Friday, October 3, 2014

Lovely All Over Again

Once upon a time, I went to college, intent on becoming a biochemisty major and then going to medical school. It seemed like a really good plan, until I turned out to hate my first-semester biology class and love my first-semester chemistry. Fine, then. I would be a chemistry major and go to medical school.

I had four classes per semester, and I tried to use the one that wasn't part of my major or pre-med requirements to have some fun. Freshman year first semester: biology, chemistry, calculus, and an English class on T.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Second semester: biology, chemisty, calculus, and child psychology. Sophomore year was physics, organic chemistry, and a qualitative chemisty class--four labs a week. So you can imagine that when my roommate suggested that we both also take an education department class on Children's Literature, which met only once a week in the evenings, I was all over it.

I had never quit loving children's books. At some point in my teens I moved myself to the adult's section of the library, but never entirely--I browsed the children's new books section and read the books of the kids I babysat for. But I'd never met anyone who wrote for a living, much less wrote books; I'd never considered children's literature as a genre; I loved to write, but never thought of it as something someone could do as a job.

That semester, the Children's Literature course at Smith College was taught by a local woman named Patricia MacLachlan. The semester happened to start about 3 days after she won the 1986 Newbery award for her book Sarah, Plain and Tall. Ms. MacLachlan was relaxed, grey-haired, and gave off an artsy vibe I adored. Her class looked systematically at every type of children's books, nursery rhymes one week, picture books, animal books, all the way up to YA fiction. We quite often had guest lecturers who were also published authors.

I loved having middle-grades novels as my assigned reading. I loved getting to know so many stories I'd somehow missed. I loved researching one book inside-out for my paper for the end of the year.

Then, one afternoon in early spring, I wrote my first real piece of fiction. For some reason a friend took a photograph of me that day--I was sitting on the couch in my dorm's family room, feet tucked up, a notepad in my hand. Waiting for someone, but I don't remember who.

I typed the handwritten manuscript and printed it out, to see if it fit what I now understood to be the parameters of a picture book. Then I balked. It wasn't a "real" story. I wasn't a real writer. I was a future physician, in fact, and I'd recently declared myself a chemistry major. (I loved chemistry.)

My roommate took me by the elbow. She told me firmly that the only way to guarantee I stayed unpublished forever was to never ever let anyone read my book. And she marched me to Professor MacLachlan's office, where I stuffed the manuscript under her door.

At the end of the next class, she called me up to her podium. Looking at me over the tops of her glasses, she asked sternly, "Are you serious about writing?"

To my astonishment I found myself saying, "Yes."

"Okay," she said. "You need to join the Hatfield section of the Society of Children's Book Writers. They meet next Thursday night. Do you have a car? Okay, then call Barbara Diamond Goldin-" she scribbled down a number "--and tell her I said she has to give you a ride. And then this weekend there's a conference at UMass. You need to go to that. Registration's closed but call Masha-" another scribbled number "--and tell her I said to let you in. And tell Barbara you need a ride to that, too."

Then she handed me my manuscript. She'd written one word across the top. The word was "Lovely."

It took me another 12 years before my first novel was published under my own name. I went to the Hatfield SCBW(later I) group that Thursday, and the conference that weekend. I learned and read and wrote and learned. I babysat Barbara Diamond Goldin's kids (now we have the same agent). I graduated with an honors degree in chemistry and I got into medical school and I went.

For six weeks.

Meanwhile I wrote and submitted all sorts of bad manuscripts. I got rejected a zillion times. Everyone does. Meanwhile, that one word--lovely--sustained me. I published magazine articles and did some freelance editing; I ghost-wrote 14 series books.  My first novel won a Publisher's Weekly Flying Start award, and I sent it to Patty, as I now called my former teacher, with great pride.

Yesterday my publisher sent me the final jacket copy of my latest novel, my 16th, The War That Saved My Life. I hadn't known this, but they'd asked Patty for a quote. "A moving story with an authentic voice," she wrote. "Beautifully told."

Thank you, Patricia MacLachlan. Thank you for every single thing. I still have the manuscript you returned to me.