Reprinted from an article published in Coastlines, Summer, 2014
My novel, What Came Before
, took more than twelve years to write.
I’m not bragging about that. The book is only 242 pages long and it’s not a deep philosophical treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. There are no white whales, no Dublin boarding houses, no Madeleines, so why did it take me so long?
Well, life got in the way.
My dream of becoming a writer began in childhood. My mother read me the Bobbsey Twins, and my dad introduced me to the dauntless Nancy Drew. After devouring Little Women, I knew I had to be a writer, just like Jo. I drew pictures of books, my books, with enticing titles along the spines, my name just below. At 12, I scribbled a “novel” in purple ink about the Twellington twins and their nine siblings.
I was surprised in high school to find out that my Creative Writing teacher had entered one of my short stories in the Atlantic Monthly High School Writing Contest and more surprised when I won second place. “Collision,” I thought, was just the beginning.
After graduating with a B.A. from UCSB in 1970 and getting a Masters’ Degree in English at Long Beach State in 1971, I found myself in need of a career—or at least a job. I had to support myself, but I was certain I could dig up the “spare time” to write. As a kid of the 50s and 60s, I thought time grew like fat plums waiting to be plucked, but as a full-time worker bee, I couldn’t find the tree, let alone the fruit. Still I thought, one day, some day.
Now I realize I had to live my life before I could write. When I look back, I can identify those moments of learning that gave me the confidence and know-how to put words on paper.
As a trainee in a department store executive training program, I learned that the Junior Department in Del Amo was only a small segment of huge enterprise. Behind the selling floors, the dressing rooms, and the customers was a complex operation spread over 40+ stores as well as a blocks-long system of offices and warehouses. In the beginning I vaguely understood the size and shape of the company, but not its intricacies, how it actually functioned. Later, as a writer, this experience helped me understand that behind a basic storyline, there is structure, a way of doing things, a way of controlling results.
As a Gap store manager, my job was about people—customers and employees. I understood something about human nature, but not enough. My first lesson came before I was even hired. The company gave all new employees an “honesty” test. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could pass whether they were honest or not, so I asked the man who hired me if anyone ever failed. His answer?
Yes, they did. A high percentage. This surprised me and forced me to become more aware of how very different we are from each other. Later, as a district manager, when I had to figure out how to foster top performances in others, I developed more insights into what motivates and what discourages people. Strong characters in good stories have to want something. What pulls the reader along is how those characters respond to the obstacles put between them and their desires.
Tupperware came next. Yep, I learned everything there is to know about eradicating mold from my refrigerator, but more importantly, this job forced me to rely on myself to get what I wanted. It taught me to rally to the task, to observe and imitate successful behaviors, to give encouragement as well as to accept it, and to think on my feet. Selling Tupperware made me feel something like a stand-up comedian—the more they laughed, the more I sold—and I became addicted to being “in the zone,” that feeling that comes when everything I do works. I had forgotten how that felt. I knew it was finally time to write. My first screenplay was called “Plastic Dreams,” about a man who seeks refuge in selling Tupperware.
I began to write screenplays, stories, random poems, and journal entries. I took extension classes, went to conferences and workshops. By the time my kids left home to chase their own dreams, I was beginning to understand what made good writing. I accepted that writing well doesn’t just happen, but that it comes with practice and study.
I am proudest of not giving up, of refusing to abandon my writing dream. Many of my pieces of both fiction and non-fiction have been published including sixty short stories, an eight-story collection about mothers and daughters called Pomegranate
, a second collection almost completed, a novella serialized in Pure Slush’s 2014 project, and of course, my suspense novel, What Came Before
. I’m 65 years old. Thank goodness, it’s never too late.