Rabe, Berniece: Autobiography Feature
My father was named Grover Cleveland Bagby. His father was James Madison Bagby. Presidential and other greats' names appear in my family genealogy. If such was meant to assure a prosperous life, it somehow missed the target.
My mother was Ethalinda Martha Jane Green, the carrier of names of several well-liked female ancestors. A strong line of pioneering women. My ancestry goes back to before the Mayflower on both lines. One of my great-grandmothers was a Cherokee Indian. I carry her facial structure.
I was born the twelfth child, one deceased before my birth. My parents were poor farmers in southeast Missouri. Nineteen twenty-nine, a year after my birth, the stock market crashed and the bank foreclosed on Dad's farm to make good a note he'd signed for a cousin. Thereafter, we lived at poverty level, Dad sharing the proceeds of his farming, fifty-fifty, with the landowner.
In the 1930s, our part of Missouri, the southeast corner shaped like a boot heel, was the land of the moneyed and the poor. What had once been swampland had been drained by dredges digging wide, deep ditches and piling the dirt on either side to form what we called ditchdumps or ditchbanks. During the rise of the Mississippi River, floodgates on its tributary rivers and those ditchdumps were all that kept our lowlands from being flooded.
Every mile was marked by a drainage ditch as big as a small river. It was the custom to say someone lived on Number 5 Ditch or Number 4 Ditch, or whatever number appropriate. Our house sat a quarter mile from Number 7 Ditch.
This massive drainage system prepared the ages-old, swampy river-bottom land for farming. So cotton was planted in the Bootheel—the last big chance for southern gentlemen, devastated by the Civil War and the freeing of slaves, to become land barons anew under the sharecropping system. Most were as ruthless and caste conscious in the 1930s as the old South had ever been a century before.
Some of the land was bought up by large insurance companies whose agent-overseers served as landlords to sharecroppers; such was the case with us.
Not having a wider view, I believed that all the world had a caste system such as ours: landowners and over-agents being the two-phased top of the pyramid, the professional and town people being the middle, the tenant cropper with his team, the sharecropper without a team, and day laborer comprising the lower, at the wide, broad bottom of the pyramid. Owning our mules was what kept us two cuts above the lowest.
The year before I turned two, my mother died in childbirth and my new baby brother died a week later. She'd been a pleasant woman and a good home manager, leaving the fields as her husband's sole responsibility. The children sorely missed her. My father's ways of management were more traditional and authoritarian, which did not sit well with the children, who yearned for a lost mother.
So he, at forty-five and feeling hopeless in his attempt at managing his large family and his farming as well, went wife hunting. He heard of a thirty-six-year-old woman, Roxie Daniels, whose seven children were near starvation, she having been deserted by her husband. Many men did that during those severe hard times. There was not government aid for all the people in need.
Dad visited her, promised to see that she and her kids had food if she'd control his kids and run the household. They agreed that all eighteen children would receive schooling until they graduated from eighth grade. A totally impossible task for any woman, let alone one deserted and then uprooted from the place and culture she'd known all her life! Out of mutual desperation their marriage was made. A year later, another child, Christine, was born. She had diverse siblings to contend with. We had a lovely baby to play with, and often to be jealous of.
To make things worse, the Bagbys and Daniels were very different families, so the normal quarreling within a household was amplified. As was the custom, men and boys stayed outdoors, women and girls in the house. My older sisters and stepsisters immediately fled the home for very young marriages, leaving me the remaining Bagby female in the house. I became the whipping girl when my stepmother was angry with my father—whom she dared not offend. Whippings were the accepted form of child discipline. All the children got more than their share of them. But I was an outspoken child and mine were almost daily, and sometimes, if my stepmother was very distraught, her whippings extracted blood—leaving scars, physical and psychological.
But in a large family there is always someone on your side. Always someone to share chores with. In my case, older brothers and sisters were there to love me and instill in me a sense of worth.
I excelled in school. My teachers often became my surrogate parents.
We lived in the country two miles from the small town of Parma, Missouri. I first attended Hyman School, one room for grades one to eight. It was a white clapboard school with a big iron bell atop it. The bell rope hung down inside the school and my teacher, Mr. Bagley—which was very near my name, Bagby—rang the bell as a call to school, and then at the beginning of class, and as a call back from recesses and lunch periods.
Our lunch buckets, usually syrup or Rex jelly pails, were placed on shelves in the coat rooms. The boys hung their coats on one side of the entrance hall, the girls on the other. The bigger kids would come shuffling in, in scuffy work shoes, and sit down in the largest desks at the back of the room. The size of the desks grew smaller and the footsteps a little lighter as kids moved frontward. Those were wooden desks with sides made of black cast-iron filagree, which was bolted to the floor. You slid into the seat from the side, which was hard on big kids and fat kids, but they just had to manage as best they could. The same way we had to wear shoes that were too tight. There was no money for new ones.
Our school year was nine months, but not contiguous. We had a spring break for cotton chopping and got out again at the end of May. School resumed in late July so we could have another long fall break for cotton picking. This was a necessary arrangement, for we farm children would have been kept home at those times anyway.
I have four strong memories of that school.
The first was my entrance exam. I was but five and too young to go to school. When school had resumed after cotton-picking break, which was shortly before Thanksgiving, my stepmother thought I might as well be in school than underfoot, fussing and fighting all winter. So she sent me. Mr. Bagley was no fool, he knew a preschooler when he saw one, no matter that I was a rumpled, sturdy little thing all eager to get going. He led me to the front of the big room.
In that space, to the right, was his big teacher's desk. He seated himself and had me stand beside him. "What makes you think you're ready to start school?" he asked.
"I can read Ralph's book," I said. Ralph was my stepbrother, a year older than me.
He pulled out the primer and said, "Okay, show me."
"Dick-See-Dick," I began and read that book so fast, I was sure I was in.
He smiled and gave me a further challenge. "I'll bet you could even read it upside down."
I obligingly turned the book upside down and read it every bit as fast. I was sure I had it made. But so there'd be no doubts left in his mind, I volunteered, "I can even read it behind my back!" Behind my back I swung it and rattled off the entire book.
"We-ell," he declared, "You're some reader all right. Now, let's see how you are at numbers. How far can you count? To a hundred?"
I counted to a hundred and would have gone on but he stopped me. "How about counting by twos?"
I'd often heard my stepmother count out a dozen eggs by twos, so I blasted out, "two, four, six, eight, ten, twelve!"
"Keep going," he said.
I couldn't tell him that's all I knew and flunk out, so I whispered under my breath, "thirteen," and then aloud, "fourteen." Whisper. Aloud. Whisper. Aloud. On I went until I got to about thirty and he called a halt.
"How about counting by fives?" he asked.
Shucks, that was simple. I'd played hide-and-seek millions of times and my brothers always cheated and counted by fives when they were supposed to go by the rule and count to a hundred before coming to find us. I closed my eyes and counted to a hundred by fives.
"Well, welcome to school, little Miss Bagby," said Mr. Bagley and stuck out his hand. I shook it. It was the very first time I'd ever shaken hands with a grownup, or anybody for that matter. Touching was not a common thing. All during my youth I was never embraced or kissed by my father.
Mr. Bagley guided me then to the center front not too far from his desk and seated me at a low table with little chairs where the beginners, or first graders, sat. What a delight! I'd never sat at a table my size with chairs my size before. I was used to being squished in among my young siblings on a long bench that ran the entire side of our huge plank table at home. My mouth came about even with the tabletop. School was going to be wonderful.
My second memory disproved that assumption.
To the left and front of that large schoolroom sat a huge coal-and wood-burning furnace. A big sheet of zinc lay underneath it to catch hot clinkers and save the school from burning down. It towered so high above me it was like something nightmares were made of. Fortunately my chair was placed so my back was to it and I did not have to look at it.
Unfortunately, I did have to look at a certain little white-haired dirty-faced boy. He stuck his tongue out at me, the new girl, who'd entered his domain. I gave him some of the same. Our teacher gave us all rulers to make straight lines on our papers for printing big numbers and letters. The boy whacked my legs under the table with his ruler. I whacked his arm above the table with my ruler. Soon there was a reasonably good fight going on, enough that all grades stopped their work and watched. Mr. Bagley sauntered over to put a stop to it.
"You like to fight, Berniece Bagby?" He asked as he collected rulers.
"He started it," I said.
"We-ell, someone's got to end it. If we have to waste good class time in watching a fight, it ought to be worth watching. We'll just put these piddly little rulers away and give you some decent weapons." He marched over to that monstrous old furnace and came back holding two iron pokers about four foot long, used for stirring the fire, and handed one to me and one to my rival.
The room was silent.
"Okay, now, go at this right, kids. We-ell, get started."
I raised my poker into the air, I was used to obeying authority, then it toppled and I began to cry. So did the little boy.
Mr. Bagley removed the pokers from our hands. He was standing only a foot or two behind us and could have grabbed a poker had we thought to swing it.
I sobbed, "I didn't want to kill him."
"In that case, there's no use wasting time fighting. It's not something one does just for the sport of it. Now, write your numbers!"
I gave up fighting after that. Except with words. I never was one to keep my mouth shut. And every time I heard the pokers being rattled to stir up the coals in that furnace I shuddered. It had the effect on me of chalk screeching across a blackboard, only ten times worse. I was thankful it was boy's work to carry out the ashes from that furnace each morning, for I'd have had to refuse if asked. I always did all things my teacher asked of me and never said No. I was proud of that record.
My third strong memory was the Thanksgiving play. This took place shortly after our return from cotton-picking break. The front of the room was vacated of teacher's desk and first graders' table to make space for the performance. The middle grades did "This Is the House That Jack Built," the older children reenacted the arrival of Columbus greeting the Indians. We first graders were asked to say little verses before and between acts. I was very scared, but I never said No. I learned my verse immediately, and practiced it hourly every day. I don't remember the author, of course, but I do remember his/her lovely words.
He who thanks but with lips,
Thanks but in part.
A full true thanksgiving
Comes from the heart.
The night of the performance, I waited breathlessly for my turn to come. Then I dashed to the center front of that big room filled with families, said the words all in one great breath, at a speed allowing no one to decipher words, let alone meaning, and sped back to my seat again. Mr. Bagley said I did real well. My brothers had a different opinion.
My fourth memory is of a day that turned unexpectedly cold, a day that big furnace started acting up. Mr. Bagley was trying to get it going and get the room cleared of smoke without freezing us all in the process. He was also trying to get the two eighth graders ready to pass their state test for graduation and having a lot of trouble cramming the necessary facts into their thick skulls. He neglected the rest of us.
It was no time for me to be asking a question. Usually, he was the only person who took delight in my eternal Why's. My parents threatened me daily that if I asked Why? just once more I would get it. I'd bite my tongue and stay out of their conversations for the rest of the day. You must understand just how hard on me it was to keep my mouth shut. I wished I hadn't opened it that cold blustery day to ask Mr. Bagley about a subtraction problem. I was in second grade by then, but doing math with the third graders.
"Why do you borrow ten instead of one when you cross out these numbers here?"
Whop! His huge hand hit me up beside the head as he shouted, "I know I told the class that earlier. Berniece Bagby, you don't know beans from nothing!"
My head rattled and my heart broke.
Smoke had already bitten into my eyes and made them water, now the water really flowed. I'd been spurned by my first great love. I would never completely recover from it. Never, ever, thereafter, be fully convinced that I was a smart person.
Now, I must tell you that at the end of that day, when rain came and turned to sleet and Mr. Bagley saw that my stepsister Dorothy and I had not even worn a jacket—we had none, it was either winter-coat weather or no-coat weather and the day had started nice enough—he said he'd walk us home. He threw his coattails over our heads and like chicks snuggled under a hen's wings we marched the mile home, close and safe at his side. My Dad said that was silly, not necessary, that we weren't babies, we could have taken care of ourselves. But I have never forgotten that unnecessary kindness.
I remember another time of very bad weather.
The weather wasn't bad, at first, when I fled a severe parental scolding by running away across the backyard and through the pasture, legs stretched at their fullest, my dress tail flying, my destination the cornfield. Once into the field, I rattled across the corn rows, hitting against the dry leaves and full ears of hard corn, scratching my arms, legs, and face, until I was deep enough into the field never to be discovered. Then I took an easier path running down the middle between two corn rows until I was perhaps a three-quarter mile from home. I fell to the ground and, gasping for breath, said the only prayer I knew, "Now I lay me down to sleep . . ." At the end, I tagged on a few words about keeping me safe from copperhead bites and not to let anyone find me, ever.
No one did.
You might say God and bad weather forced me out.
I'd been in the cornfield maybe three hours feeling sorry for myself. It seemed more like twelve to me, when the wind came up and the air seemed charged with magic, a pre-storm feeling I had enjoyed more than once. There is still something about the air before a storm that I find especially invigorating. When the other children would be running for the shelter of the house, I'd be whirling and dancing around out under the trees.
From the doorway would come the demand, "Berniece, get in here! You want to get killed? You know lightning hits the highest point and that tree you're under is the tallest thing around here. Git a move on."
I'd obey but I felt cheated. I didn't quite believe lightning ever hit anything. I'd never seen it do so. It always just played around high in the sky where it belonged. But the first lightning flashes there in the cornfield were very different. They seemed very close. Maybe just a few feet away from me. I started cutting cross rows again, heading for home. If I was going in the right direction, I'd come out in the pasture.
It was not the pasture but the oat field where I emerged. The grain was newly cut and the bundles tied together and stood on end to form shocks. As the lightning danced all about in that field, I ran from it, hid behind a shock of oats, then I'd come out and run again until another close bolt and I'd hide behind another shock of oats. That lightning would not get me. I'd beat it home. And I did. I don't even remember who gave me that first scolding that had me running away or what the scolding was about, but I do remember it was Dad who gave me the scolding when I got back inside the house. His lecture was followed by a trip to the oat field, once the storm had passed. There were several burned patches here and there, all in the area where I had been. I never left home again until I was sixteen.
By third grade, school boundary lines were changed and the Bagby family was asked to attend town school in Parma. It meant a two-mile walk in the other direction. It meant a brick two-story school with a great metal tube running from the second story to the ground, the fire escape. It meant so many children I'd never learn all their names. And it meant a school with women teachers, one for each grade.
Worse yet, it meant seeing our woman sheriff, Maggie Porter, every day—going about her business keeping law and order. I feared her greatly. She wore a tweed skirt and tailored jacket and had a six-gun slung at her hip. She wore brown flat-heeled shoes and had strong-looking legs that could probably chase down the most vicious criminal. She had the power to throw people in jail and then throw the key away. I can almost swear there was never any shoplifting done in the stores of Parma, and I never heard of a stolen car or any other serious crime. Who would have dared? I thought all towns the world over had women sheriffs. It was not until years later, when I saw Maggie Porter's name mentioned in Ripley's "Believe It or Not" column, that I knew how unique she was.
Being in Parma definitely meant I would be a good girl, loving and obedient to all teachers at school. I never wanted to tangle with Maggie Porter.
There was another change. I was no longer just Berniece Bagby with a mind and will of her own, who did some things right and some things wrong according to whatever choices she made. In Parma I was known as one of the poor Bagby kids. What a shame that sharecroppers' kids were now to go to school with town children. I had never before considered myself poor, or considered our economic status at all. I was simply me, or so I'd thought before. This loss of identity kept my mouth closed for some time.
Then my new third-grade teacher told the fourth-grade teacher, within my hearing, "That little Bagby girl did this poem. I think she's bright enough."
I didn't understand. Bright enough for what? I assumed it was to talk, and so talk I did—from the opening pledge of allegiance to the flag and the singing of "God Bless America" until the silence required for the closing comments of our teacher, which sounded much like a benediction of some kind to me. Anyway, I felt much better after writing that long poem.
That reminds me of a poem I wrote in high school, but I'll save that for later. First let me tell you about my fifth-grade experience in the Palmer method of handwriting.
It seemed pure foolishness to me to fill up a costly page of my Indian Chief writing tablet with lines of O 's all joined together like a coiled spring, or with a chain of mountain peaks that sloped upward and jutted sharply downward, again and again till the page ended. But, since I wasn't running this school and Maggie Porter stood on a street corner not two blocks away, I obeyed. I did them fast and furious and well. Speed somehow took the sting out of being so wasteful. I dashed up to the teacher's desk to get her OK written in the corner.
She was reading and didn't so much as lift a pencil. In fact, it appeared she exercised great effort just to lift her gaze to focus on my paper. She said, "Fair. One more page and perhaps you'll get the gist of it."
I'll be darned if I was going to waste another page of my tablet. Wasting paper was really frowned upon in my household. We all wrote on both sides of the sheet and left no margins, top, bottom, or sides. I went back to my seat and I read. Books were a treat for me. We had no library in our school, nor in our town. The teachers went some distance to another town and borrowed books from a library which we could read while in their presence, but not take home. I read Rebecca of Sunny-brook Farm until most of the other kids were taking their writing up to get our teacher's OK, then I marched up to her with the same O 's and hills I'd shown her before.
This time she smiled sweetly and said, "Much better! See what a little practice will do."
I learned a lot from that experience. I've tried similar tactics on editors who've told me I must cut what I've written. A little smaller type and narrower margins have often done the trick. The editors feel good about having done their bit for the manuscript and I feel good, too, not having to cut. I've never been talented at cutting. It strikes me as being akin to cutting some talk after it's already come out of your mouth. How can you? What's said is said. However, I do obey and cut, more than I care to admit.
Parma was not a big town. As I remember, it had a gas station, a movie theater, a post office, a pool hall, an implement store, a couple of grocery stores, a clothing store, a hardware store, and what I called a meat and cheese and pickle store. We killed our own hogs, so "boughten" bologna or wieners were rare and wonderful treats. The thought of sauerkraut and wieners my stepmother served on holidays still makes my mouth water. However, my father's taste ran counter to mine. He would stop in this store at times and buy a twenty-five-cent bag of cheese and crackers, then magnanimously share this goodly amount with his large family.
He loved cheese, but it was an alien taste to me and I hated it. The best my logical mind could compare it to any known taste was what I called, "Rotten butter! Yeeck!"
My dad did not appreciate his gift being called by that name and so cheese got me a lot of attention. I made the most of a good thing and hated cheese for years. I once even vomited in the car when forced to partake of my father's generosity. The car was an old beat-up Chevy filled with parents and us eight kids, the number going to town that day. I got lots more attention from everyone for several days thereafter. Some still refer to it to this day, a half century later.
A bumblebee got in that car once. I had the misfortune of sitting on it. Got a bite to the underside of my knee. But my kid sister was on my lap and I couldn't get her off and my screech, to say the least, upset all the others in the car, and them with no place to move. Bedlam is not the right word of description for the action that went on within that closed space until Dad could get the car stopped and we all poured out.
We were proud of that car. Before the car it was travel by horse and wagon or no travel at all. Usually the latter. I never traveled more than seven miles from home before I graduated from eighth grade. After that it was mileage-plus. I was farmed out to older siblings so I could attend high school piecemeal until sixteen. I was very country, and unbelievably naive—though bright enough not to have done some stupid things for which I was to carry great guilt.
First I went about twenty-five miles away to Fisk to attend high school while living with my sister Verda. The main event there? Well, a panther or mountain lion had wandered down from the Ozark Mountains into our flatlands and showed up on my sister's front porch one night, crying like a baby. My little nephew, who had partially opened the door, said, "Mommy, let the kitty in."
When we saw what it was, we slammed the door shut and barred it. I remember I was wearing a red satin blouse my sister had sewn for me and I'd been listening to a ghastly "Inner Sanctum" play on radio. Why do we remember such details?
During my stay at my sister Verda's, I was chosen as a cheerleader for Fisk's basketball team. My sister lived in the country and I practiced my cheers in her backyard. A neighbor farmer, living a half mile away, came galloping over one night, his horse going full pace. He thought he'd heard distress calls and had come to help out. Shortly, I was well known about the countryside as the girl who could really yell loud. For some reason, that got a quiet, redheaded boy very interested in me.
But a month later my father, who'd had a streak of good luck farming on shares, bought a farm near Broseley and he said I could come home for a spell. I spent the next semester there cheerleading for Broseley, against Fisk. At Broseley, during a science class, I learned how all life came to be. I was amazed that babies started with an egg produced by the female ovary. I knew that parents made babies but I didn't know just how that was accomplished. I shared the news with . . . well, just everybody that would listen. I've always shared insights with delight, the way some kids share candy. My stepmother said I talked too much and some things were better not known. But, oh, I felt, how exciting it was to know.
Next I was sent, by train, to California to live with my sister Virginia and attend Venice High School. There, along with being amazed at seeing girls wearing shorts and some boys wearing zoot suits and silver chains, I discovered avocado and tuna sandwiches. Still two of my favorites. I'd tasted neither before and had never heard of such a fish or fruit. I could buy a half sandwich for a nickel and a large orange for another nickel—my school lunch.
Art was a required subject at Venice High! Imagine getting grades for playing! And imagine having all those neat materials at one's disposal. The clay was what attracted me. I pummeled it and cut it and kneaded it and began my project. Most of the art students were making paperweights or snakes with open mouths and fangs, a few even attempted a bowl. One girl set her glob of clay on a revolving pedestal and, with a special knife, deftly carved out a rearing horse. The head and forelegs emerged first in the exact position they'd remain in. What a strange and wonderful human being to have such a gift! I could never do that. It was as if she saw what figure was inside and simply took away the parts that didn't belong.
I wanted to do a sculpture, too. So I rolled a couple of strips of clay so they looked like legs and formed another hunk to look like a torso, ditto for arms and head and hair, and stuck them all properly together. I tidied it up a bit, blending this and that, until my fellow artist began to ooh and ah and told me it definitely passed as a woman. But she was too soft to stand. I could have waited for the clay to harden, but I've never been known for patience. I'm often forced to wait, but I never do it voluntarily. I formed some more clay like a tree stump and sat her on it. The total height now was about eighteen inches. I proudly led an entourage to the teacher's desk.
She told me, "I think you could do some work on those feet."
I worked over those feet and surprised myself by how really good I'd made them. Back I went with my cheering friends. They loved it. There had been such a wide chasm between their abilities and those of the girl who made those wonderful horses, they were happy someone was bridging the gap.
My teacher said, "I think you could put a little more movement in the body." Sadly, I wrapped my work in a wet cloth and put it away.
The next day, I twisted the torso of my clay woman a bit and lifted her arm until she took on such a feeling of life one could almost imagine she breathed. Back I went, my own chest heaving with the excitement of my creation.
"The face. Try to get the facial features more exact and maybe with an expression to fit the body movement."
How dare she? Didn't she know finished when she saw finished? I sulked, but the following day I began fiddling with the face. Open eyes are the hardest things to do. I closed hers. I told myself my sculptured lady was outside enjoying the air. I'd made her hair sway backward, her face look heavenward. She was dreaming—that's why her eyes were shut. And the mouth? I didn't do teeth.
"There's a definite feel to this piece," the teacher said turning it about and studying it. It was her first positive comment. I nearly died at the wonder of my creation. "But don't you think her eyes and mouth should be, at least, slightly open?"
Drats! I couldn't do that! I'd chuck the whole thing back in the clay bin. Just as soon as I gave it one more try.
On the next trip, my art teacher said, "I'd like to put your sculpture up so it won't be harmed until it can be fired. It'll be a lovely addition to the Greater Los Angeles school-art exhibit. We'll enter this, along with the three horses already completed."
I haven't known many happier moments, except when a book is finally accepted and treasured. I still envy the artists who have such clear vision of their finished projects that they can just set to without further thought or experimentation. I've done no more sculpturing since then, but I write in about the same fashion. Only now, it's editors and friends instead of teachers who send me back again and again until I'm almost ready to chuck the whole thing. Almost.
I can't say I'm a self-made woman. Others have made me do it.
My next high school to attend was back once again at Broseley, Missouri. That's when I wrote that really long poem I mentioned earlier. And, unfortunately, I also wrote a short one, too.
There was one girl who starred in all sports and was the sole person to carry Broseley to V-I-C-T-O-R-Y many a time. No teacher dared flunk her. The team and Broseley High needed her too badly. Hardly anyone could or would help her with her studies, which put a great burden upon the teachers, who had to fudge a little when they gave her a grade. What really made it rough, her close relative was a local preacher, who preached against lying and deception. I'd been willing and had had some success in helping her to understand the assignments, not doing her papers for her entirely, as some did. That was against my sense of right and wrong. You can bet all the sports-minded welcomed my return to Broseley.
I got there shortly before Christmas and the English teacher had a big poem contest on. Its subject was to honor our men overseas who were serving our great country during this holiday season. The winning poem would be published in every paper in three counties. I had two brothers, Woody and G. C., overseas and my heart went out immediately to this project. I, like my parents, worried about these beloved sailors. I dreamed at night of them lying wounded on their battleship and I swam to them and cleaned their wounds, and when the ship docked I bound them up and shouldered them on my back and hauled them away to a safe clean hospital. I loved my brothers dearly. I began to write all this love and my heroic acts into my poem. I had thirty-four pages and was still going strong when Miss All-Star came to me for help.
"Berniece, you've got to help me. It's due in tomorrow. Our teacher says I'll flunk English if I don't turn in a poem."
"I don't have time to help you. I've got to finish mine."
"Just do it, anyway. Write it for me. Please! Just a short one. Right now!"
All right, if she wanted a short one, she'd get a short one. I snatched a piece of paper from her notebook. I'd be darned if I was going to waste my own paper, and scratched out an eight-liner. Took me maybe fifteen seconds or so. As you might have guessed, it won. My beautiful long poem was among the very first rejected. It was enough to make me doubt the insight of judges, editors or critics or whoever they be. I still get treated this way. I spend four years writing a nice seven-hundred-page novel and get it sent right back. I do a picture book in four hours and they extoll it from coast to coast.
Miss All-Star blew the next game. She got as nervous as a cat on an icy clothesline when she saw a banner splashed across the end of the gym in her honor. Also, her preacher relative was in attendance. He'd seen her picture and poem in the paper and gave thanks in his opening prayer at Sunday meeting. Everyone was so happy she'd finally done something academic on her own. The poem was so short no one doubted that she'd done it. Only three people knew: her, God, and me. She squeezed up close to me before the game and begged me never to tell, and I haven't until now. But what I said to her that night was, "I'll think about it."
Well, I got sent off to Poplar Bluff to attend high school there, to live with my brother Woody's wife while he was away serving our country in the navy. There I discovered glazed doughnuts and uniformed soldiers, sweet times for sweet sixteen.
The troop trains loaded in Poplar Bluff and our social-studies teacher walked our class down to the platform to witness this historic departure. Some of the men had wives or mothers or girlfriends to kiss goodbye. Others had come some distance, and having said their good-byes back home, were without anyone to kiss. One enterprising young soldier grabbed me and smacked me a good one. Then others followed suit. Soon there was a kissing game going on that made playing post office obsolete.
When we got back to the classroom, my male teacher said, "Well, we sure had fun doing that, didn't we, Berniece?"
Actually, I learned a lot from that social-studies class expedition. Men found me attractive. Good gosh! Me? Who everyone had always said had a big mouth. I thought I was ugly. Now, I learned mouths were made for kissing as well as talking. I got dubbed the "Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store." That was the name of a popular song back then and I did work at the dime store, as part of a work-study school program called diversified occupation. I sold baby clothes. I sold lots of baby clothes.
In fact, I sold so many baby clothes, the dime-store owner tried to get me to drop out of high school and work full-time. The reason for my success was that all the "required baby needs" lists had been written by some authority somewhere that didn't understand the customs or pocketbook of poor farm women. I did. So I wrote my own list and they bought everything on it, all within reason, and felt they were doing the very best for their new arrival. They'd bring the babies back in for me to see.
My teachers all said I should go to college, but at sixteen the law said no more school was required. Since I had overloaded on subjects all along just in case my education should get cut short, at sixteen I had all the credits the state of Missouri required for graduation, save a quarter credit in physical education, and there was no need for anyone to support me for a fourth year of high school. Broseley High School refused me a diploma without that quarter credit, but one teacher told me that Chicago University would take me with my credits, diploma or no. So I set off with a friend, to go to college in Chicago, in spite of the fact that I was totally broke.
Well, city life held all sorts of surprises and things to learn. Being a waitress was really a fine job, for it not only brought immediate money from tips but provided food as well. I called the University of Chicago and asked the cost of tuition. I laid the phone down easily, without even saying good-bye or thank you. I didn't ask about a scholarship, for I didn't know such existed.
Before I turned seventeen I got work as a professional model. A year later I was sent overseas to model a line of fashions and there I met my husband, Walter Rabe. He was in the army. He seemed so refreshing to me. None of the smooth lines men usually handed models. I could tell he really liked me. Above all else I needed to be safe, loved, and feel I belonged—start a home. He was a country boy, tall and good-looking, and bright! In fact, he was so bright I felt stupid. I did not realize there were different kinds of intelligence. I leaned towards concepts, but his was memory of things and statistics, almost a photographic memory.
When I was eighteen and he was twenty-two we were married by a justice of the peace. It was a small unattended wedding because, just three months earlier, Walter's mother, along with two nephews, and a niece, all his age and childhood playmates, were killed when a train struck their car. Walt was thrown clear and survived the accident. The remaining family members disapproved of our marriage. It was too short a time since the deaths and they didn't think I could cut it as a housewife. (Echoes of my stepmother, who said, "You'll never hold a man six months!" Though that was because I peeled such thick potato peelings.) How surprised his family was to discover that I, too, was a country girl and could stretch pennies and cook and sew. They learned to like me and I them.
However, my modeling career ended when I had my first child, Alan, born December 19, 1947. Brian was born April 2, 1950. Clay on February 24, 1953. And, almost twelve years later, a daughter—Dara—born August 27, 1964. For those seventeen years I kept busy being a housewife and home builder and decorator. I do mean home builder. My husband and I built two houses with our own hands with occasional help from friends or family or hired help on a really big job like pouring concrete for the basement floor. One house we sold, the other we lived in for twenty-three years. It was modernistic in design, fitting the trend I was most comfortable with during those years.
Also during those years, I got my college degree from Elgin Community College and National College near Chicago, one course at a time. I loved college. It was a way to make up for the lack in education during my childhood and gave me interests and friends outside the home. I got my B.S. degree in 1963, taught a class of special children for seven months before I became pregnant with my daughter. During the first two years of her life, I managed to sneak out once a week to tutor some special child. But I still felt the restraint late motherhood foisted on me; I was too used to my freedom.
My husband looked at me one day and said, "You were always a lot happier when you were out doing things. I think you need to get out of the house and do something interesting. Take a course at the community college. Something just for fun." Then he opened the college brochure and, scanning it, declared, "Here's a course in creative writing. Take that. I think you're creative."
Having no particular objections and a mild curiosity about writers, I thought, why not? But I could not have anticipated the instructor, Marjorie Peters, who'd been a journalist in World War I. Nor the influence her assignment would have on me. She insisted we all bring in a manuscript the following meeting and I went up to her and truthfully declared, "I don't know what to write about."
She pushed down her little wire spectacles to the end of her nose, looked me in the eyes, and said,
"Well, why don't you write about a fight? That's always good copy."
So home I went to stew and worry. What fight? I couldn't invade the privacy of people by reporting their fights! Especially not my own. But desperation always produces, and the night before the manuscript was due, inspiration hit. I saw, in my mind's eye, this great, long farm table with all my brothers and sisters seated around it. Standing at the end of that table was my stepbrother, shouting, "I hate cabbage. I will not eat cabbage! It makes me puke!"
Actually, that's all I remembered, but it was enough to set my imagination working. I zoomed downstairs to my ancient typewriter, a twenty-two-year-old Royal, and began to type. What did it matter that I was the world's worst speller? (My English teacher once threatened to flunk me if didn't learn to spell better.) What did it matter that my grammar and punctuation were poor? (Even a math teacher threatened to flunk me if I didn't learn to use better grammar.) I had a story to tell! And I had a ball doing it. However, my feet grew cold as I neared the college with manuscript in hand. What would people think of me writing this absurd, earthy little farm story? Never again could I fake sophistication. Courage was with me and I handed it in and Ms. Peters read it.
When she finished she pushed those spectacles down on the end of her nose once more and announced to the class, "Now, you've heard an author. Where's the rest of the book?"
So I wrote the rest of the book and that's how I became an author. A fluke! I was forty years old when my life took this big turn.
When I'd finished the novel, I asked Ms. Peters if she'd critique it for me, for a fee. Heaven knows I needed all the help I could get. I still have trouble with commas. She told me to bring it over.
She had two homes, one on the south side of Chicago, near the university, and one not so far from me in Elgin. Her housecleaners always came in her absence. Her housecleaner in Elgin, poor lady, was trying to adjust to normal life after many years in the state hospital. She was doing fine, at first, but then she thought she might do better without her medication. While off of medication, she saw my manuscript and began to read it and was certain the people were real and not just characters. She took it and strewed it up and down State Street. I did not have an extra copy.
Fortunately, the police suspected it was more than just trash and collected all of it they could find, about one-third of it, and presented the muddy, wet pages to Ms. Peters. I had the choice to quit a career before it started or take those pages and fill in the gaps. First I vowed always to keep a copy of my work, and then I wrote like crazy for three weeks, producing the entire manuscript again. I mailed it to McGraw-Hill, the only publishing name I readily knew, uncorrected.
They kept it for months, sent me little cards occasionally saying they were still reading, and eventually sent me a two-page rejection letter. I bawled. (My handling of rejections has not improved greatly over the years.) By this time, Ms. Peters was no longer in my vicinity, so I went to the library and got a book, Structuring Your Novel, by Robert C. Meredith and John Fitzgerald. I studied it and then I contacted Dr. Meredith and told him my sad situation. I'd had my novel rejected. I didn't know that most writers had their writings rejected repeatedly.
Dr. Meredith said, "You're just green. Go to a writers' conference and be around other authors and learn a little more about the field."
He told me about Indiana University's fine conference, suggested that I send a sample of my work, one chapter from the novel would be fine, and apply. He didn't specify the first chapter, so I simply reached into the manila envelope and randomly extracted chapter eight from my rejected manuscript. That chapter won me a prize from the conference and an agent, Patricia Myer of McIntosh and Otis, who had seen my work and believed in my writing ability.
She kept the manuscript and sent it around for a couple of years while I went blithely back to my homemaking chores. Every six months I'd get a letter telling me who all had rejected it, but that she was still trying. It didn't hurt much, for I never saw those letters. Had I, I'm sure I'd have quit on the spot. Then one letter arrived on Christmas Eve among all the season's greetings. I told my husband not to open it, for I didn't wish to spoil our holiday with a bad notice. In fact, I thought it a bit inappropriate to send such a letter during the holidays. Walter opened the letter anyway.
He said in a slow and amazed voice, "Why, it says here Rass has been sold!"
After that it was pure bedlam! Perfect chaos. Ecstatic screaming and yelling and hollering. Brian had just gotten home from Europe and Alan from college. Clay had just that very minute pulled up onto our frozen lawn with his old jalopy and dashed in to see what all the noise was about. Little Dara was dancing and screaming for us all to be quiet, we'd burst Daddy's eardrums. Walt had been on her case lately. But I tell you, I haven't had a better Christmas Eve in all my life. I was an author, sure enough! Imagine that! Me? Oh, it couldn't be. Someone out there liked my Missouri stories.
The editor was Gloria Mosesson from Thomas Nelson and Company. She did a crazy thing, she asked me to write another book. I'd had no intention of doing any such thing. She was persistent, so I did it. I wrote Naomi.
My next editor was Ann Durell at Dutton. I wrote The Girl Who Had No Name and The Orphans. Then a special easy reader for her new project of Skinny books, Who's Afraid?
Then, my oldest son got married and soon I became a grandmother. Little Rochelle, that dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, was born with spina bifida, an opening in the back and other complications that caused nerve damage and her to be paralyzed from the waist down. We had our season of mourning for her loss, but soon were captured by her personality and all the many things she could do. She began reading at an early age and her mother, Carmen, who supplied her with books, lamented the fact that handicapped children were usually portrayed in the books as poor little crippled children or the story was about a miracle: and now the child can walk! Neither applied to our Rochelle.
Carmen asked me, "Will you write a book for her? One where a handicapped child just happens to be the main character, too. You're an author. You can do it."
Now, if I didn't like my daughters-in-law so much, I could stay out of a lot of things. But I do. I let Carmen pressure me into action and the result was The Balancing Girl. That became such a success, my other grandchildren, later on, started demanding their book. And I was forced into writing Margaret's Moves, which has a lot of Justin in it. And next A Smooth Move, which tells things Chad's way. Then Rehearsal for the Big-time, which lets the world have a peek at Rebecca.
Not knowing when to back off, I even yielded my heart to a neighbor child. I looked out my window one day to see little Misty Spurlock running around playing with her daddy and dragging with her a toy monkey. Misty is a cutie, a delight, and the victim of Down syndrome. I had to do a book for her to star in. I just had to. So I wrote Where's Chimpy? and editor Kathy Tucker bought it. She worked right along with the photographer, Diane Schmidt, and me in using Misty and her father in the illustrations. Newspapers and television picked up on the story and Misty really did become a star, and loves every moment of it.
The year I was doing my master's thesis at Columbia College, I also finished a novel I'd been working on for some time. Editor Frank Sloan heard of it and asked to see the manuscript of Tall Enough to Own the World. It's about a good boy, a fifth grader, who does a lot of acting-out because he is too different to be happy; he can't read. I feel it is one of the biggest tragedies in this world that any child be denied the joy of reading. Give me a soapbox, please. My stepmother believed that books complicated life, especially for women, and once she pulled a book from my hand and threw it into the heater. After that I hid to read, inside a huge old wardrobe during the winter and in the top of a tree during the summer. In one it was too dark for me to be found, the other involved her looking up to find me, and she never thought to do that. Anyway, my grandson Jeremy said this special book on reading would be his book. It didn't matter that it was not about him. He's a fine reader and approves such a book.
I have four more grandchildren to go, Amber, Christine, Collin, and Joshua. When the pressure gets on me tight enough, you'll see a book for each of them. In the meantime, I've returned to my Missouri stories, doing a trilogy around a fifteen-year-old boy. A tribute to my brothers who were special to me.
I've lived in two very different cultures and very different books come out of them. The material determines my style. Some people find it difficult to imagine the same woman who wrote Naomi also wrote Where's Chimpy? There's no mystery to it, I'm simply a diverse woman. My husband says there's never a dull moment. He's never known what to expect next from me.
POSTSCRIPT: Berniece Rabe contributed the following update to SATA in 2004:
It's been fun rereading what I wrote some twenty years ago. I believe childhood experience and learning set much of our life's path. I'm still just as excited by learning as I was at age five being interviewed to start public school. And, in like pattern, I'm still eager to share what I learn. So allow me now to speak of my writing success. Or lack of it. Or the timing of it. Readers are not privy to the many obstacles writers must overcome, regardless of their talents. We usually don't speak of failures, for our images are set to glow when the limelight turns our way. We would not wish to mar that image. Even in the backwoods of southeastern Missouri, I was taught to be ashamed of failure, unless you could laugh it off.
But how can we change if we don't recognize what has gone wrong? I believe insights in all areas must be shared if we as a society wish to get past erroneous or harmful beliefs programmed into us during early childhood, such as, "You either have it or you don't. Win the first time out, or never try to write again." Or, "Collecting a wall full of rejections is what makes one a writer." My dad would have poo-poohed that by quoting, "Beating your head against a brick wall for years is stupid when you could avoid the pain by stepping back and locating another path to take."
The brick walls most often are ideas we as children inherit from our parents, our culture, and our social conditioning. The pain is the consequence of such beliefs. Many of my tales have given me a good chuckle. Once failure is long past, it's funny. My childhood was spent hearing storytellers laughing about crazy foolish things they'd believed and acted upon, and how they barely escaped being ruined for life. I'd like to tell you some of the things I believed about writing, and how I barely escaped with the title "author" still attached.
I believed any good story would sell.
What makes a story good isn't just an interesting setting, colorful characters, a great quest and believable dialogue. It also must appeal to the reader . . . and to the marketing people. What appeals changes with each generation. Also, a good agent is most helpful. My beloved agent, Pat Myer, who believed in me and knew what to say and what to withhold, retired. I was left on my own.
At the close of my original essay I stated that I was doing a trilogy of Missouri stories about a fifteen year old boy. Well, I learned that fifteen-year-old boys who were readers read adult works. I had not set these stories from an adult's point of view, but an early teen's. Editors said rewrite. Pat retired and I got a new agent, Ray Peekner. A caring man.
But, about that time, book publishing was being taken over by oil companies, whose major interest was the bottom line. Ray told me to face that reality. I could no longer write to a select group of youth who viewed the world from a broad spectrum. I had to write that which was most popular. So I put aside the trilogy to write popular romances, which Ray said he could market. I tried hard, but I failed. He sent me one reject, a sincere apology saying she hated to reject, but this author was way too literary for the market.
Ray said, "Berniece, no romances, just do a popular-type book for your grandson." So I wrote Magic Comes In Its Time for Collin Rabe. The editor at Simon and Schuster, Bebe Willoughby, and the staff were delighted. Their head salesman declared, "Here's a book for middle-grade boys, which I myself enjoy reading." They wooed me to New York and we celebrated by going to a fine bakery, getting a huge dessert tray, and trying each and every good taste, letting laughter bond us.
Unbeknownst to any of us, at that very moment, the company was being bought out by a giant in the movie industry. The excited staff was let go, and the new people wanted to choose their own authors. However, my advance had been paid and Simon and Schuster did bring out my book, to good reviews. Collin loved it.
Then, agent Ray Peekner died. I was the last to speak to him by phone. His heart and mind still inquired of my career and he told me how glad he was to be able to say good-bye to me. Caring counts.
Well, grandchildren Chrissy and Josh still wanted books. So I would do a book for them, too!
I asked my editor Bebe Willoughby, now at a new firm set up by Waldenbooks, if she had any needs. She said, "Write me a Christmas book." I wrote The First Christmas Candy Cane: A Legend. I got my rights back before it hit the stores, for Waldenbooks had decided not to go the route of publisher, after all. Candy Canes had one good season, so Chrissy and Josh were happy. I was doing okay as a grandmother.
It was my career that bothered me.
Recently, when concerned about a career move made by my granddaughter—the star of The Balancing Girl and Margaret's Moves, I anxiously kept calling her, until she said, "I'm fine Grandma, I've changed my attitude." How wise. Already she knew that nothing has to be so set as to be accepted forever, just because it's been drilled into our minds. We have a wonderful power: We can change the way we think.
My father, a farmer, also a thinker, would agree. "We don't have to stay stuck in our ways," he'd say, then caution, "but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, Berniece. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion is a big waste of life." I guess there's the difference between the winners and the losers, knowing when to hang onto a belief and when to let it go and embrace new thought.
But I was also a child of the Great Depression. I had one deep mindset. I didn't believe in wasting anything! I had begun that trilogy set in southeastern Missouri. They were good stories. I'd not bury them in a drawer. I'd finish them! I'd try the point of view of a twelve year old boy, so humor could surface. The bibliographer Alice Irene Fitzgerald, for whom I have a deep respect, said of my book Naomi: "While the grim elements of the story are lightened by the author's use of humor, the main content of the novel is starkly realistic." I was a realistic writer, but humor is perhaps what gained me awards.
I called Linda Zuckerman, an editor at Harcourt, to see if she was interested and she was. It didn't exactly fit her regime but she appreciated a good story. She gave my work periodic, but insightful, attention and I felt great. I was sharing again.
It was that stark reality thing which delayed my career. There were dark things in my childhood experience, not necessarily my own, but of those close, which I'd seen no point in sharing. However, I finally saw a valid reason to tell these darker things, and the first book of the trilogy, Hiding Mr. McMulty, came out in 1997. Whether it was the complexity, subject, length, or the frightening cover, I don't know, but the reviews weren't coming in. Was it too bad to be reviewed? It's the quick positive reviews that generate instant paperback offers.
Then came a positive: American Booksellers Pick of the Lists!
To use Berniece Rabe's own words, this is a book "reaching above her raising." Beyond the vividness of place, the drama of the plot and the clear portraits of the cast of characters, there are the colors and shades of hopes, dreams and values that make life worth living. Set in a Depression-era rural community, all the pressures of that time come to bear on the Whitley family, young Rass, and his friend, Mr. McMulty, a black man. When forces of nature help to unleash and spotlight the unfairness of a prejudiced society, Rass must decide what's right and whether he can act in the face of fear. Young people, their parents, and teachers will find this book a point of departure for many conversations about love, loyalty, family, and friendships. They will learn a lot about history, real life on farms, how and why class and race struggles formed, and why family is important. Most of all they may come to understand the ebb and flow of circumstance; and how such ebb and flow in their own lives might cause them to compromise themselves even though they don't mean to. This wisdom may serve them the rest of their lives—and isn't that all we can ask of a book?
Wow! Who could wish for anything better? Paperback offers were on the table but they awaited further confirming reviews.
Neither Harcourt, Linda Zuckerman, nor I were prepared for the troubled waters this book would cause. I was on the road autographing at bookstores and was approached by members of the Ku Klux Klan in a small Texas town and in a larger city in Oklahoma.
In Texas, it was a handsome young man of about twenty who pulled his clinging sweetie to the booth, declaring, "This is the best Klan picture I've ever seen. I want to buy it." The jacket artist, Wendell Minor, is renowned, but heavens, I wish he'd done the sample of his work that I'd chosen instead of the one chosen by the young, trusting promotion people. I knew it would be a turn-off to reviewers and librarians, which was later proven, as well as to booksellers, who refused to put the jacket face forward in their stores.
I said to this Klansman, "You'd best read the jacket cover before you buy it."
"You mean it's against the Klan?"
"I think Rass was against anyone who wished to kill his black friend." I kept smiling.
He smiled back. "Then, I'm against your book. I'm a Klansman and proud of it."
"You people have a good day," I said.
Then in Oklahoma, a middle aged man marched in with his wife and five teen-aged children, single file, keeping pace behind him. He boldly came to my table and picked up the book. Silently he read the book flap, then threw the book into my face, stating, "You can keep your old book! Come on, family, this ain't what we thought it was!"
I was stunned and a bit bruised. I said nothing. I had no idea that the Klan was still so current. But clerks told me they dared not promote it lest their in-laws or a grandparent or a cousin heard. Others said they wanted to remove themselves from the problem entirely, wouldn't handle a book on the Klan. Somehow it made a difference that the book was for children. The general message was that it should not be discussed pro or con.
I got a good review from Horn Book and was chosen for the 1998 New York Public Library's Books for the Teen Age list. Something was amiss. I tried to determine if I'd contributed to the problem of late reviews by the way I had told the story. There had to be a reason for this unusual turn of events. Had I, the author, not worked through the problem? Writing itself can be a catharsis, which lengthens the time of writing and alters how it is written. Perhaps it lacked humor, maybe enough time hadn't passed for me to see anything to laugh about. But a half century?
No one likes to dwell on the worst of life. Perhaps I didn't know how to tell horrible events in ways that the average person could hear, absorb and learn from. Storytelling is an art, I was a realistic writer, and it takes time to learn a new art-form.
Or was it because a reviewer—for lack of life experience—had no ability to identify, and had skipped or failed to pick up on the nuances of the dark story that conveyed what I, the author, wished. About my book The Orphans, a review magazine used constantly by school librarians stated: "Little Adam was a chauvinist when the book began and one when it ended." I had shown, not told, that change comes gradually and Little Adam would have to fool himself for a while before he could openly admit change. That reviewer didn't pick up the nuances, but Ms. Fitzgerald, a biographer, saw it. Still, that one review cost me a paperback sale already in negotiation.
A similar review in that same journal on Hiding Mr. McMulty demanded the same toll. It gave a fair review but stated that if one wished a better book about prejudice, read one about the Okies. Paperback offers were canceled. This magazine is not a concrete source, but is a powerful one. Let me quickly state that this same magazine brought me fantastic luck a couple of times. It catapulted Naomi to high success and chose both Naomi and Rass for the Best of the Decade award.
More reviews that were good drifted in, but too late to save the paperback sales.
Certainly, a Voice of Youth Advocates review, giving a rating of 5Q—"Hard to imagine it being better written"—was great. They placed the grade interest at junior high and advocated adults push to make it appealing to students. Rabe "writes with authenticity and compassion of people living hard off the land. The 1930's Missouri dialect is initially disconcerting, but all in all it lends rhythm and a kind of poetry to this tale of a boy overcoming emotional and physical dangers," stated Rayna Patton.
It was nominated for the National Book Award. And late in the winter of 1998 came another fine review in the ALAN Review (National Council of Teachers of English). Laura M. Zaidman wrote that "Rabe succeeds with authentic setting, realistic dialect, believable characters, and a fast-paced, suspenseful plot."
How much I appreciated that. I had not written poorly, I'd simply had a run of bad luck. Bad luck when the cover was chosen. Bad luck when a powerful reviewer preferred a book dealing with Okies, rather than blacks. Bad luck with the timing of the reviews.
Well, I'd made up my mind to write about darker things, and I had given zero thought to my success depending on getting a highly perceptive reviewer, though it's a big factor in sales. An author has no control of reviewers; still sales figures of one book becomes a big factor on the sale of the next book presented to that company. In both cases of an unfortunate review, I lost not only the paperback sales, but my next book sale—for I presented A Boy Touched By Love, and it was rejected for being a sequel to Hiding Mr. McMulty.
Should I give up? Quit?
Luck, good and bad, is always a factor in a career. Good luck is no reason to become stuck-up, and bad luck is no reason to quit. I think maybe it's my Higher Power molding me into becoming a finer writer, learning methods to keep a reader's or a reviewer's attention until they've felt what I wish to convey. I can't control all things, so some of it I just let go and get on with other writings. Still, by becoming more creative, I can control more things. The art of storytelling is to control or keep the attention of the reader until your story is fully told. I'm working toward that, and I believe effort is a stronger factor than luck. With effort, I can rise above failure. I care deeply about what I have to give rather than how much I have to gain. Standing away from the writing, I certainly do consider and strive for gain, but my intrinsic effort is not to make money, but to share a story.
I learned: A good story doesn't always get you money.
Circumstances have killed many a deal for a well-written book, especially when walking a narrow edge in marketability. On three occasions I've lost three-book package sales when my work was being highly applauded. One because the publisher had thought I was of his religion, and on asking, found out I was not. I didn't hold him to the contract. One because an editor wanted the series but hadn't known that her superior in the company had mentioned a similar project to me previously, which I'd done too hurriedly and got rejected. She let me go. The last because it involved a reprint plus two sequels and her publisher vetoed doing any reprint. Add to those nine the two books I lost because reviews cost my paperback sales, and it would mean eleven more titles to my credit. Oh, I almost forgot the one an extremely well-known editor had accepted by letter—if his partner approved when he got out of a hospital in Europe, which was no worry for they'd never been at odds over a book. His partner didn't share his enthusiasm. But I shouldn't add that one, for it later sold, got good reviews, and brought me another book sale.
At present I have three young adult novels being considered, with editors waiting to see if they dare risk investing in a work that may or may not be reviewed well. I've changed the names in A Boy Touched By Love, so it's no longer a part of a trilogy. It deals with a brother-in-law abusing a boy's sister. (The third book of that proposed trilogy is about a teen taking part in the first sit-down strike against the United States government. It has yet to be finished.) The second book being considered, Overcoming Incest, is a report from teen victims claiming their right to be normal. Then there is Getting Past Ghosts, about two girls at camp allowing friendship and a little mysticism to help them regain self-confidence.
Publishers' markets are tight and they must calculate when to take a risk. In time, I'm very likely to sell all my books. An author has to go with the flow. Circumstances do change. The only reason to give up is that you no longer wish to share, or you're dead. Self-confidence is what must stay steady.
Ambition counts, too. Great ambition spurs great accomplishment. Once my eldest son Alan sat up all night doing formulas to prove that Einstein's Theory of Relativity was wrong. When I saw him the next morning, I was appalled. Papers lay all about his room, he was hungry, but he assured me, "I'm getting close to the conclusion." Within the hour he had it: Einstein was right. I smiled. How many high school boys knew that? How many hadn't just taken someone's word, but had figured it out and knew?
I've been working for years to prove wrong a frequently quoted psychological statement: "There is no such thing as a victim. You have to be getting something out of it, or you wouldn't stay in it." Part of my life has been spent working with, sheltering, and assisting abused women and their families. Anyway, how could one say such when history showed the victimization of women down through the ages? I set a new story at the time of the suffragists.
When I finally finished this novel, it was just short of a thousand pages. No agent or editor was interested. Too much showing. Too slow the showing. The story got lost in the showing. Besides, I'd proven that repulsive saying correct: Women could get free by standing up for themselves. But they'd also be ostracized. Disowned. Abandoned. Their children lost in the doing. Was there no conclusion worthy of the story? Yes, I found one.
For the last three years I've been shortening that book. This is extremely difficult, requires an alien type of thinking, but I'm doing it. As I go along, I build more suspense and intrigue into it. If I wish to sell and be read, I must not only deal with good and bad luck along the way, but must meet what the market demands. I'll do it because I've something to share: I know why intelligent women blindly let themselves be victimized. And I know how to free them from their blindness.
Years are passing, yet I write each weekday. I will continue to do so even though my tax man in Texas says I'm not a serious writer since I've sold little in the last three years and I can no longer be allowed loss incurred in my home office. I've a confession: I made myself take time out from the novel to write three literary short stories, "Whillie the Masseuse," "Heirloom," and "The Cost of a Driver's License." I sold them to good quarterlies first time out. After extensive rejection, I needed verification that I was a writer. A sale is the most concrete assurance of that. Sometimes I'll do an article for a magazine. But I can't measure myself exclusively by monetary successes or failures. For me it is the trying, the learning, the mastering of one block at a time, that matters. The rest is not my business. I have a willing heart, so the rest will come, in due time. Where I am now and what I have now is valid. To a writer, seeking to find truths is a sacred act.
Also, I know my writing is still pretty good, for I was recently plagiarized. A set premise in a beginning scene and a vivid conclusion scene showed up in a well known author's work. I'm a fan of that author. I've reason to believe that book was partially ghost-written by the reader of my thousand page manuscript. We shared the same agent, who used readers. I did not protest. I don't wish to hurt that author's reputation, nor my own. Some modification of my words was made, for it was a different genre, so maybe no one will bring it up. But if anyone ever accuses me of plagiarizing that work, I have proof that I wrote it first and copyright is determined by when you write it.
All part of an author's life.
Writing is a wonderful career. Maybe not everyone believes that "book love . . . is your pass to the greatest, the purest, and the most perfect pleasure that God has prepared for His creatures," as did Anthony Trollope, but I'm content that many people do.
I'm aware of the power of words, for good or evil, and try to use words wisely. Words bind people together. As the world changes, so change the use of words. In Denton, Texas, storytellers meet each spring to spin their yarns in great tents housing live audiences. Like the men in my childhood (women were too busy in the kitchens), they view storytelling as entertainment, an art, a way to win and share love and respect. I think that's why I write. Also, TV and movies use words, but blend them with images. It's a different art, but I find it fascinating. It demands getting to the action quickly. I've written two screen-plays, one ghost-written on demand, the other I've still to perfect and then learn how to market. It won attention at Oklahoma's competitive writers conference in 2003.
As an aside, I believe TV and movies condition us to use more swearing for it seems to pump up emotional energy fast. The art of subtlety and understatement is lost in the process. No longer does swearing designate a bad guy. In my book Getting Past Ghosts, I have twelve year old Karo, who's led a terrifying life, as the tent mate to twelve year old Maggie, who's confined to a wheelchair. Being the realistic writer that I am, I have Karo use harsh words. And yes, they do pump energy at times. But my aim is to show the deep, tender, injured heart of a child who has endured more abuse than most children ever will. It's all in how words are used. And words are here to be used.
Whether I write for children or adults, I hope it is somehow building them. We are all busy in some sort of reformation all of our lives. I want to help change minds by laughing at and discarding some of the harmful ideas drilled into people. I want to find ways to communicate love, caring and mutual respect.
I'm happy and busy. I can't imagine it otherwise.