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Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

Essay on Becoming a “Real Author”

This is to announce that I am now an official “real author.” By that I mean that I have a book that will be published on June 30 with an ISBN number that can be found on Amazon.com here and Barnes and Noble here. Woohoo! It only took me 63 years!

You see, I’ve actually been writing for a very long time. I began my first novel when I was nine. It was about a cowboy named Joe and I had no real idea how to develop a plot, so I quickly abandoned it—but the urge was definitely there. Then I turned to journalism. I created a neighborhood newspaper when I was about eleven, hand-copying articles I liked onto notebook paper in columnar form, drawing pictures and captioning them. I discovered all that copying was exceedingly tedious and time consuming, so the newspaper went out of business pretty quickly. In high school, I turned to poetry. I wrote several very bad poems and put them together in my own poetry collection (which I still have, by the way.) I also began writing short stories. That’s when things went rather badly.

I had written a short story about a loving dog whose master died and was taken in by a little girl. My English teacher thought it showed potential, so she asked me if I would be willing to take it to the regional UIL competition. Highly flattered, of course I said yes! So one Saturday morning my teacher and another teacher friend headed off to Midland for the UIL meet. Never having been to a UIL competition, I had no idea what to expect. When the time came for the judge to read my short story, I sat there expectantly waiting for the praise that did not come. Instead the judge told me all the things that were wrong with my story. She did not mention one thing that she liked. I was crushed. My natural reaction to that was to conclude that I was not a good writer and I would not expose myself to that kind of criticism ever again. (Sadly, I fear many other budding writers have experienced similar repudiation at the hands of well-meaning teachers who see it as their job simply to fix the things that are wrong with a piece of writing rather than to find things that encourage the writer.)

I won’t say I never wrote again, but for the most part, I laid writing aside. Once in awhile, I would feel inspired to write a piece for the church newsletter or for a genealogy book in which I had an interest, but those moments were seldom. I mostly focused on other things, like genealogy, for instance.

Then at the tender age of 57, I went back to get a master’s degree in reading, and who knew that meant I would be required to take a course in writing? The instructor ignited that long-slumbering desire to write. She didn’t just assign the writing; she made us write IN CLASS and then share our writing with our classmates. She had us reading books on writing by Lucy Calkins and others that provided guidance in writing, revising, editing, and encouraging budding writers to write about things they were “experts” on to get them going. Writing really opened up for me in a way it never had before, and I began to do more writing—mostly about family events and amusing stories that happened to us—but I was actually writing again on a fairly regular basis.

A glutton for punishment, I subsequently started a doctoral program, and—guess what—it required two more writing classes! These classes were primarily intended to teach us academic writing, but the professor for them was a writer of children’s books, and he wanted to broaden our writing skills. One of his assignments was to write a children’s story. That, I was not prepared for. I racked my brain trying to come up with some cute little story he would be happy with. No luck.

Then I remembered something. Years earlier, before my grandmother passed away, I had asked her to sit down with me and let me record (on paper, not with a recorder, sadly) a story I had heard her tell before, about her journey with her mother and sisters on the train from St. Joseph, Missouri, to the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma in the mid-1890s. What, I thought, if I told that story through the eyes of my grandmother, who had been six years old at the time? I decided to give it a try. It was hard because, although Grandma had provided a few interesting details, I had to put myself in her shoes and think like she would have thought at that age, adding details she did not mention in her rendition as an adult. When I was done, I was pleased with the result, and so was my professor. He suggested I might want to try to get it published.

With his encouragement—and my own bravado—I began to research publishing for children’s books. I had no idea how difficult it is to break into this market! But I quickly found out. I read the Writer’s Market book, found potential publishers, catered my manuscript to the requirements of each one I submitted it to, one at a time, and waited for the inevitable rejection letter. I lost track of how many times I actually submitted it; only one editor responded with any kind of positive feedback—“nice family story”—along with the rejection. After several years and several attempts, I pretty much gave up sending it to major publishers. I toyed with the idea of self-publishing just to preserve it for the family, but the cost of that would have been prohibitive because it would require illustration. And so I left it.

Fast forward a good ten years. My work as a teacher educator at the branch campus of a regional university made me keenly aware of the pressures being visited on public education by “uneducated” policy makers and the new crop of billionaire philanthropists; I became involved with a local grassroots effort to make the public aware of what was going on. As a local activist teacher and I were meeting to plan strategy, she happened to mention that she had published some children’s books. My ears picked up. I asked her how she had been able to do that and asked her to read my story. After reading it, she was enthusiastic. “You must get this published!” she said, and suggested a couple of publishers that might be interested. With her encouragement, I decided to try one more time. The publisher I chose to submit the story to, with positive results at last, represents a sort-of blend between traditional publishers and self-publishing. I did have to put up a retainer, but nowhere near the $25,000 I was told it would cost to bring the project to completion. It took almost a year and a half to get to the point where I now have actual books in my hands, but I am finally there.

I’ve learned a lot through this experience. I’ve learned it’s never too late to do what you are meant to do. I’ve learned that you have to be willing to try one more time. I’ve learned that working with a publisher can be a very frustrating and slow process. But I’ve learned that one of the most fulfilling things in the world is to read your own book to a group of children who hang on your every word. There are no words to describe my feelings the first time I was able to do this. And every “next time” is just as rewarding. I think I would rather read my book to children than sell a boatload of them.

I think that’s the good thing about being a “real” author. Writers write ultimately to be read, and children can be a tough audience. When you connect with them through your writing, it is true joy. A couple of days ago, a friend of mine told me that he had read my book to his three nieces. Afterward, he said, he watched them round up a neighbor girl to make the four sisters in the story so they could act it out. Yes! Real author!

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