Writing for Children Program at Vermont College. I remember thinking that the investment would likely never pay for itself. And so far, monetarily it might be a wash. But it has been repaid many times over in ways both tangible and less so. I recall being in a workshop with the amazing An Na and reading a draft of A Step From Heaven that was utter perfection. I remember being flattered to be mistaken for Lauren Myracle. My faculty advisors included Randy Powell, Susan Fletcher, Jane Resh Thomas, and Carolyn Coman; without them, my novel never would have been published. My classmates, fondly known as "the Hive," are a constant source of support and encouragement to this day.

Embarking on the Vermont experience seemed to spark a number of serendipitous changes in my life. During my second residency, I was offered a new job at Days and moved back to LA a week later. Within the year, I began to write full-time for Days, which gig ultimately allowed me to move back to Maryland for good. (If you sense a "moving" theme, my gypsy military roots die hard!) My creative thesis, Mind Games, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2003, and I got engaged a month later.

In the past five years, I have:

Gotten married
Built a new home
Given birth to two children
Buried two kitties
Adopted two new kitties
Worked on three different soap operas
Lived a veritable soap opera!

What could be more inspiring to the children's book writer than having children? My audience now lives in my home! Then again, kids living in the home + full-time job = very little writing time. But -- and I realize I might be slightly biased -- aren't they adorable?

Like it or not, I am now a teacher in every moment of every day.

During one of my recent lapses in employment, a confluence of events led to my accepting a position to teach one semester of English Comp. 101 at the local community college. I had a week to figure out what I was doing. Between my husband's advice and the incredibly generous teacher-mentors on the faculty, I muddled through. But truly, I loved my students, who likely taught me far more than I taught them. I can't wait to do it again someday.

In the meantime, 125 sixth graders fortunate enough to be taught by my husband have read my novel this quarter. I will be meeting them in a few weeks. Last year, I approached this mission with extreme trepidation. This year, I say -- bring it on!


Three Silly Chicks said...

Loved hearing about all of you guys--congrats on the new blog!

Toni De Palma said...

Hi Jeanne Marie! I found you! Your kids are adorable and I love your story. Your grandmother sounds like my grandmother. Can't wait to see you at VC!

Anonymous said...

Stuck in the house as a caretaker for 2 ninety year old parents, I've hunkered down to write. I'm new to SheWrites that has opened an entire new world of encouragement. I have a draft but am learning so much about editing and revision. I'd love to take a course like the one in Vermont, but its not an option with my other commitments. I'm devouring everything I can from the writers and information herein. I wish I was still in the classroom to share all of the information herein. I hope this post qualifies me for the critique.