Vicki Grove (1948-)
Autobiography Feature Vicki Grove
Vicki Grove contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA in 2004:
If you want to understand where I come from as a person and as a writer, you should first take a look at my great-great-grandmother, Melvina Bateman.
In fact, take a quick look at her on a certain spring day in 1867.
On the clear April morning I'm thinking about, Melvina is beside her husband, James, on the high wooden driver's seat of a covered wagon. They've sold everything they own in order to follow the Oregon Trail west from their hometown in eastern Illinois. James' two brothers and their families are traveling with them in their own Conestoga wagons. Years of dreaming and months and months of preparation have gone into this day, and now very soon that little train of three covered wagons will cross the muddy Mississippi, then, in a few more days, the wide Missouri River at Independence, Missouri. And in a few weeks the majestic purple mountains they've heard so much about will loom ahead, and they'll be on the brink of their exciting new life in the fabled Land of Milk and Honey on the very edge of the vast Pacific Ocean.
But as those three wagons reach the eastern outskirts of the bustling young city of St. Louis, Melvina fidgets, chews her lip. James mistakes her actions for a simple case of nerves. He grins and reaches to squeeze her hand as the Mississippi River comes into view. What an adventure they have ahead!
But it was right about then, on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, that great-great-grandmother Melvina panicked, grabbed the reins from her startled husband's hands, and pulled their six-oxen team up short. "I can't leave here!" she reportedly wailed. "Oh, James, I tried, but I just plain can't say all these good-byes!"
I know I would have done the same outrageous thing, because like her, I just hate to say good-byes. And it would be very, very hard for me to leave here, "here" meaning the Midwest, the center of our country, this rolling prairie land of farms and small towns.
In fact, as I write this, I'm sitting in the kitchen of the Illinois farmhouse James began building for Melvina in 1867, shortly after he reluctantly turned those oxen around. This is where I dream, where my stories find their source.
I write about simple things in my novels—the joys and heartaches of farming, the pressures and celebrations of very small towns, cornfields where you can get lost for hours. Old white houses like I'm sitting in now, houses that creak in the prairie wind—the call of a ghostly child, trapped forever in the attic? Haylofts that make perfect vantage points for kids needing to see forever, or needing to see the stars more clearly.
I write about the pain that comes from prejudice and injustice, and I write about the healing that comes from tolerance and a slow breaking down of narrow-minded selfishness. Stories like that are plentiful in the Midwest, as I think they're surely plentiful everywhere in America, this land of dreams and ever-growing diversity.
When the acres around this big white house were first plowed and planted by James and Melvina, the farmers hereabouts would have still remembered young Abe Lincoln, who had served as a freshman legislator in the courthouse in Vandalia, right down the road. They would have told of the time Mr. Lincoln jumped from an upper window of the Illinois Statehouse to avoid casting a tie-breaking vote, breaking his ankle or spraining it, depending on who was telling the story. Surely Melvina would have related to that kind of desperation. Maybe James rolled his eyes and looked at her with fond exasperation each time that story of Mr. Lincoln's quirky and quite shocking last-second decision was repeated.
I tend to make last-second course corrections myself. People sometimes panic when things just don't feel right, and maybe that's a good thing. Kids in my books sometimes clutch, then tweak their decisions just in time, like my great-great-grandmother Melvina did.
That story about Abe Lincoln's hurt ankle is still a favorite here in Illinois, and that courthouse with its fabled upstairs window is still in Vandalia to see. Things in the Midwest change slowly, and we live with our history on an easy, everyday basis. It seeps from our beloved fields, turns up in tomahawks and tombstone inscriptions, and can be imagined from old deeds and from photographs stored in the attics of red brick buildings and graceful white farmhouses.
I set my books in Midwestern places that I know with my heart—places in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and Oklahoma. These are the four neighboring states where I've lived. I use the history of these places in little bits and pieces through all my books and short stories. To me, this is where adventure lies, in these layered stories of trailblazers and outlaws and small-town everyday people and struggling prairie farmers, past and present.
To me, mountains are just, well, mountains. The ocean is just a lot of water.
My sister disagrees. She moved from the Midwest to Colorado, then to Oregon. She did exactly what James' two brothers did. They loved it out west, and my sister loves it.
But that's their story, their take on things. Back to Melvina's, and mine.
My great-grandmother was born to James and Melvina in 1872. In fact, she was born in this very house where I'm sitting, and my grandmother was born here too, in 1896. Even my father was born in this old house, in 1920.
And out the wavy old glass of this kitchen window, I can look diagonally across the bristly stubble of the recently cut soybeans, through the lacy stand of sycamores at the creek, and on to the little hill a mile away where a couple of big hackberry trees mark where McKendree School used to stand.
I love looking out this old, old window and remembering McKendree School because that little school building was my first house. Here's how that came to happen.
My great-grandmother attended one-room McKendree School, and so did my grandmother and my father. But by the time my father was in high school, the new three-story brick school in town had been built and McKendree School was closed, along with the other tiny one-room schoolhouses in Bond County.
Poor little McKendree School was standing empty and desolate, waiting to fall down, when my father returned from Army service overseas in 1947. He had a bride by then, a beautiful raven-haired girl from Chicago. Someday I must get up the courage to ask my elegant, city-bred mother what she thought when Daddy strapped on his toolbelt and proudly announced that he'd just bought McKendree School for a few hundred dollars and was now going to turn it into a home for her.
When I was born on Christmas Eve in 1948, that schoolhouse became my home, too.
At some point when I was a small child, Daddy built a shed to house his new tractor and combine back behind our tiny schoolhouse-house. A combine is a complicated piece of farm machinery, by the way, used to harvest grain and resembling a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The cutting parts of the machine would be the dinosaur's huge, lumbering body and the auger that lifts the grain and drops it into a farm wagon would be the long neck and small, crooked-forward head.
By the time I was six or so, I would often sneak into that machine shed and climb onto the top of Daddy's huge orange combine. From the high and powerful back of that mighty dinosaur of a machine, I could see the whole world. Really, I could. It set up a lifelong addiction in me. I still love better than anything to write from high up in a barn, which nowadays means from up in my hayloft.
Because one side of the machine shed was open, I could lie on my stomach on the combine with my chin in my hands and see white clouds parading like elephants across the sky. I could see my grandmother's tall white house in the distance, the place where I'm sitting now. It was surrounded by interesting aluminum-roofed buildings—the chicken house, the old smoke house, the big barn built from wood salvaged by my grandfather and father when the St. Louis warehouse district was torn down in the 1930s. From atop the high combine I could also see my great-grandfather's spooky old house with its two eyelike round attic windows. The many cedar trees along its lane always seemed to be leaning together, telling secrets. I used those two tall, white houses, by the way, in one of my books, a novel called Rimwalkers.
In still other directions across the fields and woods were the houses of great-uncles and great-aunts, and of other relatives I knew were relatives but didn't know exactly how they were relatives. The two-story white farmhouses of my father's family grew everywhere like majestic crops, pinning down the green, rolling fields, which I figured might otherwise rise into the blue sky and simply drift away, like huge green kites.
I thought deep thoughts up on that combine. I thought about time, and about how someday when a bunch of it had passed I would think about myself sitting there thinking about time. I was right—that's what I'm doing right now! I thought about birds, especially the barnswallows that shimmied their nests into every little crack between the oak boards. I thought about whether I could sneak a few eggs from the chicken house to use in the mud pies my little sister Kathy and I had taken to making down by the creek. I thought about how unfair it was that Kathy's birthday was in mid-June so she got swimming parties.
Deep in my heart, though, I knew I'd always love my own Christmas Eve birthday. I was just afraid if I said that out loud my mother would stop worrying that I'd be neglected because of Christmas. I loved the elaborate candy cane or Christmas tree cakes she made to over-compensate.
The brick school my father had attended after McKendree School closed was in a town of about 300 people, called Keyesport. I started school there, too. It didn't have a kindergarten, so I was six going on seven when I finally got to shop for precious school supplies and put them into the red and green checked bookbag I'd spent hours picking out at the local variety store. I remember feeling nearly sick with excitement as I waited for the bus at the end of our lane that first September morning.
My mother took a picture of me when I came home my first afternoon. She put a big, heavy grown-up book on my lap, kind of a little joke, but I remember feeling too mature to find it funny. I just hoped people who saw that picture would think I looked as sophisticated as I felt, holding that open book, possibly actually reading it.
Very soon, I discovered the joy of sharpening a pencil in the wall sharpener that glowed on Mrs. Wheritt's wall—that smell of fresh shavings, that breath-taking little crunch when the grinder hit the wood, that glorious sharp point when you were done. If only Mrs. Wheritt had let me have unrestricted sharpening time, but she limited me to three sharp points per day. Once I asked her if I could possibly have David Knutt's sharpening time, since he sharpened his pencil with his father's pocketknife, at home. She said no, that it was a waste of pencil to keep your pencil too sharp.
Nowadays, I buy my Number Twos by the dozen and sharpen away, all the time feeling guilty, realizing that Mrs. Wheritt was right, of course. But super-sharp pencils seem to be an addiction with me, like sitting up in haylofts to write in my journal.
And as if my new pencils weren't enough of a thrill, there were those wonderful turquoise lines, running like little highways across the pages of my tablet, carrying the letters I was learning to put into words.
All of it was thrilling—the smell of my pencil, the rose red cover of my Big Chief tablet, the official writer's bump I quickly developed on the third finger of my right hand.
Not to mention the blackboard, the satisfying squeak of that chalk as you let your whole arm loop out big letters, white against black. Blackboards were actually black in those days. I wonder when and why they turned green. One of those mysteries.
By the summer between first and second grade, I was taking my tablet and pencil with me when I made those sneaky climbs up to the top of the big orange combine. I was learning to put those deep thoughts of mine into written words. "Boby Eliott is vary cute." I recall that as being one of my early forays into the joys of contemplative writing. Once I also dared to speculate that "maybe Boby liks me as good as Joyce."
One day, quite possibly the day Mrs. Wheritt taught us to make exclamation points, I wrote in bold, careful, double-sized letters, "Kathy cannot come up here!! Nobody can come up here but ME!!! Signed, Victoria Louise Baum!!!!" I wrote that emphatic warning thinking I'd tape it to the combine, but then I remembered my father would see it there, so I settled for showing it to Kathy.
She kept following me up to the top of the combine anyhow, though. She couldn't yet read, and the sad truth was, she didn't listen all that well to any of the lists of instructions I was always composing and carefully reading (with inflection) to her.
This past summer, I was with my daughter, idling through a flea market in Indiana, when suddenly we came upon an amazing find. It was a matchbox, carefully covered in glued-down, turquoise-lined notebook paper. The paper was decorated with a crayon-drawn picture of a girl holding an open book, and above the girl's pink-and-green hair was lettered—"Caroline's Box of Tiny Books."
My daughter J. D. and I let out a deep sigh of recognition and appreciation. We picked up the box with careful fingers and gently pulled out the cardboard drawer, marveling at Caroline's tiny, folded volumes, none of them much bigger than my thumbnail.
Until we came upon the work of this kindred spirit, this wonderful Indiana girl named Caroline, I guess J. D. and I assumed we were the only two girls who had ever thought to make our own precious box of tiny books out of one of our mother's old thrown-away matchboxes. In fact, I remember how proud I was when J. D. first thought to do that, in probably second grade. I'd spent lots of time myself as a second-grader trying to force Kathy to make a box of books, but she would only go for tiny paperdoll sets.
She's an artist now, out there in Oregon. Probably because of all that time she spent designing elaborate paper clothes.
The July when I was seven-and-a-half and Kathy had just turned six, something incomprehensible happened in our lives. We got a brother.
When I say "incomprehensible," I mean it was an event that I simply could not get my mind around. I was used to figuring things out without an awful lot of trouble. Addition and subtraction, for example, were a snap for me. I could read with the best of them, and I loved to print. Cursive, which we'd learn next year in third grade, looked like too much fun to be an actual school subject.
But this new brother had me, as they say in England, gobsmacked. And if I listed the reasons I believe we human beings feel the drive to learn our alphabet and write, I guess I would probably put that one at the top of the list. First and foremost, we write to try and get our brains around things that have us too gob-smacked to think straight.
Basically, I was green with jealousy of Reed and the attention he drew every time he kicked his chubby legs or gurgled that spitty gurgle of his. I didn't know I was jealous at the time, of course. I just knew I got this clinchy feeling in my throat when I saw the look of pure enchantment on my mother's and grandmother's faces around him. Even when they were changing his diapers!
And so I often slunk up to the top of the combine, opened my notebook, and wrote about my brother. I wrote poetry, mostly, about how adorable and cute he was, probably trying to push down the real feelings I had about having someone new and uninvited (I certainly hadn't invited him!) become the center of everyone's doting attention.
But here's an amazing thing I've noticed time and time again about the act of writing. It won't let you lie! Oh, for a while it will, but eventually, if you are truly engaged in the process, what you know to be true in the deepest recesses of your heart will work its way out of you and onto the page. There's just no stopping it.
And so it happened that one day, up on the combine, I was writing a poem about my brother which I meant to begin with these two lines:
I have a brother who is very sweet and soft.
He is just the opposite of a stickly, prickly hayloft.
I meant to start it that way, but what came out of my pencil strangely enough read:
People say my brother is so very sweet and soft, But
I think he's more like a stickly, prickly hayloft!
Something broke inside me when I read those words I'd accidentally written, and suddenly big drippy tears were splattering my page. I cried my heart out that morning up in the combine shed, just like I often cry my heart out still today, writing in my journal. Sometimes you touch a nerve with writing that you can't touch with thinking alone, and often it really hurts to touch that nerve. But it's a good hurt, a healing hurt. Self-knowledge is always a good thing in the end, no matter how much pain it takes to dig for it. The hidden truth I touched that day was my own mixed feelings about having a brother, and that was a good first step toward admitting my jealousy, and overcoming it.
Still to this day, after over twenty years of writing for a living, I learn more about my own layered heart all the time by tunneling into it with a number-two pencil.
Third grade was one of the most important years of my life, if not the most important. Actually, yes—I'd say it was the most important, because I learned (and I whisper the word with reverence) cursive. Currrrsiiiive. It even sounds magical, doesn't it?
Last year I was doing a writing workshop in a high school when a boy raised his hand and asked me why anyone in the twenty-first-century should have to learn cursive. After all, he reasoned, most writing is computer generated nowadays, so why not just learn to print a little bit and type a lot? In fact, why learn to print, even? Just teach us to recognize the letters on the keyboard keys, he suggested.
As I remember, lots of other people in the class agreed with the points he made.
How could I even begin to explain in the little time we had that day? But I will take a bit of space to explain it to you now, though it may be one of those things you just have to feel to understand. Have you felt the power of cursive?
I felt it immediately in Mrs. Peters' third grade—the fluid, joyful dance of my hand across that little turquoise highway where my pencil had merely trudged before.
I felt how it matched my thoughts, which had had to slow down for my hand to catch up with them when I'd only been printing. Printing—that baby skill! Cursive was to printing what my new bicycle without training wheels was to Reed's lame little roll-around baby chair. Cursive was to printing what running through the clover field was to lying on your back like some useless baby in a crib. Cursive was freedom !
The boy in the high school workshop would probably interrupt right about now to remind me that computers work even faster—much faster. He might point out that if cursive is like running through a clover field, then computer writing is like piloting a jet.
But would you rather jet above a clover field, or run through it? Cursive is somehow a very human thing, scaled just exactly right for us, well, humans. That's my opinion, anyhow. Cursive lets us use our senses, smell that clover, feel it against our legs. Cursive carries our thoughts. It carries them—doesn't push them, doesn't drag them along behind it. It's tailor made for our hands, our minds, our breathing.
Which doesn't mean there isn't a place for a computer when you write. I write with a computer a lot, in fact, and published material must be computer generated these days.
But every morning of my life I take my pencil, or my beloved Waterman fountain pen (how old fashioned can I get?), and I sit down with my coffee and my cat and I write in my journal for an hour or so. Best time of the day. And when I'm stuck in a manuscript, blocked in a rewrite, I've learned that things often come untangled when I turn off my computer and slow life down to human scale with that magical tool called cursive.
"Young people," Mrs. Peters, my wonderful third grade teacher, said, "now that you're learning cursive you can begin writing longer papers! You can put words into sentences already, and we've learned how to put our sentences into neatly indented paragraphs. So now with our cursive, we'll begin to use those paragraphs for building interesting stories!"
I actually remember her using that noun, building. Building stories—what a concept!
There were a few groans around the room, but my own nine-year-old heart beat fast.
Right out of the box, I immediately wrote three stories for Mrs. Peters about the Civil War. All three were stirring tales of bloodshed and tears, starring two guys I made up, a Rebel named Jake and his best friend, a Yankee named Jack. One or the other of them was gravely wounded in battle at the end of each of those stories. Meanwhile, his friend crossed dangerous enemy lines to bend over him on the battlefield in each of my last scenes, unwilling to leave his pathetically dying friend no matter what.
The bloodshed was theirs; the tears were mine, just thinking about it. How dramatic! At the end of one of the stories, I remember I had Jake say, "I won't desert you, Jack, even if it snows in August!" And it turned out to be August, and the story ended with snow falling. I trembled all over with amazement at my own genius when I wrote that.
My first story came back marked, "Good Work!" My second Jake and Jack story came back marked, "Good, Vicki. Nice Punctuation." Pretty faint praise, I thought. Especially since this was the story with the "snow falling in August" surprise ending.
Then my third Jake and Jack story came back with a long note at the end, right after the dramatic finale. "Vicki, you're a very good speller, and you know how to put words into good sentences and sentences into good, carefully indented paragraphs," Mrs. Peters had written. "Now, why don't you try to write a story based on something you know about, something important to you from your everyday life."
To be honest, I was pretty stunned, and a little insulted. More than a little.
Didn't Mrs. Peters understand anything about drama? Did she ever watch television, or go to the movies? Those stories on TV weren't ever, ever, ever about living in a measly little schoolhouse-house, feeding the chickens and watching your grandmother doting over your little brother! They were about … about important stuff! Like Dorothy trying to get to Oz, and Zorro and Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger fighting for truth and justice, just like Jake and Jack were doing on the battlefield!
Muttering some third-grade version of the complaint you often hear grown-up writers make about editors who don't understand their complex, beautiful work, I drug myself up to my machine shed perch on the dinosaur combine that afternoon and tried to think of a story that would please nit-picky Mrs. Peters.
Nothing came to me. There was just nothing interesting and dramatic in my meager life to write about for a whole two pages, period!
I believe I sat up there for several afternoons, completely uninspired, feeling more and more put out with Mrs. Peters' narrow take on things. Oh, sure, a short poem might come out of your life, or instructions for your sister, or even a descriptive paragraph about a sunset or something like that. But a dramatic story? No way. There were no dramatic stories around here! Chickens and pigs, yes. Wheat fields, yes. Stories? No.
Then one fateful afternoon, I took my stuffed dog Buttercup up to the top of the combine with me. I had no particular reason for taking him that day. I took Buttercup lots of places with me, that's all. He was my prized possession. If he had actually been a toy, he would have been my best toy. But like the Velveteen Rabbit, he was too loved to be called a mere toy.
I put him beside me on the combine and opened my notebook, ready for my usual frustration as I tried to think of a way to make my calm little life seem big and dramatic enough to please Mrs. Peters.
Maybe I could become a super-hero in a third-grade farm girl's body, just rip off my jeans and t-shirt to reveal the tights and cloak beneath. Maybe I could have our house picked up by a tornado and thrown down in some fancy Oz-like place. After all, it did look a lot like Dorothy's little Kansas farmhouse. And I had accidentally been born with the same name as the author of the Oz books, L. Frank Baum.
I sighed and looked over at Buttercup. I wondered all the time—what if my mother hadn't bought him for me that day we went to the five-and-dime in Greenville to pick out her drinking glasses? She'd saved a long time to buy those glasses for herself, but she'd used the money to buy Buttercup for me, instead. Why had she done that, anyhow? Especially since my little brother was clearly her favorite child. She'd probably heard me talking to Buttercup over in the stuffed toy department of the store, telling him that he was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen, and explaining to him how sad I was to have to leave him behind there in Mr. Sim's five-and-dime. Mom had come out of the store with her glasses in a brown sack, and I'd gone to bed that night still thinking about Buttercup, hoping to dream about him.
But instead, I'd found Buttercup waiting for me, right there on the center of my pillow! The brown sack hadn't held glasses after all. It had held Buttercup!
And come to think of it, we were still using those old, jelly jar glasses.
I think my hand was actually shaking a little as I turned back to my notebook and wrote a title on the top of my page that afternoon up on the combine—"Buttercup."
When anyone asks me when I became a writer, maybe they expect me to say it was when I graduated from college with a master's degree in English, or maybe when I started making money from little magazine articles, or when I published my first book.
But I always say it was in third grade, when I had cursive under my belt to carry my thoughts and Mrs. Peters to badger me into writing my everyday experiences to bring them out into sharp relief. Not some screenwriter's imaginings, not L. Frank Baum's thoughts, but my imaginings and dreams and thoughts. That's where stories come from.
I became a writer the afternoon I looked down at my well-loved stuffed dog, put his name as a one-word title at the top of my page, and started writing about our trip to Mr. Sim's five-and-dime to buy my mother a set of drinking glasses, her first matched set ever, glasses that didn't end up being bought after all.
I learned how much my mother loved me from writing that story. Life goes by too fast to learn all you have to learn, but writing gives you contemplation time, and the answers start to flow right out your pencil, traveling from both your brain and your heart to mix in with the lead, or the ink. A brain-heart-hand circle starts to turn inside you, churning out the truth of you. A connection is formed, and that connection is more powerful than anything I've ever felt.
Thank you, Mrs. Peters, with all my heart.
After that, I wrote stories about my great-grandfather and how he always offered us stale, tooth-breakingly hard orange-slice candy, and how we always took it. Why did we take it? Stories about fishing with my cousin, who didn't mind his mother very well. Would I rather be disobedient and cocky, like him? Stories, stories, stories, all of them started by questions I wanted answered.
I still write for that same reason—to get my burning questions answered.
The first part of my life, I guess you could say my childhood, came to an abrupt end the last month of sixth grade. That's when my parents decided to give up farming and Daddy took a job as a factory foreman in a small city in eastern Oklahoma.
Still, my grandparents lived in the old house James and Melvina had built in 1867, so we were always being pulled back to Illinois for Christmas, and I spent many weeks in the summers with my Grandma, in her house. I dreamed of moving back and staying permanently, someday in the future when I was grown and on my own. I planned to marry a local farmer—that seemed like the logical thing to do. Yes, that's what I'd do.
But in college I met and married a boy from Missouri who was studying to be a music teacher. This is how real life often works. You fall in love with someone and make a plan from there, not the other way around.
Mike and I bought an old farmhouse outside the western Missouri town where he got a job teaching music. We still live in our farmhouse. Our two children grew up in it. Mike teases me all the time, saying I picked the only little part of woodsy, rolling Missouri that looks like the wide and settled prairie land of Illinois. He's right, and I also picked a house that looks an awful lot like the one James built for Melvina, the one I'm sitting in today on a Thanksgiving trip, a mere 250 miles east of mine. Both old white houses hold my heart, and these days Mike and I spend many hours keeping both intact—patching walls, roofing, sanding floors that have felt the boots of six generations.
When I was twenty-five years old, coming from Missouri with my husband and our new baby girl to spend a different Thanksgiving here with Grandma and Grandpa, we came up over the hill on the far side of McKendree School and saw only charred soil where my schoolhouse-house had been. Farmers need every bit of land they can clear, and that little sagging building had to yield to progress. Still, I will never really get used to seeing soybeans planted every summer where my house used to stand.
The old combine shed made it for a few more years, probably because it was useful. Then combines got too large and expensive to be stored in such primitive places, and that saggy little building was burned down also.
My grandfather died in 1976. When my grandmother died in 1987, I was bereft, not only because I'd loved her with all my heart, but also because it felt like my family had finally completely left the Illinois farmland that had sustained us for 120 years. No one would be living in the beautiful old white house now, or in my great-grandfather's graceful and spooky round-windowed house down the road. The great-aunts and great-uncles had all died, and the cousins were gone as well, living in other states, even other countries. Their houses had mostly disappeared already, been burned down and plowed over to free up the farmland, like my little schoolhouse-house had been.
I was thirty-eight years old in 1987, the autumn Grandma died. I was making my living writing adult fiction and nonfiction magazine pieces by then. They were mostly upbeat, slice-of-life stories for women's and family magazines.
But as I grieved those weeks after Grandma's death, I found it hard to write that kind of light-hearted, energetic material. I craved the solace that I knew writing would bring me, but I wanted—no, needed—to write something elegiac in tone, something about the farm in Illinois, about growing up there with all the richness of the land and the family all around me. I wanted to take some time out to savor and explore my childhood memories.
Also at that time, I was employed by my church as a youth worker, and because of this I knew several local families who were suffering through the heartbreak of farm foreclosures. The mid-eighties were hard years for farmers economically, with food prices low and the interest rates for operating loans high.
And so, almost by accident, I decided to write a book using my childhood memories of living in my schoolhouse-house in Illinois. But I would write it from the standpoint of a twelve-year-old girl who knows her small farm will soon be sold at a foreclosure sale. I decided she'd be writing in a journal, like I always did (and still do). She'd be sitting in her hayloft, just like I'd sat for hours and hours up on the combine in the machine shed. She'd be pouring the details of her life onto notebook pages, and figuring out her feelings about leaving the place she's grown up in and loved.
And while I told the story through her eyes, I'd be sealing into a permanent place in my own heart my feelings about Grandma, and Illinois, and, yes, leaving.
I began writing that short book for myself, really, as a healing exercise as I grieved for my grandmother. But at the same time, a freelance writer can seldom afford the luxury of spending untold hours writing just for herself. Most of us weren't born wealthy, and we have to make a living from what we write. With two young children, I certainly did.
In a writers' magazine I subscribed to, I'd noticed an advertisement for a contest, sponsored by a major New York publisher, G. P. Putnam's Sons. The contest was for a first novel written for young readers, and the prize was publication of that novel.
"Are you going to send that somewhere when it's finished?" I remember Mike asking one afternoon as I sat in the big chair by our bedroom window, scribbling away onto a yellow legal pad with one of my well-sharpened Number Twos.
I shrugged. "Maybe to this contest I read about," I murmured, just so he wouldn't ask more questions. Inwardly, I doubted I'd ever, ever have the courage to do that.
My manuscript was finished, typed, and lying on our bedside table on the next-to-last day of December that year. I believe the deadline for entries to Putnam's contest was December 31, and for some reason, I'd mentioned that deadline to Mike.
"Aren't you going to send your book to that contest?" he asked, eyeing the little pile of one hundred and fifteen sheets of typing paper as he reached across our bedside table to turn out the light.
I sighed. "I doubt it. It's snowing outside." Meaning it would be hard to get to the post office in the morning. We live two miles from town.
Also meaning that it was far too terrifying a prospect. I didn't write books. I didn't write for kids. Kids were too important—I merely wrote for grownups! I wrote short stories. Light, breezy little tales about being a mom. I knew my place, and that was it.
When we woke the next morning, the snow was several inches deep. Mike rolled from bed, pulled on his jeans, and said, "Put your story into one of those yellow envelopes you use, Vic. I'll dig out the truck and take it to the post office."
Gulp. Oh, well, the best thing to do was put it out of my mind. I'd enclosed a self-addressed stamped mailing envelope, so they'd send my story back to me when they'd finished with it. If those book editors laughed their heads off at my writing I'd never have to know. Meanwhile, I didn't have to admit to anyone here at home that I'd actually had the nerve to send a book manuscript to New York City.
On May 5, Putnam called to tell me I'd won their contest. A year almost to the day later, my first book, Good-bye, My Wishing Star, was published.
As I write this, it's hard for me to believe that fifteen years have passed since that book came out in 1988. I'm sitting at Melvina's kitchen window here in the old house in Illinois, thinking with a part of my mind about the revision of my ninth book for Putnam that lies waiting for my attention, in on the bedroom table of my house in Missouri.
As I was saying many paragraphs ago, we moved the spring of my sixth grade year to a town of about 10,000 people in eastern Oklahoma, and everything changed in my life.
Oklahoma and Illinois are completely different. Illinois is old and settled. Oklahoma feels newer and more rough and ready. Illinois is cultivated fields, and Oklahoma is red clay and tumbleweeds. Illinois is spangled with farms, and Oklahoma has ranches. The places even smell completely different. Illinois always smells to me like growing things, a mixture of corn and clover, mostly. Oklahoma smells like horses and leather and wind.
My new Oklahoma town also had a cold, metallic smell—there were mines nearby. When I was in high school, my friends liked to party at the chat piles a mile outside the city limits. The chat piles were huge—I mean huge—manmade mountains of gravel taken from deep inside the earth during the mining process. There were clear quarries filled with green water between some of them. It all felt mysterious, and wild.
Wild. That's how lots of things struck me and still strike me in Oklahoma. There was a freedom there, a wildness I hadn't felt in Illinois. Sometimes I loved that, and other times it scared me and made me long for the safety of my childhood.
Usually, I loved that wildness and it scared me.
I was thirteen when we moved to Oklahoma, and it was 1961. How can I possibly explain that particular time in our country's history, and the effect it had on kids like me? Actually, I did spend an entire novel, The Starplace, trying to explain that very thing.
The Starplace is set in a small Oklahoma town, in 1961. The narrator, Frannie, is thirteen. I may as well confess—she's me. But she has something wonderful happen to her that didn't happen to me until I got to college. She has the opportunity to be friends with someone not light beige, like Frannie herself is. Celeste, the other main character in the book, is African-American, and she and her father have moved to Frannie's segregated all "white" town. As one of the characters in the book points out, this has either been a very brave thing to do, or a very foolish one. In the course of reading The Starplace, each reader will have to answer that question. Has Celeste's father been brave in trying to push the process of integration forward, or merely stubbornly foolish?
In 1961, far too many of our American towns were segregated, including mine in Oklahoma. There were signs in the local restaurants—"We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." There were places out near the minefields where the Ku Klux Klan had tortured people back in the Klan's local heyday in the earlier decades of the century.
That history of violence and hatred had left a residue that clung to everything around. Klan activity and bigoted thinking had polluted the air and put progress back many years, just as it had in many, many small towns in America in 1961. There were recent laws on the books saying people of all races had an equal right to police protection, equal access to good schooling, and so forth. But many people didn't honor those laws. One reviewer of The Starplace said the book was set in the time when America was deciding whether or not to respect and keep the anti-discrimination laws it had recently made.
Yes, you really do have to decide that in a democracy. To make a law is not enough. In fact, it's just a first step. A law not honored will wither and die; a rule not enforced will degenerate into just so much empty talk.
It was a white world in 1961, here in our United States. There were no Asians or Latinos or African-Americans on television commercials, and usually only light beige dolls on display in the big department stores. In the illustrations in our reading books, children who were not light beige were seldom portrayed, and if they were they were drawn in the background, not front and center. Recently I came across a little test pamphlet published by a major encyclopedia company in 1958 and distributed to families who bought sets of those encyclopedias. All the smiling children on the cover are white, and one of the questions inside, aimed at fifth graders, is "What is a Negro?"
This is shocking, even repulsive, to imagine now, I know. And even more shocking is the fact that in 1961, many light beige people somehow seemed to think there was nothing wrong with America being so tragically lop-sided that way. Why bother to imagine a more interesting and fair way of doing things? It must have seemed like a lot of trouble to be inclusive, and not enough people were imagining that it would also be just plain more accurate to include everybody in the media, the toys, and the books that supposedly portrayed us as Americans. "Diversity" was a word you just didn't hear anyone using.
Often when I visit with children I tell them that they have no idea how much power they truly have. Children have power because they have clear eyes. Young people can see things that adults no longer always have the ability to see. Adults should listen closely when children speak of their concerns, and many adults actually do.
As a child, by the age of ten or so, I noticed prejudice around me. I sometimes heard grown-ups using bad words, ridiculing words, to describe certain people, people they didn't even know. For no reason at all, grown-ups I respected in other ways would use those bad words, then laugh together. It bothered me more all the time, and it bothered my cousins, too.
I remember my cousin Max, who was much, much cockier and braver than I could ever be, correcting a grown-up in public one time. I was probably about eleven then, and he was nine. "You shouldn't call people that word!" he said to the man, a neighbor.
Our parents would never have used that word themselves, but they were embarrassed by Max's outburst. Later, Kathy and I got a stern, no-nonsense lecture about how it wasn't the place of a child to correct a grownup, ever, ever, ever.
We were chastened by that lecture. And honestly, there was truth in it. Adults should be respected, and there are more ways to object to something than to do it loudly and publicly. It's tricky, though. Unlike Max, I chose to be quiet, but I cringed inside whenever I heard a grown-up call someone a mean name, or whenever I'd see a grown-up be rude to someone of another race, say at the gas station, or fishing at the river.
In our new town in Oklahoma, local racism seemed much more widespread and generally accepted than it had been in Illinois, and I felt like I was cringing all the time. In fact, I started getting stomach aches from all that cringing.
It really, physically hurts when a person you like in other ways begins speaking or acting in a bigoted way that you just can't stand. The lady that's cutting your hair, the man sacking your mother's groceries, a neighbor. Out of the blue, just when you're having a nice conversation about sports or music or something, there it comes, the ugly joke or the sickeningly unfair reference to someone's race or nationality.
It hangs in the air like toxic pollution, ruining just everything.
When I think about the anger that was about to explode in the Civil Rights protests and marches of the early and mid-1960s, I remember all that cringing, all that leaving the room, all those nervous stomach aches because of pushing down criticism I was too polite to level at insensitive adults who seemed not to know or care how they were polarizing my generation. They were making my friends and me choose between loyalty to them and their too-long-unquestioned ideas and loyalty to what we positively knew was true and fair. We're the grown-ups, they were saying; respect us, believe what we believe, or else.
But we just plain couldn't. We wouldn't.
When the Civil Rights movement finally found its voice in heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it wasn't just African-Americans who were fed up with the way they were targeted as a group for disrespect. Lots of people in my generation who happened to be born light beige were fed up with it as well.
I made many of the best friends I have during my junior high and high school years in Oklahoma. But when I graduated, I left that town, and most of my friends did, too. Like Frannie in The Starplace, I needed to be where I could launch myself toward the future.
And by the time I was eighteen I knew in my heart that if a place decides it won't be a launchpad for certain groups of people, it can't be a launchpad for anyone.
I started college at the University of Missouri at Kansas City in the fall of 1967. It was a crazy, chaotic but exhilarating time, filled with controversy and ideas. America was smack in the middle of the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights movement had worked up a full head of steam. Arguments and debates were everywhere, and so was music. Folk music, psychedelic music, solid rock and roll from those mop-heads called the Beatles and their bad-boy counterparts, the Rolling Stones. We were hippies, flower children, my new crowd of Kansas City friends and I.
Though, honestly, I was far too self-conscious and worried about what everybody thought to be a real hippie. I had long hair and braided a daisy into it now and then, tie-dyed my t-shirts and stitched peace signs on the seats of my jeans, sang Bob Dylan and Joan Baez songs with my three-chord guitar skills and went barefoot a lot. But I never touched drugs, hardly ever screamed war protest slogans (I muttered them, just didn't scream them), and kept my apartment embarrassingly neat and tidy. Before certain friends would come over, I'd mess it up, try to give it that "too intelligent to be worried about hygiene" look.
I guess I was a fake hippie, actually. Just mostly wearing the costume.
I worked thirty hours a week at Baker's Shoes to pay my rent and tuition. I took a bus about twenty blocks to work each afternoon, sold hosiery and rang the cash register until the store closed at nine o'clock, then returned to my apartment near the art gallery each night.
Beautiful Volker Park was right across the street from me, and it was always crowded after dark with real hippies. The night air was thick with the smell of marijuana, unless the police had taken drastic measures to make people leave the park and go home. Then the air was thick with tear gas. Those nights, I'd close my windows and sleep with my head under my pillow and my eyes stinging, listening to the rotors of the police helicopters patrolling overhead and feeling like my life had become a great adventure.
Heady stuff for a little farm girl.
I majored in music at first—I'd been first-chair flute in my high school band, and was a pretty good singer. But I found myself taking English courses as electives, just to get a chance to read tons of books. I had no trouble writing the required essays and research papers—in fact, I enjoyed that kind of writing as much as any other kind, and still do.
So gradually, little by little, I shifted toward an English degree with a music minor.
Now, let me stop and interject an embarrassing word or two about my creative writing endeavors at that particular time. To be blunt, they were hormone-driven. Therefore, they were a mess, a train-wreck, pure and hopeless drivel.
I wouldn't bring this up except for the fact that as a sometime college writing teacher now, I often see the same thing happening in the work of my students. When you're sixteen or eighteen or nineteen and you're violently in love, or easing carefully into love, or tricked by that cold-eyed villain called love, or determined never again to take a chance on ruthless love, you tend to see the world as orbiting around you. Not you, exactly—your feelings. And so you cover endless sheets of poor, innocent notebook paper with poetry about your feelings, as if no one else had ever had them before. Ick.
Now, in the interest of helping you avoid my own mistakes, I'll tell you a horror story about what this kind of soggy, adjective-heavy, overwrought writing can lead to.
I screwed up all my courage and took a creative writing class my sophomore year—poetry writing, of course. The teacher was a published poet, and he had us sit in a real writer's circle. The last day of the first week of class, he told us to bring in our best poem Monday, and we'd each read, then our classmates would critique our work.
Well. I had just broken up with a boy I'd been crazy about my senior year of high school. We'd seen each other as often as we could manage it for the year since, but he'd recently dropped me cold, left Oklahoma to play with a rock band in California. Actually, that's not completely accurate. It turned out he'd been sneaking out to California all the past year, dating a girl there he hadn't bothered to tell me about.
This dark betrayal had been the occasion for much, much agonizing poetry. It took me the whole weekend before our first class reading to cull through the volumes of tear-stained stanzas, but I finally settled on one poem I thought was truly elegant. I think it started with the line, "If thou goest from me, then let me be the mere servant at thy threshold!"
Believe me, it took real courage for me to tell you I wrote that.
I was a nervous wreck before class that Monday. I remember I was the third to read. The professor had generous comments for the first two readers, something like he admired their use of a certain image, their work scanned well, etc. When a professor says nice things, the students tend to jump in with nice comments as well. Nowhere is herd behavior so evident as in a writing class taught by a published writer.
Then, with shaking voice, I read my little heart-wrenching opus. The professor bit his lips, then giggled, then said, "Sorry, I just can't keep a straight face." That opened the floodgates and soon my classmates were slapping their knees and laughing as well.
It was the most humiliating hour of my life, or at least in the top five.
I never went back to that class. In fact, I was so mortified that I didn't even go to the administration building and drop the class. I just couldn't think about it, not ever. I took an incomplete. For all I know, it may be permanently recorded as an F. I couldn't bear to look when my grades came that semester. I tossed them, unread, into the trash.
Yes, the one creative writing grade on my undergraduate transcript is probably an F, even though I've worked as a creative writer for these past twenty-some years.
There are a couple of things that could be learned from this fiasco.
Number one: It truly was a horrible poem, a laughably horrible one. If only I'd gone back to Mrs. Peters' wonderful advice and written about something solid and concrete, started from some event or specific detail of my doomed love for fickle Jerry. Maybe I could have started from the black necklace he gave me in high school, or maybe I could have built a poem around the mud-stained white Dodge van he carried his blood-red drums in. Loose emotions not tied to specific facts or details just become Jake bending over Jack on the battlefield, blathering on, over and over and over again. But …
Number two: There are two ways to teach writing, which is, after all, an incredibly precious and intimate thing. That poetry teacher did what I think of as "shark tank" teaching, hoping his students would be culled by pressure, the talented writers separated from the bad ones by the process of humiliation, quickly and cleanly.
I prefer a softer and more careful kind of teaching, not just because human beings are fragile animals, but because I think you risk throwing away the baby with the bath water.
I didn't write another poem for years and years after that experience. In fact, I'm still a little hesitant.
Speaking of love, I met my husband at college in Kansas City. He was doing yoga, standing on his head at Volker Park. He still does yoga. The minute I looked into his upside-down brown eyes, I knew I'd never have to write a poem about him leaving.
Don't ask me how I knew that, but I was right. It's been thirty-three years, and we're definitely still counting.
We were married the day after Christmas in 1970. Each year I celebrate three things in a row—my birthday, Christmas, and my anniversary. Lucky me.
Mike and I both got our master's degrees in Missouri, then we moved to Iowa for a couple of years while he did his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. I got my first professional job there, as a research librarian in the University library.
We moved back to Missouri when he graduated in 1976, and in 1980, when our daughter was six and our son was four, we bought the old farmhouse I was telling you about earlier, just outside the teensy central Missouri town of Ionia (pop. 118).
Our original plan in buying this small acreage where we've lived for the past twenty-three years was self-sufficiency. We wanted to raise most of our own food, and to heat with wood we cut ourselves from the surrounding woods. Mike was teaching when we moved here, and I was working part-time for our church. The plan was for me to teach English once the kids were a few years older, but meanwhile, I was happy tending a huge garden, canning peaches, freezing corn, planting flowers, refinishing old junk-store furniture, doing my church job organizing trips and projects for the local teens, enjoying my amazing children, and following my lifelong habit of jotting down some of the little amusing or heart-breaking events of each day.
Gone were the days when I had long, leisurely hours to write, of course. No college afternoons with a notebook under the trees at Volker Park, or lazy childhood Saturdays with my Big Chief tablet and eternity stretching before me as the elephant clouds paraded by. Having young children tends to put an end to such lollygagging.
Nowadays, since my two children are grown up and living in Indiana, you can often find me up in the hayloft, my blue-jeaned legs dangling from the floor-to-ceiling window while I scribble blissfully away, oblivious to everything around me. But back then, I couldn't find ten minutes to climb the hayloft ladder, let alone savor the sunset for an hour while I journaled! No, back then unused time came in five-minute intervals and my writing was definitely in snatches. Usually I'd scribble a few paragraphs while dinner cooked, for instance, then stuff those scraps of paper—broccoli-stained and coffee-splotched—into a kitchen drawer.
But I had to write, had to try and "keep" some of the moments of what was an incredibly rich time in my life, a time of constant turmoil and worry and, well, joy.
I wrote about our son Mikey's firm belief that a winged zebra family flew into his bedroom window to tell him secrets each night. I wrote about J. D. going through her Victorian lady phase, making tussy-mussies out of every piece of fabric she could get her hands on and talking a language based on the dialogue in the L. M. Montgomery books. "Oh, we simply must have our lemon tea soon, mother dear, mustn't we just now?"
I wrote about the cardinal family in the snow-covered mulberry tree, jewels glowing in deepest winter. On the other hand, I also recorded the paralyzing fear I always had when the fighter jets stationed at nearby Whiteman Air Base flew low over our house.
I had so much suddenly, and so much to lose. My heart was full, and often ached.
And half a dozen times a day, I wrote about that, in snatches of non-existent time, on scraps of paper torn quickly from whatever was at hand and stuffed into a nearby drawer.
Sometimes, the most important decisions you make seem to be triggered by some quirky thing you don't even see coming. My most important decision where my career is concerned probably happened because of the Cabbage Patch doll craze in 1983.
I think my daughter was in third grade the Christmas every little girl in America just had to have a Cabbage Patch doll. As is usual at Christmas, the toy companies had pulled out all the stops, advertising endlessly on television and every other way they could think of, telling the children of America what they simply had to have next to be happy.
That year, the magic thing happened to be Cabbage Patch dolls, and all that hype worked so perfectly that two weeks before Christmas every single Cabbage Patch doll in America had been purchased. Our country suffered under the grip of a terrifying Cabbage Patch doll shortage! Mothers were reportedly engaged in hair-pulling fights over the last few dolls, causing shocking scenes in department stores everywhere.
It might have been funny if it hadn't been so sad.
Then there was a ray of hope for those poor, helpless mothers. It turned out that there were Cabbage Patch dolls to be had after all, the only catch being that they were in England, a country "across the pond," as they say. Not a hop, skip, and a jump from the U.S.A. by any means. In fact, round-trip plane tickets from Kansas City to London were going for $600 that winter.
I know this because the Kansas City television station that reported our news each night began a week-long series about a father in Kansas City who loved his little daughter so much that he purchased one of those $600 tickets, flew to London, snatched up six dolls for the girl and her five closest friends, and flew right back.
I watched more and more grimly as the news followed this heart-warming odyssey in segments all that week, building up to Friday night, when the father arrived back in Kansas City. His delighted daughter and her friends met him at the airport, hugged him quickly then more eagerly hugged their new dolls as the newscaster beamed, obviously thrilled to be reporting a Christmas story with such a warm and perfect ending.
I could barely breathe, I was so angry, watching that. Farmers all around us were going out of business, losing farms. Families were scrimping to pay bills, the food pantries in many towns were empty, the Salvation Army was very short of meeting its goals. And we were telling our children that love means spending $600 on a stupid doll ?
Ignoring a thousand other more important things I had to do, I wrote an angry letter to that television station, telling them exactly what I thought. I revised it twice, turning down the heat, making my points by example, not sheer spit and spleen.
And to my utter surprise, I got a letter back from the station's news anchorman, saying my letter was the most thoughtfully written piece of journalism he'd ever read. My ideas were well developed and well expressed and he'd try to give me an on-air chance to express them. And by the way, had I ever considered a career in writing?
Some door of possibility opened a tiny crack inside me. Me, a real writer? Doing the thing I loved so well for … for my job ? It couldn't work … could it?
But I did have those drawers full of scraps and scribbles, and I did have ideas to express, gosh darn it! Why not give writing for publication a try? Not that it would ever work out, of course. But, well, couldn't I just send a few pieces off in secret, for fun?
We had no extra money, not a dime. For eighteen dollars I bought a rickety old used electric typewriter with a couple of missing keys, and I checked out a market guide from the public library. A market guide is a long list of publishers and their requirements. The market guide most writers use to find places to send their work is probably Writer's Market, published by Writer's Market Books in Cincinnati. It lists thousands of magazine and book publishers, organized by subject, and it has good articles about the "etiquette" of the submission process. Honestly, it has everything you need to know to start trying to be a published writer. With the money from my first sale I bought my own personal copy, and to this day I buy an updated copy every October. It's also available online, but I like the feel of paper sliding between my fingers, so I buy the book.
I scaled back on the gardening and cleaning enough to carve myself a couple of hours of writing time a day, and about thirty percent of the time I actually was able to stick to the plan and get that much time. With great ceremony, I positioned my typewriter in a fairly uncluttered spot on the long library table in the parlor, right between my son's sacred baseball card collection and a bunch of our books, which are everywhere, just everywhere. I kept a written log of the hours I spent molding my accumulated scribbled scraps of paper into stories or submitting those stories to publishers, and this time log gradually helped me get organized. Somewhat. To this day, I must admit, writing time is a slippery thing for me, and probably for anyone who writes for a living. Life just tends to intrude in constant unexpected ways (sigh …).
I got lots and lots of rejection slips from magazine editors those first months I sent things out, but I don't remember getting particularly discouraged. I recently read a fascinating magazine article about the behavior of worker ants that may hold the key to why that was. This article said that worker ants often accidentally drop and lose their heavy loads in the process of doing the many building projects they do for their colonies, and then they have to travel back great distances to get another load. The ant specialist interviewed for this article was asked by the interviewer if the worker ants became discouraged, and she answered that no, you have to have expectations to be discouraged, and the worker ants just, well, don't have expectations. They just do what they do, over and over and over again. Huh.
I guess I didn't get discouraged by all those rejection slips because I honestly didn't have expectations of getting published. This was just an experiment, and I was enjoying myself doing what I was doing. Enjoying myself a lot. It was my little bit of pure creative space inside a constant messy jumble of family things to handle. Writers who start out expecting instant success are probably, from my experience, riding for a fall. It hardly ever happens that way. There's no golden key, no trick to making the doors fly open. You just have to be … antlike. Dogged.
Every time I think of my first sale, I laugh. It happened this way.
I had sent a rather flimsy little story to a family magazine published by the United Methodist Church, which happens to be my denomination. The short story was about a woman wallpapering a room, thinking about her troubled relationship with her husband. She's not taking much care as she works, not worrying about whether her seams are flat or her designs matched up evenly. The room is starting to look pretty awful, not beautiful like she planned it, and she can't figure out why. This mirrors her neglected relationship with her husband, of course.
Like I said, the story wasn't very heavy, just a vaguely humorous little ditty.
It came back to me, rejected, but with a handwritten note. Most rejections are form letters, so this was very exciting. "I can't use this piece," the kind editor wrote, "but I really like your style. I could use something about nuclear issues, if you happen to have anything on hand."
Like I said, when I think of that, I laugh. Why in the world would he have thought I'd have something on hand about nuclear issues when I'd written this light little piece about sloppy wallpapering? And the even funnier thing is, I did! Living near an air base, I drove my kids to school each day past underground nuclear missile silos—of course I'd written about the sheer terror of that, the helpless rage I felt each time we passed those places where cows innocently grazed above hidden killing machines aimed at other peoples' children a world away.
But—very important but—when a subject pushes your buttons, makes you mad or sad or joyful or scared, you have to remember to let specific events and details carry the story! I had learned that lesson of Mrs. Peters' well enough by then. I made up a scary day with a nuclear threat in the air, a couple of families, a playground. I let the people in my story act out my fears, and then my hopes that when push comes to shove, the joyful urge in each of us to play together in the sun will overcome the idiotic urge we apparently sometimes feel as humans to try and annihilate each other.
The editor of that magazine bought the story I sent. It was called "The Most Important Thing," and it will always hold a special place in my heart as maybe not my best story, but a story about, yes, an important thing, and my first sale.
If I remember right, I was paid forty-five dollars for it. When the check came, I jumped all around the house, screaming with joy while my kids bumped against my legs, joyfully screaming along. When the magazine came with my story, beautifully illustrated with photographs of autumn leaves, I cried, and the kids sat beside me on the sofa and patted my back.
Mikey and J. D. have always been both my inspiration and my most empathetic supporters. I should qualify that, though. Sometimes at schools, kids ask me if my kids like having a mother who's a writer, and then I have to confess about when Mikey learned to juggle.
He was probably twelve, maybe thirteen, and he was reportedly a very good juggler. All his friends said he was. His grandparents were impressed, and so was his father. His sister raved about his ability to juggle not just balls, but also small stuffed elephants.
But he wouldn't perform for me! My feelings were hurt.
And then one day, I heard him juggling, two rooms away, in the parlor. (Yes, you can hear juggling—the wind whipping against the balls.) I dried my dishwatery hands on my jeans and rushed through the house to get a look, but when I reached the parlor the balls were on the floor and Mike was standing with his arms crossed, waiting for me and smiling his "nice try, Mom" smile.
"Mike, I never get to see you!" I bitterly complained, tears stinging my eyes. "Everybody gets to see you! Why not me ?"
He sighed. "Mom, everybody doesn't spill their guts about everything in print !"
Gulp. There are lots of ethical questions writers face, and this is a biggie of mine. My family is endlessly fascinating to me, and writing comes directly from the writer's fascinations. But when is privacy more important than a good story? I confess that I probably cross the line occasionally, though I try not to. I do, Mike! Believe it or not, I try.
Some people may think that after you sell one story, the others sell far more easily. In some small sense, this is true. You have more confidence, and if you send a second story to the same publisher, it will be read quickly and perhaps more carefully considered.
But it took years for my magazine acceptances to outnumber my rejections as I gradually, gradually shoved open the doors to new markets. During the middle and late 1980s, I worked up to the point where I kept about forty articles and short stories in the mail all the time and could expect to sell three or four a month. They were written in many genres—mysteries, family stories, religious stories, animal stories, stories about living in the country, stories about nuclear issues a bit like that first sale. In my small way, I got to be known in certain circles as somewhat of an anti-nuclear activist, and I was proud of that. When the missile silos around Whiteman Air Base were imploded in the 1990s as part of the set of anti-nuclear pacts with the Soviet Union, I felt the rumble of their destruction beneath my feet, out here in my office. And boy, did it feel good.
Now that I've sneakily mentioned my office, I should tell you a little bit about it.
You'd love it, because it's really more like a little white playhouse, built by my dad about ten years ago at the edge of our hayfield. In fact, it greatly resembles the playhouse my dad built for my sister and me beside our schoolhouse-house when we were kids. It's just big enough to hold my computer, my grandmother's rocking chair, and a dozen dictionaries of all shapes and sizes. All those dictionaries! I don't trust spell-check so I don't use it, and besides, I like the feel of paper sliding between my fingers as I look up a word. Aren't I predictable? A true dinosaur—I know, I know.
I try to spend several hours a day in the office, unless I'm on a school visit (one of the great joys of writing for kids!). I still publish some short stories and articles, but since 1987 I've spent most of my time on my books for Putnam. It takes me at least a year to write one of my novels. The current one has taken three years so far! My editor is a real stickler, a true spiritual sister of Mrs. Peters, which is about the greatest compliment I could give anyone. Anne tries her very best not to let me embarrass myself in print, no matter how many rewrites that takes—and I truly, truly appreciate her doggedness.
Doggedness. Like those ants. Like me, when I'm writing. Sheer, stubborn doggedness is what it takes to get the job done, that and every bit of imagination and creativity you can call forth and point toward the page.
Writing is never easy, but it's always a thrill.
The sun is setting over the stubble of the Illinois wheat fields this Thanksgiving day, and my kids, who've driven down together from Indiana to join us, are in the mood to pop some corn and play a few hours of killer Monopoly. Sounds like fun. We played Monopoly with the same board when I was a child, here in this house on Thanksgivings. I always had the shoe. My sister had the wheelbarrow. Now, I always take the shoe and J. D. gets the dog. Mikey has the wheelbarrow and Mike has whatever nobody else grabs, usually the hat. He's easy, not territorial like the other three of us. He won't cheat at this game, though Mikey and J. D. and I will. If we can get away with it, anything goes.
In almost exactly one month, I will turn fifty-five. That seems like an age at which you should have attained, if not wisdom, at least some accumulated knowledge of the world and how it works. Not bragging, but I do think I know a few things.
I know that people are basically good, and generous. I know that people are so fragile that a sarcastic gesture can wound someone for years and years, but that true, giving friendship can heal a thousand wounds. I know that family matters, and that loving families come in all shapes and varieties. I know that good-byes are hard, but that new helloes should be sought after constantly. I know that things are circular—they go on.
For instance, my daughter J. D. is a contractor now and is plastering the cracked walls of this old house this long weekend, healing it. Because J. D. can't say goodbye, Melvina's house will be here for another long time.
The Mexican-Haitian migrant girl in my new book will eventually leave her mark on many lives, just as J. D. is leaving her mark on this old house. We do that, we humans. We leave our marks on people, and on places, so we have to act with great care.
Gotta go. Monopoly calls, and I don't want Mike to take my shoe.
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Bob Graham (1942-) Biography - Awards to Francis Hendy Biography - Born to SewVicki Grove (1948-) - Personal, Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature Vicki Grove - Career, Member, Work in Progress