Thursday, August 1, 2013

Dear Jane Yolen

Dear Jane,

I have loved you since I went down to the basement of the Hatfield, Massachusetts, public library as a wet-behind-the-ears college sophomore and you taught me that I could write.  It was the third-Thursday-night meetings of the Society of Children's Book Writers (not yet And Illustrators, this was 1987), which you led, and I was supposed to be headed to medical school.  The writing thing was growing in my soul but I couldn't tell the folks back home.

Do you remember me at all?  Barbara Diamond Goldin used to give me a ride from Northampton to Hatfield.  I babysat her kids sometimes, too.  Once when I offered her son--he was probably five years old--a glass of milk with his hot dog, he narrowed his eyes at me and asked, "Are you a Jew?"  I told him, no, sorry, but I understood Kosher and I got him some juice.

Anyway, Jane, lately you've been intimidating the shorts off of me, and I don't intimidate easy.  But your Facebook posts have all been, "Woke up and wrote five poems before breakfast.  Took a walk, revised six picture books, figured out what was wrong with the latest novel, fixed that, signed a contract, and then started thinking about lunch."

My latest novel--my 17th, as opposed to your what?  Two hundredth?  Three hundredth?  Seriously, I know we toasted your 100th book back before I graduated college--anyway, it came back for revisions the second night of pony club camp, mid-June, when I had 10 teenagers occupying my attention around the clock.  I actually flicked my fingers through my editor's notes and put them on the sideboard unread.

The notes were excellent, as always, but then it was time for a week in Kentucky, again with the pony club, and after that I had extended family staying the week of the Fourth of July, and then we went to Ireland, and then pony club championships, and then yesterday I had an appointment in Nashville.  That's a five-hour drive for me, each way, and it was dreadful.  At one point last night, when it started to rain, and my wipers weren't really working, and my daughter was sobbing her way through the last pages of  The Book Thief, I began to thinking that I was actually driving into the center of a black hole, that time was stretching out until each second became an eternity and we were never, ever, going to reach our destination.

And I can't tell you how much I longed for my novel. 

I've been messing with it.  I've done a bit more research for the stuff I'd missed, and I made up some notes, and I read my editor's notes and comments (blue pencil on the actual manuscript, so old-fashioned, I love it) and I started work.  And I can see now how the ending needs to be, can see it shimmering in the bomb dust above the sparkle of a hundred panes of shattered glass.  What I need now is to put my butt in my chair.

I've known, because you taught me, that writing is more work than inspiration.  I've known that stories can be stretched like Silly Putty, that new scenes and characters can be worked in and others worked out so that the reader will never know what a mess the first draft had been.  I take my work seriously.  But I take my children seriously, too.  I doubt I'll regret the hours I've spent hanging out with my son this last summer before he goes to college.  I doubt I'll wish I'd published one more book instead of watching my daughter ride at the East Coast Championships.  I know in the future I'll think this summer well-spent, but sometimes when I read your posts I felt like such a slacker for not writing more, and until yesterday I envied the heck out of your productivity, your work ethic, your seeming lack of distraction.  I didn't know how to reconcile what looked like your streamlined life with the messiness of mine.

Thank you for yesterday's post.  The one in which you spoke of how much you were missing your children and grandchildren; the one in which you noted that it would have been your late husband's birthday.  The one in which you said that holing up in Scotland was lonely sometimes, but amazingly productive.  You took away my self-imposed burden.  It's not so much that I think I'd be amazingly productive if I had a few solo months in Scotland.  It's that you reminded me of this verse from Ecclesiastes: "For everything there is a season."  We are in different seasons, you and I.

Today my daughter started school again (August 1!  It's blasphemy!).  I'm working later at Faith in Action, but this morning, before I so much as thought about this blog post, I sat down at my desk, shoved the bills to one side, ignored the whining dog (Ok, I took him out, but then I ignored him), and figured out what was wrong with Chapter Three of my novel.  And then I fixed it. 

And then I wrote this to say, Thank you, Jane Yolen.  No one in my family was ever an artist before me.  No one thought it was something one of us could be.  You took me seriously 26 years ago.  When I came to the Thursday meeting with the news that I'd published my first piece of writing, but downplayed it as only a small article in a horsey magazine, you pulled me up short with, "Did they send you a check?"

"Yes," I said.

"And did you cash it and use it to pay your light bill?"

"Actually," I said, "I used it to pay my phone bill."

"That counts," you said.  "You're a writer."

Even this summer, I still am.