I started to write, or claim I wanted to, years ago. I remember a friend of my mother’s back in my hometown saying that she was worried that “Ellen is going to write about us,” as though I was going to lay bare some kind of local secret. Poignantly, this lady and the friend to whom she confided both went to their rewards long before I ever got published. She misjudged me, anyway. I don’t write exposes, even if I did know of anything to expose. (What and who--I mean whom--was she talking about, anyway?)
If you’re reading this, you probably love to read, so we’re both members of the same club. I’ve always loved books and as a little girl, used to accompany my parents to a quaintly-named shop called The Corner Bookstore which was appropriately located at a corner. (It’s still there under another name, and it carries old & used books and smells like cats. It didn’t smell like cats when I was a child.) It became my dream to own such a store, with bookshelves ascending to the ceiling. I would have read all of them—at least it was so in my dream.
I did well in English, if you didn’t ask my 8th grade English teacher, Miss O. She was a stringent kind of person. One Monday morning, I had forgotten to look up a huge batch of vocabulary words and of course, she called on me. The only thing I could think to do was to hold up the little paperback dictionary we used and say, “Well, they’re all in here.” She was not amused.
In high school, I went out for dramatics and as luck would have it, a rather squirrelly (my adolescent description of her) English teacher was the director of the Senior Play. It was called June Mad and is still listed among the Samuel French plays. I was cast as the mother and was supposed to give a kiss to the boy playing the father. I balked; so did he. When the director insisted that the kiss stay in the play, I stalked up the auditorium aisle and out the door. As I left, I could hear the teacher, never one to waste an opportunity, refer to one of the week’s vocabulary words. “And that, students, is an example of high dudgeon!”
In college, I opted to become a history major. It was fascinating. I love history. I had a number of classes with the head of the department, Dr. C, who had a kind of chip on his shoulder about the fact that there were more girls than boys on this particular campus. Every Friday, as we exited his Current Events class, the last of the day, he would call out in a molasses-soaked Southern accent. “That’s right, gals, have a good weekend, and make sure you come back with a rang [ring]!” He was crazy, but his wife was a sane and kindly English teacher who encouraged me to submit my essay (about the time my Southern mother did a radio commercial for Hush Puppy shoes on a local radio station in Northern New York) to the campus literary magazine, circulation approximately 100. They accepted it! I was a published writer! Take that, Miss O!
After college, I found that jobs starring on Broadway were scarce (I had something to prove to that senior class director!), but I was able to find a job with a local television station and later an advertising agency, writing and producing local commercials. (Yeah, I’m that person. Sorry!) That lasted until I married and we started our family.
Our daughters were now in school, and while I’d written a few interview articles for a local art magazine (“Tell me, Beau, how do you get your ducks to look so real?”), the idea of writing an honest-to goodness book sort of called to me. I’ve told the story before of how I threw a paperback novel across the kitchen and declared in clarion tones, “Even I could write a better book than that!” Well, it took another ten years, several online classes and a raft of false starts, but finally I typed “The End” on the page and learned that I wasn’t finished by a long shot.
The experiences I had in trying to get the book published gave me a jaded attitude about the industry. I pictured agents and editors as frail creatures, as easily spooked as fawns if you didn’t address them properly, with squinting eyes behind coke bottle glasses, only able to read double-spaced 12 point Times New Roman type on twenty-pound paper, which must never be stapled or fastened together, because their delicate arms could only lift one page at a time. Virtually helpless, they were unable to contact you unless your manuscript was accompanied by a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Their fingers were presumably painfully arthritic, because most of them seemed unable to type, only able to respond to your submission with a terse boilerplate note, using your very own envelope, saying something about how the work you poured your life’s blood into “doesn’t meet our needs at this time.”
Does that sound bitter? I felt bitter.
But not any more. Two things changed my mind:
I found an angel incarnate publisher who adored my book and wanted to publish it! (Cue white-robed children’s choir singing “Ah!” in quivering tremolo.)
For two years, I was a judge for Writer’s Digest’s Self-Published Book contest.
Two words describe my experience: Oi vay! I now knew what editors went through trying to swim through the sea of submissions. I very nearly drowned. I’m one of those people who can’t stand to see a misplaced apostrophe and here I was, struggling through book after unedited book. And I was required to write a critique of each one. It must be admitted, that I came across several excellent books and I made my opinion clear. However, being tactful about the drawbacks of thirty-five other books that you’ve read cringingly in the space of two months is a monumental task, even when you don’t identify with the hopeful authors.
And I did identify.
I am now retired from the judgeship, but you may still call me “Your Honor.”
So bless you, editors everywhere. And bless you, my dear, dear publisher who “gets” me and is willing to take a risk on my view of the world. You deserve every penny of those big bucks that you are paid.