Thursday, January 14, 2016

Patricia MacLachlan and Me

Twenty-nine years ago, second semester sophomore year, Smith College. Three of my four classes are set by my choice of major: organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, and physics. Four-count-'em-four labs per week. That was what second-semester sophomore chemistry majors did. So when my roommate suggested that we both take an education department seminar on Children's Literature, I jumped at the idea. It was a senior-level seminar that met once a week, at night. Sam petitioned the teacher and got us both in.

I loved children's books. I'd graduated myself from the children's department when I was thirteen--my branch didn't have a YA section then--but a few years later snuck myself back in. I never dreamed of being a writer. I'd never met a writer. It didn't seem like something people actually became. I loved chemistry. I planned to become a physician. My roommate's "campus" job was actually in the children's department of the Northampton public library, right across the street from college hall. She'd bring home any new releases of interest, and I'd read them in between going to lab. But until that education class, I never considered Children's Literature as a subject, as a thing.

It was a survey class, not a writing one. Each week we had a topic: nursery rhymes, animal stories. Each week we had several books to read--10 to 20 picture books, perhaps 5 novels. I read them all. I was entranced.

Someone took a photo of me that spring, sitting in the living room of my dorm. I've got a notebook on my lap--I'm writing my first manuscript. It's a picture book about a girl and a pony, titled Sarah's Child. (Remembering this now, as I write, I get chills: I'd forgotten that manuscript, but currently ride a mare I named Sarah.) I write it in longhand, in the living room, and then I type it up properly on my typewriter. That's all the plans I have. I wrote it for fun. But my roommate says, "No one ever publishes manuscripts that sit on author's closet shelves." She frogmarches me to the professor's office, has me slide it into her mailbox.

When the next class ends, the professor calls me up front. She's holding my manuscript. "Are you serious about this?" she asks. I find myself nodding before I can think. "Okay," she says, "then there's a local branch of the Society of Children's Book Writers [now And Illustrators, but not then] that you need to join. Jane Yolen runs it. They meet the third Thursday of every month at Hatfield Public Library. Do you have a car?" I shake my head. "Okay, call this woman--" she scribbles down a number--"Barbara Goldin, and tell her I said to give you a ride. She lives up the street. And there's a conference at UMass next weekend you should go to. Registration's closed, but call Masha--" another number--"and tell her I said to let you in. And tell Barbara to give you a ride to that, too."

Then she hands me my manuscript. She's written one word in red across the top of it.

I'm speechless, staring at the word.

My life changes, with that word.

I do what my professor says. Barbara Goldin drives me to the conference and to meetings in Hatfield for the next 2 1/2 years. Jane Yolen teaches me, and a basement full of others, how to take apart a story, how to spice things up, how to eliminate twee. How and where to submit manuscripts.

I start submitting. My stories are not publishable, not yet. But meanwhile, in my remaining four semesters of college, I take 3 writing courses, two of them requiring writing submissions in order to be accepted into the class (in the last of these classes there will be at least 3 future novelists among the 15 students). I become a writing tutor for the college--a coveted and prestigious job. I'm the only science major among the writing tutors, so have the pleasure of critiquing every single freshman lab report.

I begin writing small pieces for horsey magazines. It brings in enough to pay postage, then enough to pay my phone bill. During the sweltering hot summer I spend at Smith doing chemistry research, I write my first novel, in the evenings, on a typewriter borrowed from my boyfriend.

I graduate, get married, and with my new husband start medical school.

I last six weeks. It's more than enough: a beginning and an ending never once regretted. I take a job as a research chemist, but I'm still writing, at night and on weekends, and I get published in more and more places, and then I get a job freelance editing and another ghostwriting novels and then I'm pregnant and I quit my lab job and it's all writing from then on. Meanwhile I run into my old professor at a writing conference where I now live--she's the keynote speaker. She recognizes me in the crowd and comes over, laughing. What are you writing now? she says. What are you reading?

I send her a copy of my first book.

She gives me a blurb for my sixteenth. That's The War That Saved My Life. On Monday, when it won a Newbery Honor, I sent a note to Jane Yolen via Facebook: tell me how I can get in touch with Patty today.

My professor was Patricia MacLachlan. She won the Newbery for Sarah, Plain and Tall a week before she began teaching my children's literature class.

Dear Patty, I wrote (I only called her Patty after I graduated), I'm pretty sure I could walk down to the basement and immediately find the very first manuscript I ever wrote. It's dreck, and you took a red pen and wrote "Lovely" at the top of it. That word made me a writer; it carried me for years.

Lovely. The word she wrote was lovely.

Dear Kim, she wrote back. Is it wrong to say I'm thrilled you didn't become a doctor?

It isn't. Thank you, Patty. So much, for always.