Post #39 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing and Healing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler
A Writer’s Inner Cosmos
Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently writing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Purr and Petulance or Pride and Prejudice and Kitties will be out in 2013. Please visit her website at http://www.austencats.com
My cat, Mittens, is – how can I describe it? Let’s just say he doesn’t have much personality. As a friend observed, “he’s one notch above a stuffed animal.” I argued for two notches, but Debbie had a point. Poor guy. It’s not his fault that he was born with no street-smarts or even house-smarts, and sleeps 23-1/2 hours a day. He’s also terribly timid and runs away meowing if he even sees an ant. The most dangerous thing he’s ever attacked is a Starbucks straw. So imagine my shock and amazement when Mittens recently caught and killed a mouse in our living room!
It goes to show, you never know what someone is capable of. Furthermore, “what someone is capable of” is not fixed or finite; it changes and shifts as we grow. I’ve seen this truth play out (to one mouse’s misfortune) in many ways, in my own life and in the lives of friends and colleagues. You think you really know someone. You think you know what she is capable of – the limits of her talent, the depth of her insights. And then, it turns out, you totally misjudged. The person you thought you knew so well has unsuspected depth, humor, even virtuosity.
And that person could be you.
When I was in eighth-grade, my English teacher, Mr. Eul, gave us an assignment to write a short story. As an aspiring writer, I was thrilled. Back in the 1960s, we were never given writing assignments in school, and I never imagined there were any living authors. I pictured a cemetery filled with tombstones of my favorite writers with their last names first, like card catalogs in the library:
Baum, L. Frank 1856-1919.
“Remember,” Mr. Eul called as we filed out of class that day, “no stories from TV!”
I hardly heard him. I was too excited about getting started.
That night, I set my parents’ old Smith Corona typewriter on my wooden writing desk, rolled in a fresh piece of paper, and began writing a story about a mute boy living in an eighteenth century seaport. It was a dark tale about what lies beneath the surface, and about not being heard – a feeling I knew well from growing up in a family dominated by the strong personalities of my brother and father.
For the next week I stayed up late every night, tapping away with obsessive intensity. Until the short story assignment, all we’d written in Mr. Eul’s class were check marks on multiple choice tests. We were all afraid of him – he liked to humiliate students in class and he snapped girls’ bras in the hallways. Still, I couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when he discovered the brilliant writer hidden behind those anonymous check marks!
A couple of weeks later, Mr. Eul announced that he was returning our stories. I could hardly wait to see what he wrote on mine, as he walked around the classroom passing them out. When he came to my desk, he stopped.
“You didn’t write this,” he said, holding up my story. His words hit me like a fist. This was the last thing I had expected.
“Yes I did,” I said. But my voice sounded very small, and Mr. Eul looked very big and imposing looming over my desk. He also looked like he was enjoying himself.
“I don’t believe you.” His voice was hard, accusing. My heart hammered against my chest and a metallic taste of fear filled my mouth.
The classroom was quiet. Everyone was watching, waiting to see what would happen next. Mr. Eul leaned over, his eyes boring into mine. “I’m going to keep this story so you won’t try to use it again in high school.”
Mr. Eul didn’t think I was capable of writing the story I handed in, and I couldn’t find the words to explain that stories were part of me; they were who I was. I would never “use” a story again, like a piece of recycled laundry. (He never did return my story, though the incident itself has become one of my favorite stories to tell.)
Many years after junior high school, when I was getting started writing children’s books, a well-known agent wrote me a letter in response to several manuscripts I had sent her:
“Your stories are intriguing,” she wrote. “But they all have cracks in the middle. The beginnings don’t go with the endings.”
This pronouncement from an authority in the publishing world sounded ominously fatal. My stories were broken. They had a genetic flaw – a death sentence for my career as a writer. It never occurred to me that I could actually fix my stories although that’s what writers do. As Woody Allen pointed out, “that’s why God invented the word rewrite.”
And rewrite I did.
Don’t let anyone, including yourself, define or circumscribe your limits, or your power or versatility as a writer. And it’s not just talent that is at issue. Qualities such as drive, courage, tenacity – and the fact that you probably don’t take 23-1/2 hour naps – profoundly affect what you accomplish. Whether you’re writing a memoir or chasing a mouse, remember your inner self is a cosmos, infinite and unchartered. No one can survey it at a glance, or predict the limits of what you can achieve.As for Mittens, he’s back to attacking Starbucks straws. But I have new-found respect for him. You never know what he might do next!
Pamela Jane Bell is the author of twenty-six children’s books, and is currently completing her memoir on how she became a children’s book author.
Her newest children’s book Little Goblins Ten (Harper, illustrated by Jane Manning) is a humorous riff on of the classic country rhyme “Over in the Meadow.” Little Goblins Ten was recently reviewed in The New York Times:
“Readers are rewarded with ample humor and wit… there’s a sweetness to the parental-offspring interactions in the playful, alliterative text.”—New York Times Book Review
Each month Pamela Jane Bell gives us something new to consider.
Pamela’s other hat, that of a children’s author, gives her a unique perspective. If you have children or grandchildren you’ll want to check out Pamela’s new lovely, illustrated book — Little Goblins Ten — that received a starred review by Kirkus and a review by Publishers Weekly that said, “In a gently spooky spin on “Over in the Meadow” that counts up to 10, various ghouls and beasts groan, swoop, and haunt. Jane has fun playing within the nursery rhyme’s parameters…”
Pamela Jane Bell has extensive experience mentoring children’s book authors, some of whom have gone on to highly successful careers. She is available to analyze manuscripts for any age level – board book to young-adult – and to suggest strategies for breaking in. Please contact Pamela if you are interested in having her help you write, revise, or submit a children’s manuscript.