My first grade teacher was scary. That’s what I remember, anyway. Mrs. Appel was old, for one thing. (Probably about my current age.) I remember her as intimidating, and not gentle or particularly kind. She was doing the best she could (aren’t we all), but she was harsh. Shouldn’t a first-grade teacher be sweet and young? Or at least sweet and middle-aged? First-graders need sweet and kind teachers—a Miss Honey—the way they later need a Miss Frizzle, of Magic School Bus fame, who took her students on a field trip to the alimentary canal.
But in spite of that rough beginning, and thanks to my mom and dad, I managed to fall in love with books anyway. Making my escape into fiction was the way I explored the world, tried on a host of personalities, and learned to get along in a confusing and complicated world. When I was 14, I worked briefly in the post library, and read every single Agatha Christie murder mystery on those shelves, which is saying something. (Christie wrote 82 murder mysteries before she died in 1976.) Her books were a gateway drug into other mystery novels, the lasting effect of which is my ability (according to my husband, anyway) to almost always be able to pinpoint a whodunit’s culprit well before the big reveal.
Later, I became enamored with poetry, and worked on a poetry anthology in high school. Alas, the entire book disappeared en route to the publisher. I’m not sure if Kitty Ford, my co-editor, ever forgave me. My early poems were dreadful, which is one reason I admire Jill Divine’s poetry so much. (Two of her extraordinary poems are included in the just-released Narrow Chimney Reader Volume 1, available at Uptown Pubhouse. The last reading of this season’s award-winning Narrow Chimney Reading Series will feature Divine, Tobby Moran and Rachael Cupp on Mon, April 20 at 7 p.m. Go. You won’t be sorry.)
Also in high school, I took AP English from Marion Brannick. I worked desperately to keep up and don’t recall much instruction in the actual craft of writing. There were so many skilled writers in that class, including Lisa Horton, on whom, in hindsight, I must have had a girl crush. Lisa later worked for at least one national magazine. She also had enviable long, straight blonde hair, wore the most artistically patched blue jeans, and would travel anywhere to see Led Zeppelin. I wonder now if she ever met Robert Plant face to face.
In that class, I got my first taste of Shakespeare, and also of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald. I read The Sun Also Rises during a spring break trip with my family, a pilgrimage to the beach on the southern coast of Spain, where my sisters and I got the most epic, pre-sunscreen sunburns.
But I really learned the most about writing from Ken Atwood, an old-style newspaperman who taught at Ball State University where I went to journalism school. We churned out news stories by the hundreds, and took exams on AP style. I learned to write with short, concise paragraphs using sixth-grade vocabulary. I learned to type fast, compose on the fly and make edits later.
My friends and family know I’m easily distracted. My mother calls herself and me “spring-butts” for our inability to sit still. Wendy calls distractions “squirrels,” and recently sent me a piece of artwork featuring a squirrel as a reminder to stay focused. Remember the golden retriever character in the movie, Up, whose head jerked every time a squirrel passed by? That’s me.
Andrew Wisniewski, my editor here at Flag Live, wrote a couple of weeks ago about reading Ann Patchett’s latest book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I’m also under Patchett’s spell these days. Although I can’t find the exact passage (did I make it up?), I wrote in my notes that she tells us the story she wants us to believe. That’s the ultimate goal, but how to get there when the whole world swirls paisleys before me?
Though in some ways distraction is essential to my process, my vulnerability also holds me back. I sit to write, and fear the blank page. Distraction prevails. I eventually bring myself back to the task. My handwritten notes get typed into the computer. I print out what I’ve typed. Is it rubbish? I chase another squirrel, and come back to the page exhausted. I convince myself to read what I have so far (how bad could it be?) and find a nugget or two. I write some more. Sit. Write. Sit some more. Keep writing and keep remembering.
Eventually, the story comes together, and I start to believe it.