Monday, December 14, 2009

Chapter 1 • 1968-1972 • You’ve Got Talent


It is time to begin writing this book. I am so ready, I really can't put it off any longer. But first, I want to slip in a reminder and a thank you. The reminder is this: Every writer needs an editor. Every writer. No exceptions. The thank you is to my editor, who continues to remind me by the mistakes she finds and the great suggestions she makes that every writer needs an editor. Thank you, Judy!


Words have power. They can take an ordinary life and make it extraordinary in the time it takes to say them. In my case, words became a compass that pointed me toward my life’s work, though I could not possibly have known that at the time I heard them.

I was a 30-year-old housewife and mother. I wasn’t looking for my destiny; I was just looking for a night school class to take on Monday nights. Any class would do as long as it wasn’t yoga. My friend was taking yoga, and I thought that sounded ghastly. I read the catalog twice and finally signed up for something called “Writing for Fun and Money.” The teacher was a newspaper reporter who fit the stereotypical image of hard-boiled, straight talking, and tough. Writing for fun and money didn’t seem her style.

The first night she asked if anyone had ever made any money from their writing. I raised my hand; no one else did. I was embarrassed to admit it was only $25 for giving a book review to a women’s group. Still, that made me something of a star in our little class.

Looking back, I don’t think I learned anything useful about the subject. In fact, the only advice I remember was from a guest speaker who told us to “Write what you know.” While I was trying to think of something I knew, she described sitting in her children’s playpen and writing funny little pieces for parents’ magazines. I remember wondering where the children were while she was in their playpen. Other than that, I remember nothing … except, of course, the words that changed my life.

On the last night of class, we were all exchanging handshakes and hugs. As I approached the teacher to thank her, she grabbed my shoulders and gave them a good shake. “Listen to me,” she said. “I know talent when I see it, and I see it in you. You’d better keep writing!”

I had no idea what caused her to say that. We hadn’t shown her samples of our work or done any writing in class. But it really didn’t matter. She had said it and I believed her. Her words affected me so profoundly that for 40 years, “You’d better keep writing!” has remained a kind of sustaining mantra.

What comes after such a watershed moment? Well, certainly not instant success. On the other hand, I finally had some sense of direction, however vague. I announced to my husband that I was going to be a writer. He rolled his eyes, but to his credit, he helped me carry the picnic table from our minuscule patio to my new “office” in the basement under the stairs. And he did buy me an electric typewriter, which I used for 20 years until I got my first computer.

Okay, so I should keep writing; but I didn’t know what to write about, how to begin, or where to send what I managed to write. Write about what you know was the conventional wisdom. My life at that time consisted of cleaning, grocery shopping, doing laundry, cooking dinner, and taking care of little kids. This was 1967. Everyone I knew was leading exactly the same life. It didn’t seem worth putting on paper.

How to begin? When in doubt, read a book. Off I went to the library to arm myself with books on writing. The only books I found gave copious instructions on how to write fillers—little stories and clever observations on life—for women’s magazines. So, I bought every woman’s magazine I could find, read all the fillers, and struggled to write something scintillating. Unfortunately, the books didn’t provide much information on the mechanics of submission (paper, format, cover letters, etc.), and those things are not intuitive. I did everything wrong, but I think the biggest faux pas was using flimsy, erasable typewriter paper. Had I read even one article on the mechanics of submitting work to national magazines, I would have known better. Even worse, I made full use of the erasable feature, since I always was (and remain) a lousy typist.

Success eluded me, unless you count the colorful rejection slips that seemed to arrive almost daily. They came in all sizes, shapes, and shades of pastel. (They just don’t make them like that any more.) I considered each one a badge of honor and wallpapered one whole wall of my basement with them. They made a nice collage and at least proved I had been writing, even if my words never saw a printed page.

I didn’t seem to get the hint for quite a while that I was on the wrong track. If I had stayed on it, I probably could have wallpapered my whole house with multi-colored postcards. But at last, quite by accident, I did something right. I wrote a humorous article on what it was like to be handball widow. The title was “H.B.A.A. – Handball Above All.” It was very funny, if you like sports humor, and my husband urged me to send it to the editor of ACE magazine, the handball bible.

Sidebar

“Handball players are like no other sportsmen in the world. They are a breed apart, and they can locate or recognize a fellow fanatic a mile away. Put two handball players together, and they establish instant rapport, even if they have never seen each other before. A party where more than two of the guests are handball devotees is a certain disaster from the point of view of the unsuspecting hostess. They will gravitate together as if they were magnetically attracted. If this is allowed to happen (and just try to stop it), there is little chance of separating them before the evening ends.”

1968 • ACE: The Official Voice of Handball

ACE not only ran it, it did so in the issue that was distributed at the national handball championship matches that were held right here in St. Louis. I was an instant celebrity among the players, but more important, I was published! I immediately bought a portfolio.

That purchase may have been a bit optimistic since it remained empty for quite a while. This was my first foray into freelance writing, and with only one article to my credit, it was difficult to convince editors to take a chance on me. One at a time, however, I carefully scotch taped articles into my book. They were published in newsletters and free newspapers at first, but my first real break came when I was offered a job selling advertising space for a weekly newspaper called The St. Louis Jewish Light. “I really want to write.” I told the general manager, who didn’t need another writer. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “If you learn to sell space, I’ll find some things for you to write.” I took the job.

What he found for me were stories no one else on the editorial staff wanted to cover: meetings, programs at night, book reviews, short personality profiles, and little news items. If the subject was deemed boring or inconvenient, I wrote about it, slowly filling my portfolio with feature articles. Amazingly, ACE kept publishing my stories, first on notable local handball players and then on the emergence of racquetball as a serious sport. I interviewed many sweaty men in what looked like white underwear and became known as the “handball writer” around the courts. It was a heady experience.

I’d love to say that I made all my own breaks, and luck was not a factor; but that’s not true. Sometimes, just being in the right place when the right person shows up is like finding a four-leaf clover. I was still selling space, writing for the Jewish Light, and trying to interest editors of obscure publications to give me assignments or print my articles, when one of those right people came into my life. He was in charge of advertising for a company that owned, among other things, a small sports magazine for country clubbers. He liked my writing and introduced me to the editor, who paid my $50 for my H.B.A.A story. That was big money in 1970; in fact, it was the first money I had earned for anything I wrote. The editor hired an illustrator and published my “humor piece” in Replay. This was my second big break, and it turned out to be bigger than I could have imagined at the time.

Replay had a very short life. It was mailed free to a small, elite readership that had never asked for it to begin with. The publisher had a stroke of genius. He used Replay to give birth to a new city magazine called The St. Louisan. It simply appeared one month as an insert; the next month Replay ceased to be, and The St. Louisan was launched. I was launched right along with it.

Being able to write about subjects that were outside of the Jewish community was liberating. I wrote about a innovative day camp on a farm, a rehabilitation center for trouble teens, a relatively famous restaurateur, and my greatest challenge so far: kidney disease. I truly felt like I had died and gone to heaven, as I met more and more talented people. One of those people was one of the most talented photographers I have ever worked with. Portrait artist turned commercial photographer, Denny had a magic touch with people and pictures. From our first assignment together, we knew we had an unbeatable creative partnership. It was one that continued for a decade.

Sidebar

“Metropolitan St. Louis, with a population of approximately two-and-a-half-million people boasts two medical schools, numerous hospitals, and a reputation for being an outstanding medical center. Yet, only five short years ago, in the midst of all of this bustling medical activity and research, if a person was told he was suffering from kidney disease, he could be relatively certain that he would die. In 1966, there were two research units for kidney disease—one at Washington University and one at St. Louis University. The very small number of patients (two) at these centers was treated for education and research purposes only.”

1970 • The St. Louisan

In the meantime, I was still selling space, juggling a house, a family, and a large dog during the day, and writing almost every night. Ah, the energy of youth! That pace, as well as other circumstances, took their toll. I ticked off all the top items on the list of significant stressors—divorce, a major move, my boss’s untimely death, becoming a single mom, and a new job I was ill prepared to tackle.

Phase one of my writing life was coming to an abrupt end.

4 comments:

Kim said...

Bobbi, I love it and can't wait to read more!

home based internet businesses said...

Nice book, I can not wait to read it :)

Catherine Franz said...

Bobbi, you are a few years before me. You sparked a memory of my own...the day I told my Dad that I wanted to be a writer.

His yelling shocked response as: "What! Do you want to starve to death the rest of your life!!!"

He said it three times in a row.

And so thereafter, I became a closet writer for 20 years. I wish I would have not listened and had rejection notices to pasted on my wall. At least I would have been putting it out there. Instead, my experience occurred 20 years later when I finally got pissed enough and told my Dad to go to "he" double toothpicks.

Can't wait to read more.

Catherine Franz

Sha said...

Hi Bobbie,
It's me, I'm having so much fun
reading everything. Have a Happy
New Year. And now onward I go reading!!!!