Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Where the @#%** is it?

I tell my writing students every week how important it is to keep their materials organized. Record bibliographic information when you take notes so that you know where the material came from and don't have to scramble for the info months later. 

Sadly, I am one of those teachers who needs to be more diligent practicing what she preaches.  I am pretty good. Most of the time. But there have been incidences, like yesterday, when I checked my notes and discovered the perfect quote scribbled diagonally across an otherwise blank page with no notation to nail it in time and place.  Aha! I say. Not a problem.  I remember this one.  It was Polly Campbell, a quote on voice, in an article in Writer's Digest.  So.  I go to my file for the chapter on voice.  No copy of Writer's Digest there.  Perhaps I photocopied it. Perhaps not.  Okay.  I flip through the other chapter files with no success.  I empty the large box containing every bit of information that I have collected for this book, but come up empty. 

Now my floor is covered in file folders.  So I look up.  In some bizarre fit of tidiness, did I put the magazine on a shelf?  I am surrounded by more than 500 books stretching up to the ceiling.  I can safely say that the magazine in question would not be on the top two rows.  I would have needed a step stool and I think I would have remembered that.  However, with my mother's memory declining, I have started to doubt myself and carefully scanned each shelf, even the highest ones, for the missing mago. 

I pulled out a few errant Writer's Digests dating back nearly ten years; none of them the one I sought.  I know the quote was on the left hand page in the bottom right corner of the article.  Too bad I can't remember who wrote the @#&& article!

That's it.  I will collect every copy of Writer's Digest currently in my house.  Surely, if that issue exists, it will appear during this thorough manhunt.

Or not. 

By dinner time, I had a stack of old magazines piled on the kitchen counter and the air was cloudy with dust disturbed during my frenzy.  Take a break.  Relax. It will turn up. It's not the end of the world. 

But this morning, I'm thinking, maybe it wasn't Writer's Digest. Maybe it was Poets & Writers!

The search continues!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Career Day Blues

Oakfield-Alabama High School in Oakfield, NY had a career day the first day of school. They asked me to talk about being a writer. Certainly. But what would I tell them? Do you have to go to college? No, not necessarily. Do you have to be an English major? Most writers I know were not. Does it pay well? It depends how hard you work.

So I told them how I fell into my first book contract – another writer dropped the project leaving the editor in the lurch and I filled in. And what I liked most about writing – learning new things everyday, meeting fascinating people, and getting to share what I learn with kids.

I told them the perks – working my own hours, choosing my projects, and having nobody standing over my shoulder.

I described the down side – nobody standing over my shoulder, so that I am responsible for making myself work (which I am not good at).

How could they get into the writing business? I looked at their smooth faces and glazed-over eyes, and realized that they were all having cell phone withdrawal. Then I thought how lucky they were to be growing up in this age of technology. For them it is second nature. They write more now than kids ever did, putting their thoughts and emotions into text. It may be textING, but it is still written. They can create a blog for free, write and hone their style, cozy into their own voice, and develop a following all before they are ever published. No one ever read anything I wrote until it was in print. Now, kids can come to traditional publishing or whatever it morphs into being able to say, “My blog has 500 followers…” which would make any marketing department salivate. I, on the other hand, have to remind myself that I have taken on this challenge to write a short blurb once a week, and then stare at the blank screen wondering what to write about. My world is not as open as theirs is. My world is not as documented. I don’t feel that anyone needs to know or cares about what I'm thinking as asked on Facebook. I envy these kids. My evil side even resents them for how quickly they could surpass me.

After the last session, the teens slogged to their lockers and out the door, each one reaching for their cell phones that had been dormant for too long, to reconnect with the world.

I did too. I sat down and wrote this blog. Just one step ahead.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tired of Being the Tortoise

Several years ago I wrote a book called Bacteria & Viruses, and while doing the research I came across a curious anecdote. Two Polish doctors fooled the Nazises during WWII using a benign bacteria. The germophobic Germans quarentined whole villages because they thought there was a typhus epidemic when there really wasn't. I photocopied the page and tucked it away in my idea file and went on to finish the Bacteria and Virus book.

A few years went by and other projects came up -- co-write a book on New York State, finish a biography of George Washington. But the story stayed in my head. Occasionally, on a dull day, I would search the Internet for more information about the incident and I even ordered the doctor's book although it was written in Polish. Another year or so went by and I finished another biography (For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson) and an adult nonfiction title (The Anatomy of Nonfiction: How to write true stories for children). That brings me up to last week.

So I'm sitting at my desk thinking, "What should I do next?" What about that WWII story? So, several years after I first got the idea I finally dug out the information and tracked down the phone number of the daughter of one of the doctors. I called and she answered immediately. She was pleasant and kind. I liked her voice. But then she stopped me in my tracks. She could not talk to me because she was negotiating a contract for the English translation for her father's book and possibly a movie. I thanked her for her time and wished her the best on her projects. Then I hung up the phone and cursed myself for being such a tortoise.

Why hadn't I jumped on the project when I first heard about it? She might have been eager to share with me personal stories, diaries, letters, and memories of her father. Why did I just sit on it? I am always telling students that the story that keeps nagging at you is the one you write. Then why didn't I take my own advice?

The sad thing is this is not the first time I have been usurped. Many years ago I learned of an artist who created the first life-size replicas of dinosaurs, or at least what scientists thought they looked like at the turn of the century. I even had a sister-in-law living in Europe at the time visit the site and take photos for me and collect info. Almost done with my research and half way through the writing Barbara Kerley's book The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins came out. The illustrations by David Selznick won it a Caldecott Honor. My project was dead in the water.

What have I learned? I want to be a Hare. I want to jump on ideas, write faster, and query quicker. The adage - so many books, so little time -- is apropo. But from now on, I am going to do my best to even up my odds.