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Friday, August 31, 2012

On the Write Track

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net
Something happened to me last Wednesday.  It wasn't anything earth-shattering, really, but for me -- for my life -- it was big.  What was this life-changing event?  My youngest started first grade.

I have been a stay-at-home mom for almost 16 and a half years now.  Pretty much every single day since my daughter was born back in 1996, I have spent my days with at least one child here at home.  (And often three or more.) Yes, there have been a few exceptions along the way.  I've been lucky enough to be able to get away with girlfriends occasionally, for scrapbooking weekends and other fun events.  There were also four weeks back in 2005 when Emmalie and Nick were both in school and I was home alone.  I'm not sure those weeks really count, though.  See, I was in my ninth month of pregnancy and we'd just moved into our new house two days before school started.  The entire time my kids were in school those four weeks, I was busy, busy, busy -- unpacking boxes and painting rooms, just me and my big belly.

I also had half the day to myself last year when Ben was in Kindergarten.  It was virtually impossible to get much of anything done during that time, however.  Two and a half hours goes by awfully quick, especially when 30 precious minutes of that time is taken up by travel, to and from school.

This year, though... this year is different.  For the past week, I've had seven glorious days to myself.  A whole five and a half hours every day (once you subtract that travel time).  It's been heavenly.  Don't get me wrong.  I love spending time with my kids.  Really, I do.  I'd rather spend time with them than with almost anyone else in this world.  But I also truly love spending time alone.

What have I been doing with all this time to myself?  I could spend the day on the couch, watching chick flicks or reading good books, munching on bonbons.  I could go to the theater and watch a movie there.  I could hang out at the mall, people-watching or shopping, money permitting.  I could scrub the house from top to bottom and organize every closet and cupboard.  (I think I do need to schedule one of those days!)  I could do lots of things with my time, and it would be very easy (and tempting) to waste it on something frivolous, but so far I have actually been fairly productive.

Besides finishing some household chores that really needed to be done -- and taking some time out for exercise (something else that really needs to be done) -- I've been writing.  Last week I wrote several poems and spent quite a bit of time working to revise some old stories of mine.  I also wrote a few cover letters, then submitted poems and stories to a number of magazines.

This week I started something new.  One of my goals for 2012 was to start writing another novel for kids.  I made that goal for myself back in January.  Here it is, almost September, and I hadn't even written one sentence yet.  I've had two or three ideas for new books rattling around in my head, and over the weekend, I finally decided which one I would tackle first.

Many years ago I came up with a character, a young teenage girl named Tasha. I wrote down a page-long description of her, a paper I still have.  Ever since then, Tasha has been in my head, waiting.  She's been pretty patient, but every once in awhile, I can hear her asking, "When are you going to tell my story?"  I've always thought she deserved to have her story written down.  The problem has been that, while I had a compelling character, I hadn't thought of an actual story plot yet.  Last weekend I decided I would just start writing about her, and that maybe if I listened carefully, Tasha would tell me what happens.

On Monday morning, while I was power-walking, she started talking.  The story ideas kept coming and coming.  I couldn't wait to get home and start writing!  I've been writing and writing all week, wishing that I had even more time to get all the words down.  So far, I've written almost 9000 words, which translates roughly to 32 pages of a novel.  And I still have a lot more of Tasha's story to tell.

Ideas, characters, plots -- they all come from somewhere. They don't magically appear out of thin air.  (At least, not for me.  Maybe other writers have a different experience.) The origins of Tasha and her story go back a long way -- all the way back to when I was ten.  One day that summer before 5th grade, I picked out some books at a garage sale and my mom bought them for me.  One of them was Ready-made Family by Frances Salomon Murphy, 1953:
I had to get this image from Amazon because I couldn't find my
copy.  It's around here somewhere... and looks just like this one.
This middle-grade novel is about 12-year-old Hedwig Kowalski and her two younger siblings.  After being moved around from relative to relative, and then living in the state home, the three are taken to live with foster parents, the Kennedys.  The transition is not an easy one, and Hedy worries that her brother's unruly behavior is going to ruin this chance for the Kowalskis to finally have a home of their own.  Though it was written in the 1950's, and some of the details of the story are dated, the themes and the emotions Murphy writes about ring just as true today.

The book had a profound effect on me.  It was the first time I'd ever heard about foster children and social workers.  It opened my eyes to the fact that there was a whole world of people out there with life experiences vastly different from my own.  I realized then just how lucky I was to have a loving family with a home, where all my basic needs (and more!) were met.  I knew after reading that book that I wanted to help kids like Hedy, that I wanted to be a social worker when I grew up.

After that, I read just about every book about foster kids, social workers, child abuse, and other related topics that I could get my hands on.  All through the rest of elementary school and then junior high and high school, my dream of becoming a social worker continued.  I majored in social work in college, and then, finally, became an actual social worker.  Though I wasn't a foster care case manager as I'd once thought I might be, I did help severely emotionally disturbed kids (some of whom were in foster care) for six years.  And all because of a book I read when I was ten.

My character Tasha comes from those experiences of mine. She is a foster child and has had a rough life.  My heart aches for her.  I want to help that scared little girl in my head by writing her story, and maybe, if it ever gets published, it could help a real-life foster child, too.

Yesterday I was in the car, listening to a CD of my favorite band, The Airborne Toxic Event.  The beautiful, haunting song "A Letter to Georgia" came on, and as I sang along, I realized that it reminded me of Tasha.  Even though the song was written about an adult, the lyrics can also apply to a child, frightened and alone in the world.  If I ever get Tasha's story published, I plan to ask the band's permission to print the lyrics in the front of the book.  (Hey, when you're dreaming big, you might as well dream really big!)  Here's the song, if you'd like to hear it:

So, that's what I've been up to the past week.  It's exciting -- and a little scary -- but I'm very happy to be "on the write track". :)


  1. I wish you the best Janelle! I would love to see you published someday and also a signed copy of course! ;)

  2. I have every confidence that you will get your book published! I want one of the first copies, ok?

  3. I have had characters introduce themselves in my sleep, while I was cooking dinner, and while taking walks. But I've yet to write a single line of fiction! I've been so much a journalist and non-fiction writer my whole life I don't know how to start. I think I'm a little intimidated to have that much control over what I write. :/

  4. I can understand being intimidated, Laura. I hope you can get over that hurdle soon, though ~ you are such a wonderful writer and I would LOVE to read any fiction you come up with! :)