“I like good strong words that mean something.” ~Jo March (Little Women)
I chinned the rusty barrel near the hem of our woods. The carbon petals curled and separated. The ashes fluttered high and melted into the atmosphere.
The weekly newspaper over in the next county had rejected my fiction story—the one where I’d caught bad guys down by our lake.
Duchess stretched up her length along the kennel, and I leaned my face against the wire so we were cheek to cheek. I inhaled the scent of poo on cement. I stroked her red and white Brittany fur and probably shed a tear or two. At least I’m pretty sure I did.
They didn’t publish stories, they said.
I was no Jo March.
I was no writer.
My words were poo.
I read everything and everywhere—in bed, in the car, in a rowboat, at the table, stretched out in a lawn chair, book propped up at the kitchen sink. I read my great-grandmother’s Book of the Month Club selections, and I still have some of those, including Joseph the Provider by Thomas Mann and The Apostle by Sholem Asch. I also read Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames, The Bobbsey Twins, The Nun’s Story, and Gone with the Wind, as well as Little Women. (Winnie the Pooh, however, scared me. I think it had to do with a picture of Eeyore’s tail hanging on a tree.)
I did write often to my Aunt Emma, or Sister Lucinda, as they called her in the convent out east. She was a teacher, and my mom insisted on proofreading everything I wrote before I sent it. Aunt Emma could only write back at Christmas and Easter, often cautioning me against “doing” too much. But once she got special permission from Mother Superior to write in between because I’d written such a long “newsy” piece.
My mom, by the way, liked to write fun poetry, and my great-grandfather on my dad’s side wrote at least one poem, a long one about his days in the logging camps. I also grew up with a slew of Paul Bunyan stories.
When I “graduated” from eighth grade, my parents took me to see a Detroit Tigers baseball game. The Tigers beat their (at that time) archrival, the New York Yankees. I wrote a poem about it and sent it, along with a blank autograph book, to the announcers, George Kell and Ernie Harwell. The poem never returned, but the autograph book did, each page signed by one member of the 1963 team—names like Al Kaline and Rocky Colavito and Norm Cash and Jim Bunning and Willie Horton
I wonder what happened to that poem.
Anyway, a couple years later, I decided the autograph book was childish and cremated it in the same rusty barrel. If I could sell it today, I wonder how many conferences I could attend or trips I could take.
It was years before I’d pretend to be a writer again.
In my mind’s mist, I glimpse a shadow of me sitting on the porch of our New Jersey home in the early ‘70s. I have a pad in my lap and a pen in my hand. Dennis is mowing the front yard, and one of our horses whinny out back. Dennis shuts off the mower and asks me to do something, but I snap at him, tell him I’m writing (I have no idea what) and don’t bother me.
I still snap sometimes when I’m bothered.
Then I’m sitting at a picnic table under pine trees in a park-like area. I’m writing from prompts in some book, I think. “I am afraid of dying, but I am more afraid of not living,” I scrawl with fountain pen on lined pages in a burgundy leather three-ring binder.
But I was no writer.
I was a nurse.
We ended up in Georgia where I’d dreamed of living like Scarlett O’Hara and drinking sweet tea under a magnolia tree. But then Dennis’ company transferred us from there to Florida in the early ‘80s. I kicked and screamed the whole way. But it was there, while Dennis traveled, I began to embrace the writing life.
I took a correspondence class through the Christian Writer’s Institute. And then I took another. I wrote on a door that topped two file cabinets, tapped out words on an IBM Selectric, paper stacked on carbon sheets. I attended a Christian Writer’s Conference in Wheaton, IL, where I heard Charles Stanley and Karen Mains speak. I also met my instructor (Esther Vogt) there, and we later visited her in Kansas on our way to Colorado.
I took an English Literature course at the University of Florida in Tampa and still remember the deep spiritual insights I gleaned from Beowulf.
My professor hated that paper.
I burned it.
I wrote a monthly newsletter for our little church complete with word games and puzzles and member interviews. I called it Inspiration Notations and ran it off on a mimeograph machine.
I sent articles and devotionals to magazines, keeping carbon copies of each in separate manila folders on the front of which I tracked submission travels with headings of Itinerary, Address, Editor, Date Sent, Date Ret’d, Letter or Form (for rejections), and Postage.
I still have those.
My biggest mistake as an early writer wanna-be? I focused only on paying markets. Except once I submitted a piece based on an acronym for success titled “Seven Basic Steps to Successful Christian Writing” that was published in a now-defunct magazine called “The Christian Writer.”
That still cracks me up.
In 1984, Evangel sent me a $25 check for a feature article titled, “I Will Sing,” that described my kicking-and-screaming move.
I just read it again. It could be burn-barrel worthy.
I copied the check before I cashed it.
Somewhere along the line, Christian Parenting Today accepted and paid for a little anecdote and then reprinted it in a daily flip calendar.
I also wrote the usual lessons, devotionals, and programs for church.
Then along came Abby.
I filed my files and stopped writing, except for lessons and a few speaking gigs. I’d pick up a journal for a few days. Then forget about it.
I was no writer.
But a handful of years back, I started a blog and plugged into social media. I grew a little readership, made a lot of friends, bought a bazillion books, went to some conferences, got myself some business cards, and earned a few bucks.
Abby copied two years of blog posts and had them bound into a real book. “You’re an author now,” she tells me.
A couple of my devotionals appear in The One Year Devotional of Joy and Laughter. I got paid for those. And I make a little pocket cash these days–almost enough to feed my book-buying habit.
The IRS believes I’m a writer.
I suppose I am.
Maybe my words aren’t poo after all.
Still and forever writing,
because I am a writer
Note: This is a response to an assignment asking us to write about our identity as a writer for The Writing Life, a workshop I’m taking through Tweetspeak Poetry.