From Ack to Zap and Back Again
At first I was nothing more than ack. Holy mother of all things holy, it’s a baby, and he’s a – wait – oh boy – it’s a girl! ACK.
Because this is a story about how I came to write stories.
I wasn’t always a writer. This is an important distinction between me and others who write. Many authors claim they’ve always been a writer. Not me. First I was a nothing, a sea sponge sucking up salt and brine, sputtering to breathe. Rose to the top of the swells, opened my lungs for oxygen, and wailed. Like a starfish, I grew arms. Ears, actually, eyes, a tummy, a mouth, tongue, hands and feet. I learned to listen, to see, to hurt when hungry, to taste, to cry, to grasp and kick.
Eventually I learned I was not the whole world. Mother, father, bird mobile, shiny things, puppies, other people, cold or warm air, blankets, linoleum floor, grass. Thunderous noises (scared the hell out of me,) barely perceptible warning sirens (hurt my infant ears,) music, speech. Sensed anger and mystery. Understood neither though both gave me colic. Light that blinded, darkness that prevented sight. Rocking motion let me sleep.
Bitter, sweet, salty, sour – hardly anything prevented me from trying to eat stuff even if the sensation was distasteful. Rain dripping on my face, snow burning my fingers, ocean waves tumbling me into sand, rocks tripping my wobbly steps, grass cushioning my falls.
Not even aware of that momentous first step though I must have championed the skill. Not on camera. They actually had cameras back when I was born but not cell phones capturing every single moment and lots you wish they hadn’t. So, no photo of my very first land-on-my-punim step. I still walk, sometimes dance, hike, run, trip, fall, get up and walk again.
Listened for a year until I began to speak. Language, a world unto itself. Not even sure why I first spoke English. Could have chosen Chinese or Spanish, nearly useless on the East Coast of the US in the 1950s, but so convenient in today’s world. I would have been presciently prepared. Stupid baby girl.
Drew squiggles and shapes, then letters. Then words, sentences, paragraphs. Story.
First stories were not stories at all. Write what you know. This is me. This is mommy. This is daddy. Here is our house. Between identification of the landmarks of my world was a story about all those already intricate relationships, but I had no ability to organize them into a plot.
Around second grade my first real stories began to take shape. Fantastical, loosely organized, lacking internal logic, peopled with bizarre characters. All the primal experiences of me sensing me, and then the separation of me from the world led to stories.
The magic began. From nebulous impressions of how the world should be – nice, neat, sweet, kind – to how it really was – dirty, nasty, unfair, unpredictable – I wrote. My wand was a yellow number 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, zipping along the lines of a blank sheet of paper. In the margins I drew illustrations – early graphic novels.
Once in a while a teacher read my stories aloud. If the rest of the class wasn’t awed by my skills, I was still thrilled at my minute in the limelight. My efforts earned A grades and I’m relieved that none have survived. Around fourth grade I started hearing the word writer and – ZAP! – I knew that’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.
School got tough, my social life tougher, distractions and obligations led me along the typical adolescent/young adult trajectory. I schooled for a long time, in classrooms, over hill and dale, sequestered in my room. College diploma finally in hand (actually in a drawer somewhere), married with children, working a Chinese menu of jobs, the stories dwindled to ideas I had no time to write.
Until one day I began again and wrote for the next six months, producing what I was certain was a masterful children’s book. I sent it off to an agent and got back my first rejection notice. Should have known, I’d been warned, that the book wasn’t polished enough to clean the table, much less make it to print. The brief note convinced me I’d wasted everyone’s time and brought me to a full stop. What was I thinking? I could write a shopping list. I could not write a book.
So I put away the yellow pencil and set on a course as an art teacher. Nearly three decades of teaching kids, a career I’m proud of. Until the writing bug nudged me again. Now I had a really fancy pencil: a computer. In the past fifteen years, I’ve written four novels. Women’s commercial literature, if you have to know. I dislike the genre name but detest the more common title: chick lit. That’s a prickly discussion for another time.
I do love every aspect of writing except for one. I really hate the murky territory of trying to find an agent. So, I’m back at ACK now, Leave her alone, she’s writing a book, and trying to find my way to ZAP, Well, would you look at that – she really did write a book, and here it is.
No, not there yet, but still trying. This time, I won’t give up until the words The End are printed at the bottom of my published novel. Take that, Harry Potter – ZAP!
Photo of little girl at Camp Lejeune getting a magic wand from magician Jeff Jones, courtesy Pfc. Joshua Grant