Monday, May 7, 2012

Because words are as necessary as air

At the arts and crafts shows I do several times a year, I'm frequently asked "How did you get started?" Part of my answer is that I've always been a rockhound, literally as far back as I can remember. And of course there's a story to go with that.

When I was born, my parents lived in the upstairs apartment at my grandparents' house in Park Ridge, Illinois. My grandfather loved to putter around in the yard; he had rock gardens and flowers and a wonderful pond with goldfish (probably koi, but I don't know) that would come up and eat out of my fingers. My parents moved into their own home when I was three, and shortly after that my grandparents sold the house in Park Ridge and moved to Florida for a couple of years. My memories of the Park Ridge house, therefore, are very limited, but I do remember certain things very clearly.

One of the clearest memories is of the back porch, which was built of wood with one concrete step at the bottom. That bottom step fascinated me because of all the little tiny stones in the concrete. I loved looking at those stones.
While my grandparents were in Florida, my mother and I visited them for a month, when I was three and a half. We went to the beach nearly every day, and one of my favorite pastimes was to sift the sand with a little wire mesh bottomed sifter and then look through all the wonderful little stones.

Over the years I collected various stones here and there and also collected a portfolio of anecdotes about myself and stones, so that when my mother asked me not too many years ago how I got interested in making gemstone jewelry, I told her, "Because I loved all those little stones in the bottom step of Mom and Pop's back porch in Park Ridge."

To which my mother responded, somewhat miffed, "That porch had no concrete step. I grew up in that house and that porch was all wood."

Well, I trusted my memory but I didn't argue.

A few years ago, as my parents were preparing a slight downsizing move, my mother found some old photos of me as a very young child and gave them to me. Among them was this:

Yes, that's me playing with the grass trimmings in the late summer or early fall of 1949.  My grandmother is standing behind me, and that's my grandfather off to the right.  And clearly visible behind my grandmother is that concrete bottom step.

I immediately showed the picture to my mother and said, "See?  That's the concrete step that turned me into a rockhound!"

She looked at it, could not deny the veracity of my memory, and just said, "I don't remember that step being there."

But I did remember it, and I now take an enlargement of that little snapshot with me to art shows.  I tell the story because just as the rocks have been a part so much of my life, so have stories.

When did I start writing? I don't know for sure. In grade school, I know that I sometimes wrote much longer assignments than were required. I must have been about ten years old when I began -- but never finished -- a book not unlike Walter Farley's The Black Stallion but featuring a teen-aged girl as the main human character. And I was in the sixth grade when I began -- but never finished -- a pirate adventure novel inspired by the swashbuckler movies I saw on TV after school. By the summer before I entered high school, I was concocting a variety of romantic pseudo-historical stories that never seemed to reach more than 15 or 20 pages. Virtually all of those are lost now.

The one that remains of those early efforts is that first completed book, finished in early 1964 when I was 15. Dozens more followed over the decades, some now lost but most stored either as hard copies in the file cabinet or digital files on the computer. Even though I "quit writing" at various times, I always went back to it. (In contrast, I only gave up smoking twice, and after the second I never took up that habit again.)

When my disastrous experience with Pocket Books dashed my hopes of a serious career as a romance novelist, I ended up going back to college (at age 50!), but the writing seemed to follow me there. I watched as fellow students, most of them much younger than I and more versed in academic procedures, received assignments back with critical comments written all over them. Many of those students bewailed papers that had "bled red ink" in the margins, on the back, sometimes even over the original text. And more than one wondered why mine came back with a few lines written at the end.

Why? Because writing was -- and is -- what I do best. It's what I love to do and so I know how to use the tools. When I turned in a 20-page essay for what was supposed to be a 3-page paper, I apologized profusely to the professor, who then told me, "Don't worry! It's easier to read 20 of your pages than two of anyone else's!"
I know that I know how to write. I know that I know how to write well. I know that I can concoct stories with coherent plots and logical motivations and consistent characters and believable history. So why am I not doing it?

In a way, one of the things that holds me back now is lack of feedback on my fiction-in-progress. A regular critique group, whether in person or online, provided discipline that I rarely have any more. I try to fit the writing in between the day job and all the other responsibilities and I don't have anyone encouraging me to let other things slide and get on with the writing.

On the other hand, that's mostly an excuse. If I were really the obsessive writer that I try to portray myself as, I'd be writing. I wouldn't be blogging and whining about the reasons why I'm not working on the latest book. If I were really the obsessive writer I want to believe I am, I'd be writing and not digging up more and more and more research on Victorian social customs and London architecture and frontier medicine. If I really wanted to make writing a career, I'd shut down the Internet connection and head over to the current work-in-progr  

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