Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, Auntie Lila

Thanksgiving never seems quite like Thanksgiving without Auntie Lila.  Our entire extended family went to her house every year.  The standard players didn't vary a whole lot, but there were always a few extras.  A stray friend from your college dorm, a new boyfriend, a relative from the other side of the family.  You didn't even have to ask.  She'd just set up another kids' table. 

Auntie Lila had open heart surgery and she wasn't doing so well.    I knew I needed to ask her to tell me her favorite stories--my favorite stories, actually.  I am so happy that I took the time to write them down.  A few years ago, not long before she died, I sat with her, with my computer on my lap, and took down her words.  

We had a lot in common.  One thing was a love of jazz.  And Nat King Cole.  She shared with me her favorite Nat King Cole memory:

It was 1953.  Lute and I had been married for ten years and we'd never had a vacation.  I saved and saved that year.  I made candy and I went door-to-door peddling wrapping paper and cards and my candy.  Finally, I'd saved two hundred dollars.  Thora and Gene watched the kids.  All we had was the old red pick-up and we had seven days driving time to get down and back from San Francisco.

I wrote to the Chamber of Commerce and we found a hotel where we could park and walk around town. I called the Fairmont and we got tickets to the Nat King Cole show.  He was with his trio then.  I was so excited.  It was a very posh place.  The had place cards on the tables that said "Nat King Cole Trio" on them.  But our table didn't have one, so I got one of the busboys to get me one and I put it right in my purse.

The band played for a while and it was just wonderful.  I remember he sang "Straighten Up and Fly Right", of course, because he wrote that one, and he also sang that cute song about a Calypso Girl.  I had the album with that song on it.  I still have it.  Anyway, the band took a break about halfway through and I went to visit the powder room.  

Well, I went into the most posh bathroom I'd ever seen and I found out it was a pay toilet.  I had no money for a pay toilet!  So I just primped and fluffed my hair a bit and left.

When I got back out into the main hallway, there he was with his trio, walking right toward me!  I pulled out my little place card and said, "Mr. Cole, do you think I could have your autograph?"

He was so nice.  He said, "Sure."  And he signed my place card!  I was so excited!

Happy Thanksgiving, Auntie Lila.  I have no doubt that Nat King Cole is seated at your Thanksgiving table.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gangland Warfare

There was a definite hierarchy in the neighborhood.  Not in the true gang sense, of course.   We weren't Compton, for goodness sakes.  We were a middle-class Seattle suburb in the seventies.  And age didn't dictate this hierarchy, as you might have thought.  In our neighborhood it was creativity and planning ability.  

My best friend, Leslie, and her brother, Jeff, were masters at planning creative strategy, therefore they both held top-ranking neighborhood positions.  We were determined to get back at someone.  A neighborhood bully sounds almost cliche...unless it's an adult.  
What made it worse was she was someone's mother.  We were only in elementary school and this horrible woman would insult our new school shoes, our parents, and our houses.  Anyone or anything was fair game for this woman.  But again, it was the seventies and she was an adult.   You couldn't talk back to an adult.  It just wasn't done.  

Jeff's strategies included more along the lines of dog poop and aerobic activity (a.k.a. ringing the doorbell and running--or, as my daughter, Holly calls it, "ding-dong ditch").  I think that might have been the beginning of my being a real writer, because Leslie and I formed our own spin-off group.  We fought back in print.  We sat up in Leslie's treehouse and wrote stories.  We illustrated them in the form of paper dolls.  We even had key pieces of furniture from this woman's house.  I can still remember the songs we made up to go along with our paper doll stories.  Never has there been a worse villain in literature, than the one we created using this horrible neighbor as our muse.  I believe I still draw on my experiences and run-ins with this woman in my writing today.  

There's a wonderful saying that I have seen on bumper stickers and t-shirts:  "Be careful or you'll end up in my novel."  

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lying and Cheating

Lying and cheating.  It's all one big foggy grey area when you are in the first grade.  There doesn't seem to be any shame or dishonor involved, either.  I have seen some of my students shift all the way into their next-door-neighbor's desk space to see what they have on their paper.  

The lying is the best, though.  A girl in my class wrote  in her journal that her sister was fifty.  "Don't you mean fifteen?" I asked her.  She shook her head like I was nuts and said very clearly, "No.  Fifty."  It was best just to move on.  But I couldn't resist.  She had done what every good writer does.  I had to go back for more.  This time she had added her sister's name.   Hannah Montana.  Okay, a little too over the top.  I have to watch that sometimes with my own writing.  Newbery medalist, Patricia Reilly Giff says, "Could it really happen?  Or do you believe it could happen?"
As I'm going around the room a couple of days later, the same girl starts telling me another story about her "sister".  But this time her sister is nineteen.  (Apparently she needed a good copyeditor, because she had temporarily forgotten what she had written a few pages earlier.)  All of a sudden the haze cleared and she got a panicky look around the eyes.  "Oh...,"she said.  "My other sister?  She's dead.  Yep.  She died."
Was that what William Faulkner meant when he said, "Kill your darlings"?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Call

Rejection and Revision are two words that cannot be avoided when you are a writer.  By last year, I had developed a pretty thick skin with my writing and had gotten relatively comfortable with rejection.  (By comfortable, I mean, the mail carrier could stop wearing full body armor when delivering the mail to my house.)  I tried to tell myself everyday,  These are manuscripts.  They are words you have written.  They are not your children that you are trying to sell.  If one person doesn't like it, you move on.  (Wayyyy easier said than done, by the way.)
So after reading an impressive agent interview in a market newsletter, I decided to send my middle-grade manuscript to the amazing wonder-agent, Daniel Lazar, at Writers House.  I braced myself for the standard thanks-but-no-thanks-not-right-for-us response.  So when he showed interest, I had to shift gears.  We had some e-mail correspondence and I did some revising for him.  I probably should have been prepared for his call, but you'd really have to know my close friends and family.
My brother, Tim, can do dead-on-Saturday-Night-Live-quality impressions.  And it wouldn't have been beneath him to call me, posing as an agent/editor/media mogul offering me a multi-book contract.  My friends, Margaret and Eileen, have also been known to play a very convincing phone joke.  If any of those people called me asking if my refrigerator was running, I'd probably go look.
I didn't even have the opportunity to check the caller ID when the call actually came, because my youngest daughter answered the phone.  When I asked her who it was, she said (impatiently, of course, because she was watching some Disney Channel episode for the millionth time), "I don't know.  It's some guy.  Dan something, from Writers House?"  
Okay, here's where I confess to Dan.  I was playing cool, but I was really hyperventilating.  Could he actually hear me jumping up and down?  
So...I guess the moral of my story is...relax, revise, and don't ever give up.