Monday, May 4, 2009

Apologies to Jerry Garcia

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

I've always been a writer. I taught myself to read from television commercials, "back in the day" when they included a lot of print on the screen. I landed in first grade knowing such essential words as "mouthwash,""antiperspirant" and phrases like "space-age technology" and "ring-around-the collar."
Since I could read for myself, no one ever read to me. Better than any storybook, though, were the stories my family told. My mother was the middle child of eight, growing up on a farm during the Depression. Her adventures with her siblings seemed so exotic to me, an only child in suburban Eisenhower America! As an adult, I realize that if my aunts and uncles pulled the same sort of shenanigans today, they would probably be on a first name basis with the local police.

My dad's mother had a Dickensian childhood that left her an orphan at thirteen with five step-siblings to raise. Mom and Meemaw were the great storytellers of my life. Everything I know about characterization, choosing details, how to move a story from Point A to B to C... I learned from my storytelling family. Additionally, different versions of these same stories, as told by my aunts and uncles taught me point-of-view well before high school (as well as the "unreliable narrator"!)

As much as my family loved stories, none of them wrote, at least not in the creative writing sense. They wrote letters. Boy, did they write letters! Mom's family wrote each other once a week. Mom and her mother-in-law wrote weekly. In those antediluvian days before e-mail, texting and twittering...I wrote voluminous letters from camp, a summer program in Europe, the first two years of college (the last two years I had a boyfriend which must have consumed my correspondence time.) My mother, God bless her, never threw out letters from anyone, so I now have the entire collection. Even though my family swore they "couldn't write", the beauty of their letters, especially those written during World War II, have shown me that a love of words and writing has been backstroking in my family's gene pool for quite awhile.

I published my first story at the age of seven in the local newspaper, and continued to write stories all through my school years, even in circumstances that did not require "creative writing." I have a third grade report on the salamander, which somehow went from the facts. . .salamanders are amphibious, have toes and can regenerate missing the story of "Sammy the Salamander" whose creekside home had a dock with a Chris Craft cruiser and a den with a color TV!

In junior high I won my first writing contest for an essay on General Peter Alexander Stewart. This would not be notable except for the fact that I was 1) a Chicagoan living in Mississippi in the 1960's 2) whose father was an FBI agent 3) General Stewart was a Confederate general and 4)most importantly....the contest was sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Even at 13 I appreciated the irony of the situation. I also figured that if I can convince the UDC of my personal devotion to a Confederate general, I must be a pretty good writer. I went on to win several national writing contests, and to write the school news column for the local newspaper all four years of high school.

My parents were wildly unenthusiastic about my writing career plans. It wasn't that they didn't like writers or my stories; they just didn't want me living in their basement at the age of 35, still writing the Great American Unpublished Novel. So, I switched "careers". I went off to college and became a drama major. I didn't share this little detail with my parents until graduation when they learned that a "cum laude honors diploma in theatre arts" qualified me for two things... waiting tables in NYC while I waited for my "big break" or grad school. Preferably in a field that produces a steady income. Before you could say "Original Cast Recording of 'A Chorus Line'" I was in the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Tennessee.

My worst nightmare had come to pass. I was going to be a cultural stereotype; a small-town librarian with an apartment full of cats. But in the words of The Grateful Dead, "what a long strange trip it's been." I became a school media specialist, where I told my family stories again, this time, weaving them into a historical and cultural context students could understand.
Then a librarian at a university's School of Education lab library, where I learned about this new-fangled notion of using trade books within a curriculum. I also was in charge of departmental acquisitions, which meant that for five years I read virtually every children's book published.

Through all of this, I continued to write books and stories and journals...and to be rejected by publishers. My writing heroes were Eudora Welty and William Faulkner and Jill McCorkle. My highest aspiration was to be "discovered" after I published a really opaque-style story in an obscure literary journal (I read a lot of short stories in the 90's that I had to admit "Umm....I don't get this.") Writing for children had never crossed my mind, even though I worked with children, and read only children's books....and obscure literary journals.

My "A-ha!" moment when I received yet another rejection from another literary journal. A form letter with a signature stamp. (For years, I licked rejection letter signatures. If the ink smeared, then I knew a human had actually signed the letter) On this letter, however, was a Post-It note, unsigned, probably scribbled by a student assistant. It said "You write so well about children. Why don't you try writing FOR children."

Well, duh! The long, strange trip grew a lot stranger when my husband was transferred to Bangkok. and for the first time in my adult life, I didn't have a job, thanks to Thai employment regulations. For years I had been saying "If I could only write full time, I know I could get published." It was put-up-or-shut-up time. At the same time, I found the Vermont College MFA program, and the rest was....more rejection letters, endless drafts, nail biting, until something I wrote in a fit of anger over an incident between my daughter and her playmates, became my first sale, MY BEST FRIEND. My first published book was my Vermont College thesis, YANKEE GIRL, a semi-autobiographical middle grade novel based on those scary days in Mississippi in the 1960's. At this writing, I have three more published books, JIMMY'S STARS (inspired by those family letters from WWII) and three more picture books, FIRST GRADE STINKS, A TREE FOR EMMY and SURPRISE SOUP. I have two more picture books under contract and am working on another historical fiction middle grade novel (based on more family stories, of course.)

My teaching experience runs the gamut of bookstore summer programs, to workshops at school visits and SCBWI events, and my pride and joy, the wonderful Young Writers Program at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. My favorite teaching topic is How to Turn Your Own Life Into Fiction (without being sued or making your family mad.) My greatest joy is watching my students, many of whom are in the process of learning English, share their sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing stories in the honest, right-to-the-point way we all have as children. Some of us spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to that point of total honesty.

I am so honored to be included in this great group of writers, and to talk to you writers out there in cyberspace. It's time for you all to being your own "long strange trip."



Irene Latham said...

I Heart Mary Ann! Looking forward to reading more from you on this blog.

Robyn Hood Black said...

I ditto Irene! Keep those great stories comin'...
Robyn, who has a "touch of gray"

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mary Ann! Great post.

Sarah Campbell said...

I'm always interested in writers' journeys and yours is a great one. I would love to learn more about the Young Writers Program at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. Let me know when you are next in Jackson and we'll get together.

Cathy C. Hall said...

Hi Mary Ann,

Really enjoyed reading how you (and fellow bloggers)made/are making your way in the world of children's writing. Maybe I should take that class of yours; somehow, my family doesn't always see the humor in the crazy episodes I write about :-)