Saturday, November 12, 2011

When All Else Fails, Eat Cornbread

Thirty five years ago, I was a student nurse, but I really wanted to write fiction. I cobbled together stories in an airless closet under the staircase and pinned my rejection slips on the wall. We're talking floor-to-ceiling wallpaper here. Some of the slips had tiny indentions in the paper, as if the editor had stabbed them over and over with a sharp pencil, or maybe a butcher knife.

The free wallpaper continued for a decade. My family begged me to give up this crazy dream and go make cornbread. I made the cornbread, but kept writing, Lord knows why. I just like words and making up stuff. There's no telling how much weight I gained from stress eating--and corn bread was a favorite. It still is. When things get tough, I pull out my cast iron skillet and the cornmeal. The best comfort food is cornbread and milk, of course.

But I'm digressing. I was talking about how I kept going despite setbacks and slammed doors. One Mother's Day, my eldest son wrote me a letter: To my Mom. I've never seen anybody work harder than you and get nowhere. But I love ya.

I didn't have a PhD in literature. I didn't know any writers. If I saw an infinitive, I gleefully split it. I thought a plot had something to do with gardening, as in a "plot" of land. But I kept going. I got up at dawn to write so my avocation wouldn't interfere with family life, and I stayed up late. I joined a writing group. The members were spread out all over the country, and we communicated via snail mail. One of the members was just like me--a soccer mom. Her name is Shirley Hailstock. We were unpublished, struggling to raise small children and find time to write. (Shirley is the best selling author of nearly thirty novels, and her latest is Holding Up the World; she's also a past president of Romance Writer's of America. She's one of my best pals.)

During those years, I continued to paper my walls. I wasn't published, but I was still a writer. It's easy to spot one. They have ink stains on their hands and clothes. They can't go two seconds without thinking, "What if....?"

A long time ago, someone advised me to be a "bit like a weed." I embraced that advice. In 1988, I submitted a short story to a very fine literary journal.  The editor in chief wrote me a two page rejection letter. It basically said, Dear Horrible Writer, You suck. Stop sending us stories or we shall cry. Etc, etc.

Somehow I kept going. My first novel was published in 1990. I was 38 years old. Like my mama says, I was the opposite of an overnight sensation. Now I'm 58. I no longer work in a closet, however I don't have an office. I have a laptop, and I roam around the house. If the weather isn't too grim, I like to sit outside with a legal pad.
If I get stuck, I go inside and eat cornbread.

When someone reads one of my books, I'm always surprised. And grateful. No matter if they loved the book, had a meh reaction, or flat out hated it, I'm amazed and thankful. I want to hug each reader. One of my grandmother's favorite sayings was, "A bell can't make a sound until someone rings it." I don't know who originally said that; but I feel that way about books. A book isn't a book until someone, somewhere, takes time out of their day and reads it.  So, if you've read one of my books, I HEART you, big time, and wish we could share a pan of cornbread.