NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT

By Stephanie Jacob Gordon

I always thought that someday I would write the Great American Novel.   At the time I decided this I was reading JOHNNY TREMAIN, which I loved.  What I hadn’t decided in the third grade was…should it be about history (next to reading, my favorite subject) or about my daddy.  I loved reading historical books, but I loved my daddy more.  One thing I knew I would never write about was me.  Look how long I’d already lived and nothing wonderful or interesting had happened to me yet.  While I waited for something to happen, so I could write about it, I worked in the movie studios, met a gazillion great actors, rode on a fire truck, and went to school.

I took violin at the Los Angeles Academy of Musical Arts—I was not going to be the next Itzhak Pearlman.  Mommy and I rode the Red Line Streetcar.   My auntie Mimi came with sometimes.  One time I fell getting off the streetcar and slipped down the gutter drain.  Auntie Mimi saved me from disaster by grabbing my long curls and yanking me out.

I took tap dancing from Willie Cohan–Anne Miller was safe, no Music City Rockettes in my future.  I can still do a ball shuffle…but that’s all I can do (then and now).

I often went with my daddy to his fire station and hung out with the firemen he worked with.  I sat in the fire truck and read, made ice cream with the cook (my talented chef daddy, Jack), and watched black and white tv from the old theater seats that had been donated to the station, Palms 43, Los Angeles, California. Sometimes my daddy and I went across the street from the station to the Tootsie Roll factory and got a crate of candy for the firehouse to give out to visiting kids.  Believe me, I ate more than my share.

I took Piano—not a Hogie Charmichael, either.  Not even a Snoopy.  My mom got a note from my teacher thanking Mom for letting me quit.

I took ballet from Nico Charrise—no “Silk Stockings” lead dancer name Syd.  No tip and toeing through life for me.  The first day I tried toe…I broke one.  I can still feel Nico lightly hitting the back of my legs with his stick and yelling, “Right-right-right! And no back-knee, Stefff-fanny!”

After what seemed like a lifetime of waiting for something to write about, my indecision began to bug me.  Did we say “bug” in the 40s?  Then in the 6th grade, as part of the art committee for our Simon Bolivar presentation, I made most of the slides.  My portrait of Sen᷉or Bolivar was great, fantastic, and got me a big fat A+.  A light went on.  Why wait for something to write the Great American novel about…I would paint the Great American painting.  I had seen Grandma Moses’ pictures, and people thought she was amazing.  I wasn’t all that impressed.  I could do better.  So, what did I want to paint about?  I sat down to wait for an inspiration.

I entered the Miss La Ballona Creek Beauty Pagent—chubby, pig tails, tone deaf—what was I thinking?  “Do you have a talent, dear?”  Let me think…  Violin, tap, ballet, piano, singing, whistling, wood burning….  “Reading!”

I moved back to LA and got a 9th grade boyfriend—but I doubt any other girl wanted him.  For a long time (last 1/2 of the A9),I was in Jr. Hi Love Land…That’s Disneyland with hand holding and a little lip touching.  Then we went to Hi School…  Love and heartbreak followed me!

While I was still waiting to become a better painter than my little brother, Stevie (the commercial artist), I went to College, fell in love twice, my one true love was killed, taught school, got married, lost my daddy, had three children and seven Grandchildren, studied children’s book writing, found my life-long writing partner, became an author and editor, put a ton of get-up-and-go into SCBWI, lectured and taught writing for young people, wrote a tv series, edited a kid’s magazine, met my true soul sisters, lost my mama, Sylvia, divorced, became religious, got published in every genre for children I can name, and gave up my non-starter art career.

AND, I still can’t decide what my Great American Novel will be about.  History?  My daddy?  My mama?  Certainly not an autobiography.  In all these years, what have I done that anyone would want to read about?

If you get the message…  Start taking notes NOW!

THE TAIL OF A DOGGY BAG

by Stephanie Jacob Gordon

 

IN THE BEGINNING… (no, not that beginning)

In the beginning there were two writers who became friends (with no idea of what the future held for them…yes, I know that is foreshadowing).   They were at the Writer’s Conference given by SCBW in Santa Monica, CA, all wide-eyed and overwhelmed.  The speaker they were listening to was so famous, so respected in his field that the two friends were rapidly writing down every word the speaker said.  After all, he was the renowned children’s book writer, Sid Fleishman. And they, Stephanie and Judy, were conference newbies (of absolutely no renown).

That day we, the newbies, learned two very important things from Sid (who would become a dear friend) that have served us well throughout our careers.  One: If we ever got a contract it would be so terrible that Sid would never sign it.  And two: Never throw away good words and ideas—put them in a doggie bag.

THE BOOK…

Not much later, when we, Stephanie and Judy—now writing partners, were contracted for the Scholastic YA Sunfire series and asked to set our first historical novel at the time of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. We were excited.  Much of Old San Francisco was still there, alive and well. There was an Earthquake Room in the Main Library downtown packed with facts and pictures and old newspapers on microfilm.  The turn of the century mansions, that had survived earthquake and fire, were still there, so lovely, and the cable cars still ran on their original routes.   San Francisco was (and is) an historical writer’s died-and-gone-to-heaven.  There were newspaper stories of Enrico Caruso’s short stay and quick get-away, swearing never to return to such a dangerous place—and he never did.  Were we especially proud of finding an article about a little dog that survived the earthquake and fire in the basement of the St. Francis Hotel.  Francis the dog lived the rest of life at the hotel.

Practically skipping to the post office we sent NORA to our editor (it was her mother’s name).  This is what her editorial letter to us said, “KILL THE DOG!”

We were desolate, but Francis was no longer a part of our book.  We loved him…  He was so funny and cute…  Oh Francis we have been undone!

And then a little voice said, “Do not despair Stephanie, Judy, and little Francis.  Remember… Sid’s doggy bag!”

And in went Francis head first.  And there he stayed until…

AN IDEA!…

One day we remembered our fabulous trip to San Francisco and began to reminisce.  We knew so much historical stuff about the city, why not write a book about it?

“FRANCIS!”

Not a book about San Francisco—A BOOK ABOUT FRANCIS! And we will call it…

FRANCIS THE EARTHQUAKE DOG

And out of that doggy bag that Sid told us to keep came Francis and his picture book that was sold all over San Francisco, bookstores, bakeries, candy stores, souvenir shops and the St. Francis Hotel.  On Francis’ fifth anniversary the St. Francis Hotel commissioned a stuffed dog to accompany our book.  Amazing!  All that because we heard Sid Fleishman speak, kept a doggy bag, and killed the dog!

This is definitely a case of the tale wagging the dog!

INTO THE BOOK

by Stephanie Jacob Gordon

First thing you should know is that I never went to a summer camp as a kid. I did go at seventeen to Brandies, a kibbutz-like camp, in the wilds of Santa Susanna, CA. I did counsel at the adjacent kids camp, Alonim, two year later. I did send my kids to camp. And, my family has done a lot of camping—we still do.

Second thing you should know is I really know my way around a gold pan and a sluice box. Years ago Judy and I took a class on gold panning. We went with the teacher and our seven men classmates to pan for gold in Hungry Valley and…EUREKA! We discovered gold with our plastic pan and spoon. The seven guys with the sluice box didn’t. She who laughs last, laughs longest!

Third thing you should know is I never did any mining at any summer camp…ever.
So where did I mine and why did I do it?

The first book I wrote and sold was called WANTED: A LITTLE LOVE and it was set at a kid’s summer camp; Camp Big Thunder Of Eagles, or Camp Big Toe as my characters renamed it. This book took a lot of mining—in my brain and in my imagination.

When I was at Brandeis, the teen camp, I got a very bad cold and took Cheracol…when it still had codine in it. In no time at all, I passed out in my tent in my sleeping bag. So far, not too exciting. Until…I woke and saw the squirrel sleeping in my bag all cozy on my chest. I scream. The squirrel screamed (in squirrel of course) and headed for the hills. After a check-up from the nurse, I was declared flea and bite free. I do not know how the poor squirrel ended up.

That was an event that could have happened to any camper at any camp (well maybe not, weird things always happen to me). Into the book.

At Berkley Camp in Yosemite, while my boys went water rafting, an experience I knew I would not like to experience, my eight year old daughter and I went fishing in the Merced River. Fishing is something I am good at. We were going to catch the legendry old trout, Boris. After a few trout and a few falls in the river, I am happy to report that Boris still lived long after we went home. In to the book.

At Alonim, I was nineteen, engaged, and the counselor of twelve thirteen year old girls. It was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and they were driving me up the cuckoo’s tree. Don’t even ask me about the thirteen year old boy who was in love with me.

One day I was assigned life guard training. Ummmm…I swim with my face out of the water. How was I going to learn how to save someone when I was terrified of getting my face wet? The camper I was supposed to save jumped in the water and swam to the center of the pool. I walked down the stairs…I do not jump into water. I dog-paddled to the camper who was thrashing in the water like a very realistic drowning person, and tried to put my arm around his neck to dog- paddle him to the side of the pool where two other counselors could pull him out. Except the kid never stopped fighting me and he pushed me under and I panicked. Now I am the one who is really drowning, splashing around like a confused salmon who doesn’t know which way is up stream, and the two counselors (who already have their life guard certifications) have to jump in and save me. Guess who was the arts and crafts counselor that summer? Guess who never went into the pool when kids were in it. Into the book.

I like to write humor. Not everything that has happened to me is funny. At least it isn’t while it is happening. For me time and perspective are everything when it comes to funny. Sooner or later (usually later) I find the humor in everything. If I didn’t, there would no way I could write humor or stay calm and carry on. LOL

Where have you been? What have you done, seen, imagined doing? Who do you know? Mine other people’s mind.

For an historical, JACQULINE, that Judy and I wrote, I knew a waitress who, back in the 30’s, spilled soup on the big boss and had to hide in the broom closet whenever he came in the restaurant, because he fired her. The nice manager let her stay. It was my mom. Into the book.

In the same story, Judy’s aunt or a friend of her aunt or a friend of friend of her aunt told us about messing up the entire assembly line in box factory and was fired before she was even hired. Into the book.

Is your son the kid who came home from school one cold winter day, and when you took off his Jacket his shirt was missing. Why aren’t you wearing a shirt you asked him? I didn’t wear one to school because it was too hot when I ate breakfast.  Into the book.

Good things and bad things, funny things and serious things, happy things and sad things, real things and made-up things, all the little and all the big things go… INTO THE BOOK.

MY WRITING WAY

By Stephanie Jacob Gordon

It didn’t take me long to discover that by becoming a writer I was choosing a lonely life.  After all, how many “normal” people can you communicate with when you are rarely in their “real world”?  And how many non-writers really want to be in the “mind world” that you are creating inside your head?  It seems to me that “real world” people are very afraid of “writer” conversations.

If you are just beginning your writer’s journey you probably have a few friends left that think what you are doing is wonderful.  Writing books for children is a laudable endeavor.  It’s so cute.  They grin at you, tell you children are our future, and verbally pat you on the head.  All the while they are thinking, since books for children are so short, with a simpleton’s vocabulary—picture books being a prime example of simplicity—how long could it take you to write nine or ten and be ready to go to lunch tomorrow?  You can read…you can write…how hard could it be to turn out a book for a child?  It’s only a child’s book, for pete’s sake!

You know different….  There are rules for writing for children.  Lots of rules.  And, you need to learn them before you can break them.  What is an SASE?  Do I need an agent?  What is proper manuscript form?    What is an SASE?  I have this friend who likes to draw…?  You no longer have time to chit-chat on the phone; clean your house, to do all the things you did before you were a WRITER.  “Can’t anyone in this house get their own snack?!”

And if you sell something, you not only need more time to write, but you need time to worry…can I do it again?  Instantly successful or not, you must accept that your BIC (butt in chair) life will be a singularly lonely one when it comes to the usual adult interaction.  It is your fingers on the keyboard, your brain searching for inspiration, your talent doing the creating.  You-you-you.  You are a writer, you are alone, and nobody gets you!  Or do they?

Of course WE do.  Your fellows, we writers who persevere without time to go to the bathroom, without applause, without sales, without species to show for our single-minded and devoted endurance, we get you.  We speak your language.  We forget to eat lunch.  We are just like you.  And, we are not really hiding.  But where are we?

We are in SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and illustrators) classes, workshops, conferences, picnics, and schmoozes.  We are volunteers for these SCBWI events.  We are in writer’s programs and classes at colleges and universities.  We are in critique groups formed from and for learning the art of writing for children.  We are lurking at bookstores and libraries reading your books, other writers’ books, our own books, to ourselves or to dozens of children for story time.  We are writing in coffee houses, we are writing any place that has WIFI, we are writing on the internet, and sometimes we are lost in our heads while we walk to the park with the dog, but we are out there.  Look carefully.  Come find us and join us.  We are waiting for you.

By now you know that I have a writing partner, Judith Ross Enderle (Judy to everyone).  We met at UCLA extension in Eve Bunting’s Writing for Middle Grades class.  Lucky us for two reasons: we MET in EVE’S class.  We had both taken Sue Alexander’s Writing the Picture Book class, but not at the same time.  Both of Sue’s and Eve’s classes were amazing.  These two wonderful writers were so giving of help and so sharing. And they gave us the best foundations; taught unselfishly, and made sure we had a clear understanding of the “rules” we needed to know for writing for young people.  They taught us to love the process.   I had just begun my journey and I already had three dear and lifelong writing friends; Judy, Sue, and Eve.  I miss Sue.

I am not exaggerating when I say I have hundreds of writing friends, some I love and a few I call sister.  And if I don’t already know you…  “Hi there, it’s really nice to meet you!”

Now I will tell you something about myself that few people will believe.  I am shy.  Quit laughing!  I am!  I don’t like to talk to people who I believe have authority.  I do not do conflict.  It is hard for me to go up to someone and introduce myself.  I even hate having to call to handle business, or to talk to a doctor, and calling a restaurant to make reservations…I have nightmares about it.  Yes I know they couldn’t care less that I am calling.  Yes I know they will never know who I am.  I didn’t say it made sense.  Especially since I always end up talking to strangers when I stand in line at the market.  But then, they are strangers from the “real world” and I don’t care what they think… do I?

You know where this has never bothered me?  When I am at a writer’s of books for children gathering.  When I say hi to a fellow writer, they smile.  When I introduce myself or meet someone new, they smile.  And when I have to call a children’s writer I don’t know, I can hear them smiling over the phone.  I am sure you have heard somewhere that our business isn’t dog eat dog; our children’s book world is bunny nibble bunny.  I can deal with nibbling.

We writers are a great bunch of people.  You should get to know us.  If you want to belong—WELCOME!

NEXT YEAR!