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My Writer's Journal

On becoming a writer: Part III

Finding time to write was always an issue in my early days. I whipped through housework in the mornings and then flew down to my desk in the basement as soon as the kids began their afternoon naps. The teenage girl next door was hired to play with them for an hour or two after she got home from school. Somehow I managed to get in a couple of hours a day at my typewriter, and I began to get replies from query letters about ideas I had for magazine articles. I decided to start work on a novel.

Then we moved, Baby #3 was born (another boy), and I no longer had a teenaged girl next door. The novel, titled BIRTH DAYS, made the rounds and was rejected by every editor who looked at it, but an agent saw it and suggested I write a children's book--an option I had never considered. Nevertheless, I got the idea of a sewing book for little girls, since I had none of my own, and to my amazement, it was accepted. MISS PATCH'S LEARN-TO-SEW BOOK was published in 1969. Furthermore, my articles were selling fairly well. I felt like a real writer, but the novel was a disappointment.

(To be continued) Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part II

My hopes of becoming a writer for TV were dashed early on. After a typing test and an IQ test, I was offered a job by CBS-TV as secretary to a salesman who sold "time" to advertisers for commercial breaks. I considered it a dead end; boys were hired to work in the mailroom and eventually moved into management positions, girls were secretaries who got married. I followed the usual pattern, except that even after Baby #1 was born, I kept on working. The jobs didn't get any more interesting, and child care canceled out my minuscule salary.

After Baby #2 was born, I decided to stay home and write. My goal was to publish brilliant short stories in The New Yorker magazine. Trouble was, The New Yorker didn't understand that my stories were brilliant and rejected everything I sent. Finally I sold a story to a secretarial magazine, was paid $25, and saw my work in print--not print, exactly, but in the shorthand that secretaries used in those long ago days. It was a start. And that began a long, slow slog.

(To be continued.) Read More 
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On becoming a writer: Part I

I knew from the time I was 8 that I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea how to make it happen. In junior high I thought I might become a journalist and work for a newspaper. My dad insisted that I learn to type--a very good idea. Then, in high school I got a summer job working for the local radio station, typing up the commercials that would be read on the air. Eventually I was allowed to try my hand at writing the commercials myself, and when Miss Rita, who read the birthday news every day at 1 pm, went on vacation, I filled in for her and called on Miss Rita's advertising accounts. I loved it. At school I was named editor of the yearbook and co-editor of the newspaper, and I was writing stories. The term "nerd" had not yet been coined, but I fit the description. Then I left for college.

The next summer a rural radio station opened miles from where we lived. I was hired at 50 cents an hour to write commercials for advertisers, dealers in farm implements: egg-washers and manure-spreaders. I drove my mother's car to work. She complained that I didn't earn enough to pay for the gas.

At college I continued my life as a nerd, getting mostly A's and having my stories torn to pieces in writing classes. When I graduated and it was time to look for a job, I headed for New York City, bound for a career in that new field: television. But it didn't work out at all the way I planned.

(To be continued.) Read More 
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Message and Memory

I was sitting here at my computer, glumly trying to think of something bright and interesting to write in my Journal, when the following e-mail arrived:

Dear Ms. Meyer: What an amazing writer you are! I am a mom and teacher with a great love of historical fiction. When we travel, we usually do "thematic" travel. For Thanksgiving we are driving from NYC to VA, through Amish Pennsylvania. I am hoping to listen to, or read aloud Gideon's People to my 11 and 13 yr. olds. Do you know where I can find and order the tape or CD? I would appreciate any leads you have. Thank you so much for all you do for our youth.--Suzanne B.

GIDEON'S PEOPLE was published in 1996. I remember exactly when I got the idea for the book: I was visiting Lewistown, Pennsylvania, where I grew up and happened to run into a friend of my late mother's, Stanley Siegel. We went out for lunch together, and at some point I asked him how his Jewish family had ended up in our thoroughly Pennsylvania Dutch small town. He told me the story of his grandfather, an immigrant from Russia in the early 1900's, who had eventually become a peddler in Lancaster County, dealing with Amish farm families whose German dialect was similar to the Yiddish spoken by his grandfather. Stanley's father, who became a lawyer, settled in Lewistown to escape the antisemitism he was encountering in other cities.

Before we finished lunch, I was already thinking, "Now what if somehow a Jewish boy, traveling with his father, ends up staying with an Amish family...." The book was already beginning to take shape in my mind.

Well, that email certainly cheered me up. I rushed to the mirror and said to myself, "What an amazing writer you are!" And what an amazing mom/teacher Suzanne is, to plan such trips for her kids. Thank you, Suzanne, for reminding me of how it all happens. And I'm sorry there's no CD. Read More 
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becalmed in the doldrums
You know what I mean: No winds are blowing, the sails are empty, and my ship is becalmed--going nowhere. VICTORIA REBELS has been on my editor's desk (more precisely, in her In Box) since mid-August. Still no word on it, except that she is "crazy busy." And so I am becalmed, and as my ship drifts aimlessly on a glassy sea, I read....and think....and scribble notes to myself.... None of these are bad things, but, frankly, I prefer to be "crazy busy" myself.

I could, of course, be cleaning out the storage closet, changing the batteries in the smoke detectors, all worthy activities, but I'M NOT WRITING AND I'M CRAZY BORED.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the movie theater across the street to a simulcast of Lang Lang, the Chinese pianist, playing Liszt with the Philadelphia Orchestra. For awhile I was the only person in theater. Then a guy came in and took a seat several rows in front of me. The concert began. A second guy came in and sat a few rows in front of Guy #1. Now there were three of us! Then Guy #1 went out and came back with a tub of popcorn. Seconds later Guy #2 turns around and hollers "Stop munching!" Guy #1 gets mad. They argue about personal rights. Meanwhile, Lang Lang is ripping through Liszt, fortunately oblivious. I enjoyed it hugely. Maybe I should write a story about it. Get out of the doldrums. Read More 
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Back at my desk

At the Palace Hotel, grinning because the nuts and olives are free
I've been to Spain several times, but this was my first time in Portugal, and I loved it although the three cities we visited all seemed to be vertical--I was either puffing up a steep cobbled street or stumbling down. We heard traditional fado music in Lisbon and happened upon a harvest festival with young men and boys executing an elaborate dance in Coimbra.

Back in Madrid we stopped in my favorite hotel, The Palace, where Hemingway used to hang out under the beautiful Tiffany glass dome. Costs only $1480 a night! Can this be true? Still, I like to have a glass of sangria and for an hour pretend I'm rich. Read More 
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A little traveling music

Most of my long trips are for research, and therefore are "work," but in a half hour I leave for the airport for a flight to Spain, and this is all about having fun with mi esposo, Tony, who has been there for about 10 days. This time it's his project, not mine, and I'm just along for the ride.

We fly to Lisbon in Portugal on Wednesday (I'll still be groggy with jetlag, but never mind), and then take buses to Coimbra, a university city, and finally to Porto, before we return to Madrid. I'll come home on Friday, the 21st, and Tony will stay for another three weeks.

I had hoped rather desperately that I'd have VICTORIA REBELS back for further work, but so far nothing--not a word. And my next project has still not been discussed. I'm leaning strongly toward ancient Greece--you know, ILIAD and ODYSSEY and all that--but quien sabe? Who knows? It could take a sharp turn toward Anastasia and her family.

Meanwhile, adios muchachos y muchachas. I'll report on the trip before the end of October. (PS--It's cold here in ABQ!) Read More 
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Rainbow and Reflection

And another one....
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Change of Seasons

I'm reading Homer's ILIAD, which I haven't cracked since college. "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles." What a bloodthirsty bunch those ancient Greeks were!

Summer ends in another week or so. It's dark when I wake up in the mornings, and I need a jacket. City lights come up earlier in the evenings, and it's too cool to sit out on the balcony for very long, watching the Rail Runner pull into the station. Change is in the air. Something new is about to happen. I'm waiting to see what that is. Read More 
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Where Ideas Come From

The question I'm asked most often: "Where do you get your ideas?" My answer is glib: "They're all around me. It's just a matter of recognizing them." And that's true, to a point. But not every idea is a good one, or one I want to commit to for at least a year of hard work. That's the place I'm in now - lots of golden ideas floating around, but when I reach out and catch one it suddenly loses its glitter. I discover that somebody else has already done it, no doubt better than I could do it. Or it's truly a fascinating subject, but not enough people have heard of it, and a book could disappear without a trace.

I'm fascinated by Cixi, empress of China at about the same time Victoria was queen of England. While most people have heard of Queen Victoria, Empress Cixi has hardly any name recognition, unless you happen to be interested in Chinese history. Hatshepsut is another terrific subject. Many know about Cleopatra, but how about an Egyptian queen who lived centuries earlier?

These days I'm reading a lot and thinking a lot, but not writing. One of these days, though, something will click, it will be perfect, I'll be hugely excited, and off and running again. Read More 
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