For Mrs. Burgio

I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was in the third grade. I had this great teacher, Mrs. Burgio, who was one of the few lay teachers at the time at Our Lady of Angels in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She was the audacious type who eschewed the linear pattern of desk placement in favor of creating small groups. Each group had a name. Mine was the Blue Jays. She set up “learning stations” around the room. We had one for science, one for math, one for reading, and another for art. Each day, we were given time to visit the station of our choice and learn on our own. In a school ruled by nuns, this teaching style was downright seditious. At some point during that year, I wrote my first poem. It was awful, and I was hooked.

The year Mrs. Burgio directed the eighth grade’s all-girl production of Fiddler on the Roof, my class had the chance to sit in on a few rehearsals. I had never seen a live performance before and I was entranced.

Mrs. Burgio was also a woman of great foresight. Brooklyn in the late sixties and early seventies was a place full of very young drug addicts. I well remember seeing a neighbor’s daughter being carried, unconscious, up the apartment steps by a group of friends. Drugs were everywhere; and at the age of about nine, my classmates and I were approaching the day when we would have to make our own decisions about whether or not to use. You have to understand that at the time, drugs weren’t considered especially dangerous unless you overdosed. Drugs were mind expanding. Drugs were fun. Drugs were cool. If you didn’t at least smoke weed, something was seriously wrong with you. Mrs. Burgio took the unheard of step of talking to a bunch of very young kids about drug abuse. She taught us about addiction. I remember her saying, “If I had to draw a picture of someone who uses drugs, I would draw a picture of them with a big fish hook in their mouth.” That image stuck with me and despite enormous peer pressure in later years, I never touched the stuff.

We all meet people who impact our lives, maybe even change our direction. Mrs. Burgio was the first who did that for me, and I loved her for it. I found out that I’m good with words. At home, my daily lesson was that I wasn’t worth the time of day and that all I did was make everyone else miserable. But in Mrs. Burgio’s third grade class, I found the thing that would define and sustain me.

Thank you, Mrs. Burgio, wherever you are.

Trying to Prime the Pump

With the first book in the Winthrop Risk Mysteries out, I’ve been trying to get back to writing the second book. I love the main character, Winthrop.  I didn’t want to create a character who starts out afraid of his own shadow and grows to realize how great he really is at the end of the story.  No.  That would make him a pansy and I don’t like pansies.  I wanted a character who, though smaller than the other kids and considered a loser, had great self-confidence and knew exactly who he was from the very first sentence.

Carrying that character forward is really the easy part.  His Chandleresque dialogue is a blast to write and I actually came up with most of that before I had the plot in place for the first book.  There will be a couple of recurring characters.  The difficulty is that while writing a child’s version of a mystery, one can’t introduce any dead bodies, drug dealers, or torrid affairs.  It has to be clean and not too scary.  Some form of theft is OK, as long as the bad guys don’t carry weapons.  I’m working on making the setting creepy by focusing on Winthrop’s school and how it looks at dusk.  My young characters aren’t allowed out to roam the streets after dark on a school night.  The exact nature of the mystery and the motive continue to elude me, though I’ve jotted down several possibilities.

I’m not one to read mysteries.  I will watch the occasional “cozy” mystery on TV and I’m a rabid fan of Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock.  I spent a good part of yesterday watching a few cozy mysteries and the formula is pretty much the same in all of them.  Not a great deal of violence, but a lot of dead bodies.  They all seem to involve someone (usually a woman) who isn’t a detective but always manages to outwit the local police department and solve the mystery before they do.  I picked up another Raymond Chandler book in the Philip Marlowe series for inspiration, and a book about writing mysteries.  Letting the analytical portion of my brain work on one thing allowed the creative portion to spit out the occasional idea, and I kept my pen and notebook handy to catch them before they were forgotten.

I’ve heard it said that some people want to be writers and others want to have written.  Having written, I find myself luxuriating in the feeling of getting back to the blank page, the random notes, and thinking about what comes next.  It’s good to have written, but being a writer is where the fun really is.

Dream Big or Go Home

No writer ever achieved a lot by dreaming just a little.

I seem to have run out of postage.

Good for me.

How I Got My Writing Groove Back

I was always supposed to be a writer, at least that’s what my teachers said.  I was pretty good at it.  Report, essay, poem?  No problem.  Character sketch?  Boy, do I know some characters.  But college was out of the question for me.  It wasn’t just the money; I needed to get away from home.  Things there were difficult.  So, I joined the Army instead (bad idea-I made a lousy soldier), married John six weeks after our first date (great idea for more than thirty years now), and had two boys.  Over the years, I helped write or edit reports for the military, a couple of private investigators (arson, mostly), and have spent the last ten years transcribing and editing medical reports.  Dry, boring, soul-crushing work.  If you’re looking to scrape the creativity off a storyteller’s tongue, technical writing is the tool to use.  The rules can be a little crazy.  One commanding general felt that the words a, an, and the were a waste of time and insisted they be purged from all reports submitted to him.  Some doctors will insist on using an incorrect or outmoded medical term.  I had one neurologist who consistently misspelled a common drug.  I kept correcting him and he continued to misspell it in every report.   But when there are bills to be paid and children to feed, you do what you’re told.  I did the whole “supermom” routine (which, by the way, is a crock), working full time and trying to care for a family.  Writing was put on hold, though I would occasionally pull the old notebook out from under my bed and try to write something.  Since you’ve never heard of me, it’s a pretty safe assumption that I never did get anything done.

This went on for about twenty-six years.  I homeschooled two boys who had learning disabilities and I worked full time from home, working around my teaching schedule.  I worked nights, weekends, and holidays.  Once the boys were finished with school and working full time, I hoped to scale back my work schedule to five days a week; but we were barely getting by and it just wasn’t possible.

A few years ago, exhausted and battling what had become dangerous depression, I decided to tell John just how unhappy I was.  He was sitting on the couch.  I sat on his lap, facing him, and I started to cry.  I’m not a crier by nature so he was a little shocked.  I told him what the years had been like for me and how tired I was of doing what everybody else needed me to do.

“Before I die,” I told him, “I want to do what I want to do.”

He looked a little puzzled.  It wasn’t that he was clueless or didn’t notice how unhappy I was.  That he had known for years.  I had just never bothered to tell him I wanted to be a writer; that I needed to be a writer.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to write children’s books; but I need some time to sit and think.  If I can just cut my hours and have one day free to think and write, I know I can do it.”

Now, like I said, we were living paycheck to paycheck, both of us busting our asses at full-time jobs, and all of it going for the basics.  Frills are a rarity around here.  But John didn’t hesitate.

“If you want to write, you go for it.  We’ll get by.”

So at the age of forty-six, I set out to pursue my dream; but with my tongue scraped raw, I found it tough to get started.  I had to relearn creative writing.  I had to find out all over again what it felt like to be inspired, to imagine, for anything to be possible.  I read books and articles about writing and started to feel the creativity stir—like the first time you feel your baby move and it feels like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings.  Stories started to form.  I wrote drafts, edited, and wandered back and forth between the land of I’m-A-Genius to the land of I’m-A-Fraud, dragging my briefcase back and forth across the border every few hours or so.

So far, I’ve only received three actual rejections—the rest just never responded (not very Emily Post, if you ask me).  The rejections arrived via e-mail.  They were very polite.  The first one hit me pretty hard.  I closed the door of my office and cried myself blind (looks like this writing thing strikes an emotional chord with me).  I think I even quoted Job.   But I’m good now and took the other rejection in stride.  No tears.  No Job.  Reread the manuscript, looked again for places to improve, and submitted it to someone else.  Still waiting for a response.  You know who you are.

I’ve read several articles about platform.  Platform?  I write children’s books.  I was a kid.  I like stories.  How do you get a platform out of that?  I just started a Facebook page a few months ago and this blog is only days old. The prevailing opinion seems to be that without these things I can’t really be considered a writer, at least not a marketable one.  I’m a rule-questioner from way back, and I’d like an explanation from the shadow puppet who came up with that idea.  Can you imagine telling Mark Twain he had to have a blog in order to be considered a real writer and be published?  I imagine he’d puff on that cigar for a moment or two and give you directions to the nearest cliff.

And let’s not forget the “you’ll find time to write if you really want to” crowd.  I know this sounds like heresy, but I can’t write in five-minute spurts.  I need time to think, to mull things over.  I don’t need quiet, I just need time.  I grew up in a two-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn with five siblings, so silence is an alien and unsettling thing for me.  As long as nobody speaks to me directly, I can write in the middle of chaos.  I like to write while sitting on my front porch.  One day, I was stuck on a line and just couldn’t work it out.  The neighbor across the street, meantime, was talking on the phone to his ex-wife.  Well, shrieking really.  Called her all sorts of nasty, vile things.  Suddenly, a really terrific line came to me and my problem was solved.  Yes, chaos is my buddy.  You find what works for you and tweak the plan as you go.  Screw the experts.

So, I keep going, trying to find my way around a genre that is largely ignored by the writing magazines.  No website or any sign of that nebulous concept of a platform.  No MFA, creative writing courses, or conferences.  I sit and stare into space and make things up.  Sometimes I use rhyme, talking animals, or even add a little moral to the tale, things that apparently violate every “thou shalt not” in publishing.  I don’t seem to fit the writing mold du jour, and I realize that may hurt my chances of ever being published; but I am, finally, a writer.