All Writers Start Somewhere: On Becoming a Writer 1

I get a lot of questions from book collectors and bibliographers about the books I’ve written over the decades. I began thinking about writing a short post to answer some of those specific questions. But—as usual—that thought morphed into something else.

As a result, what you’re going to get (in a series of posts) is my long view of the writer’s life. I’m about to complete my 80th year, so I’ve been to a rodeo or two or three. During the 60-some years I’ve been a publishing author, my work has quite naturally changed. The publishing landscape has changed, too–remarkably. I’ll be writing about that as well.

I was a solitary child and a reader—my mother used to complain that I never took my nose out of a book. A scribbler, too, always writing stories, letters, diaries. At 12, if you’d asked me who I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said Carolyn Keene. (More on that in another post.)

I began making writing a priority in my late teens. I married right after high school  and began having babies (we did things like that in rural Illinois in those days). The post-war baby boomers were becoming readers, and children’s magazines, usually sold by subscription but also available at Walgreen’s and Woolworth’s, were flourishing. Editors were looking for content and it was relatively easy for a novice writer to break in. When I wasn’t changing diapers or washing dishes, I wrote fiction and nonfiction for magazines such as Jack and Jill, Calling All Girls, Wee Wisdom, Children’s Highlights, and church-school publications—anything I could find listed in Writers Market.

I didn’t know enough to call myself a freelance writer, but that’s what I was. I subscribed to the one writer’s magazine I could afford: Writer’s Digest and read it religiously. I scoured the listings in Writers Market, found one to aim for, obtained a couple of issues of the publication (not always easy to do), and came up with something I hoped would fit. I’ve always been a multiple-draft writer, so it wasn’t unusual for a short story to go through a dozen drafts. I worked on a vintage (mid-1940s) Royal typewriter that required sturdy wrists and an inflexible determination. This was before Betty Graham’s new Liquid Paper was readily available, and editors hated erasable bond. That old Royal was a beast and I wasn’t a very skilled typist, so producing clean submission copy was a daunting challenge. Picture me with kids crawling under my feet at the kitchen table. One of those babies, now a fully fledged adult, remembers the clack-clack-clack of that old typewriter as vividly as I do.

I must have sent out a dozen stories and gotten a dozen rejections before I sold one. This was in 1959, and the going rate for kids’ magazines was a penny a word. My first check—for a story called “Her First Violin,” which appeared in a Sunday-school take-home newspaper—was for $15 ($118.67 in 2019 dollars). It seemed—no kidding—like a freakin’ miracle. I danced around the kitchen, yipping like a puppy, and woke the baby.

I once read a story about Norman Mailer, whose agent was negotiating payment for a Playboy piece. The magazine was paying 25 cents a word. Mailer wanted a dollar. Push came to shove until finally the editor said, “Okay. We’ll pay a buck for words like ‘usufruct’ and ‘eleemosynary,’ but not for every ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘the.’”  I was glad for the penny, which included payment for all those little, ordinary words. For me, the important thing wasn’t the money, although at the time, that $15 came close to buying a week’s groceries. It was the seal of approval, testimony to the astonishing fact that an editor valued my creative work enough to print it–and pay for it. I didn’t aspire to write the great American novel. I only wanted to see my writing in print and imagine people reading it. The money was an amazing bonus.

Between 1959-1963, there were a couple of bushels of these ephemeral publications. I kept copies for a while, but they’ve been lost over the intervening dozens of moves. (Sorry, bibliographers, I didn’t even keep a list of titles.) During those years, I was learning to write readably and to create an interesting story for kids, with engaging characters and a page-turner plot. I was also learning how to make time for writing amid all the other stuff in my young-mom life, how/what to submit, and how to revise when editors wanted changes—important foundation skills for a novice freelance writer who wanted to write for readers. Which meant writing for the market.

Like all writers, I was always searching for models. I found my teachers in the books they had written. The book I admired most in those days was Madelyn L’Engle’s gamechanger, A Wrinkle in Time, which was rejected by at least 26 publishers before it finally appeared in 1962. I also adored (not too strong a word) Shirley Jackson, especially her laugh-out-loud Life Among the Savages (1952) and Raising Demons (1957). As a mom and an aspiring writer, I loved Jackson’s humor and used her sly exaggeration as a model for some of my magazine fiction. Now, when I grew up, I wanted to be Shirley Jackson, the writer who persisted through a houseful of lively kids, a mostly absent husband, and many household misadventures. (Her different, darker books came later in her writing career.)

Lives change. My writing life changed when I started college in 1963 and then grad school in 1967. I never got over my love for Shirley Jackson, though. I recently reread Ruth Franklin’s marvelous biography, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. I wept, remembering the inner and outer battles creative women fought in those decades, when every tiny scrap of recognition—even a penny-a-word for our words—was precious.

 

41 comments on “All Writers Start Somewhere: On Becoming a Writer 1

  1. I typed my first research paper on an electric typewriter with a correction cartridge. I still had to retype entire pages when I didn’t have enough room for my entire footnote(s). Word makes it all so easy today. Although I didn’t particularly enjoy writing research papers at the time, I did a lot of letter writing and journaling.

    I “met” China Bayles in the late 1990s while I was working at the Grapevine Public Library and working on a degree in history. I found that I really enjoyed writing papers during that time. A few years later I found Work of Her Own, at a time when I desperately needed it. It helped me find belief in myself and my dreams.

    Today I’m a librarian and archivist. Last Saturday I received a copy of a book that has an essay I wrote in it. I’m so grateful to have had such a wonderful role model as you, Susan!

  2. Hi Susan –

    I save your emails like this to read when I have an uninterrupted few minutes. Between co-owning a printing company, five cats (who owns whom?), and various community responsibilities, it is just plain difficult to set aside a few minutes at times. However, I am slowly working through the China Bayles and Darling Dahlias series…and enjoy every single minute of those books.

    I did most of my graduate work on a manual typewriter, too, and wonder how I made it. Erasures, holes in paper, whiteout, all the stuff of long nights and many tears of frustration. Now, my students (I teach dissertation courses online) are upset with “track changes” edits.

    So how did you garden, research plants and herbs, write AND raise a family? Amazing…

    Charlotte Chase

    • Charlotte, I’ve been surprised too, by people’s difficulties with the revision/editing process. Somehow, there’s an idea out there that “real” writers are inspired, and that the rough, spontaneous page is more effective than the revised, reworked, rethought, revisioned page. For me, editing is a process of discovery: there’s always more in the text than we know. It takes time to learn what else is there.

      Re: “So how did you . . .” I didn’t do it all at the same time, of course. Researching plants began when I was in grad school (interest in medieval pharmaceutical/medical texts). Writing was part of the job, whether I was a student, teacher, or (later) longform freelancer. Gardening came later, after I left the university. Raising kids–well, we all do that, don’t we? We just manage I raised mine at a time when parents were a bit looser with children, gave them a little more freedom, a little less “parenting.” We can debate whether that was good or bad, but that’s how it was.

  3. Interesting glimpse into the start of such a creative life. I too remember free lancing and, with horror, those clunky old typewriters (to this day I’m fast but not accurate) with whiteout. It’s a wonder we ever got anything clean enough to submit. You may have sent me back to Shirley Jackson. I never got over “The Lottery,” which haunts me to this day. So dark. Glad to know there is another side.

    • Judy, yes–remember that whiteout? And correcting slips. Ugh. For an entirely different view of Jackson, try one of the 1950s memoirs: Life Among the Savages is my favorite of the two.

  4. I was an only child and my Mother would read to me from the Golden Books. It didn’t take long for me to memorize them….good memories of books throughout all my life. Your books have given me much pleasure. Thank you!

  5. I never thought about it all these years but we must be very close in age, what with herding babies in 1959. The one just had her 60th birthday last week. I never tried to do anything else with my life at that time. I’m so glad you are still at it. I especially enjoy your knowledge of botany and herbs.

    • Sounds like we’re from the same era, Margaret. My oldest is the age of yours. So much change since then–amazing lives we have led, don’t you think?

  6. You weren’t on my to-do-list this morning but I couldn’t help myself. Am enjoying a bit of breakfast while reading this engaging post.

    I adore you. Not too strong a word.

  7. Although I am not a writer I am an avid reader. Your posts, blogs and books are such a joy to read! I look forward to you next post. In the meantime I am starting Plain Vanilla.

    • Kate, I hope you learned as much from reading VANILLA as I did from the writing. Interesting plant with an impressive history–but perhaps unsustainable as a profitable cash crop, vulnerable to typhoons, hurricanes, theft, bad labor practices. So interesting . . .

  8. Whoa. I probably *read* a lot of your early works in Highlights and Jack & Jill, and I still have a copy of Life Among the Savages somewhere on my shelves. You’re just old enough to be my older sister – but at that age, it’s a big difference. And, yeah.. instead of being grounded with my books (don’t throw me in the briar patch) I was always being told to go OUTSIDE and play. I grew up in the wilds north of Chicago, so it’s always a thrill when a writer whose books I love turns out to be from the same state. It took me another 40 years to get published, but the reaction was identical.

    I hope you have a writing career with the same longevity as PG Wodehouse — especially the China Bayles series. And … doesn’t Shiela deserve a series of her own?

    Thank you for all the wonderful hours I’ve spent with your books.

  9. Enjoyed reading this, and look forward to more. I also had my nose in a book, sometimes reading by flashlight under the bedcovers so my mother would not say “turn off that light and get to sleep”. I graduated high school in 1959, but don’t remember Shirley Jackson – will have to look her up. I received a portable typewriter as a graduation gift and earned 25 cents a page typing classmates’ term papers the one year I went to college. At first I corrected spelling and grammar mistakes,but soon concluded I wasn’t being paid for that, and transcribed the errors as written. Then I married too young and had children, but never got back to college, unlike you. I did work many years in life insurance companies, and became a good typist. Ended up writing insurance policy language and filing with the state insurance departments for approval, and then developed the manual for employees to actually put together the employer – employee policies and certificates of insurance. Spent the last 5 years of employment working for the state investigating life insurance companies for possible violation of state law. I really enjoy all your writing, and when I looked at your picture on a book jacket, I thought you looked like you could be my cousin. I grew up in Minnesota, but have now lived in Florida longer than anywhere else.

    • Judy, I’ve always thought that typing was as crucial a skill (for me, anyway) as driving. I couldn’t get along in the world without both in my toolbox. I remember feeling PO’d (back in the day) at male faculty members who had never bothered to learn to type and imposed on wives, girlfriends, department secretaries. Bet that’s changed by now. And you must have quite a few interesting stories to tell about life insurance investigations. Have you read FURIOUS HOURS? The criminal that Harper Lee wanted to write about was a long-term multi-policy life insurance fraudster.

      • I have just now read your response – will have to start receiving notice of them. I have not read Furious Hours, but it sounds interesting and I have now requested it from my local library. I may suggest it for the book club to review this coming year. We have a very good book club – called the Bucket List Book club, usually have 25 – 30 show up. Last September I led the discussion on books by or about Eleanor Roosevelt. My interest in Eleanor began with reading your “Loving Eleanor”. I think I read 7 more books. I just described how my interest began, said a little about each book I had read, and then sent the microphone around the room for each person to tell of the book they had read. I finished up by reading the tribute written by her granddaughter that appeared at the end of the one-volume autobiography published in 2014. Several have since commented that it was a really good discussion. Our meetings are always led by volunteers, and different methods are used. Some are former teachers, and some use a computer to project images on a screen. Mine was a very simple but effective method! I really enjoy your Facebook entries, and have discovered new books to read by reading them.

  10. Shirley Jackson is one of my favorites, too. I read that she thought up “The Lottery” while walking home from the grocery store, sat down and wrote it and mailed to The New Yorker. The rest is history. Her hubsand was a real jerk.

    • That’s the story Jackson liked to tell, Carolyn–the real story (told in Ruth Franklin’s biography) is a little more complicated. (More editorial suggestions, more revisions, several drafts.) You’re right about that jerk of a husband, though. Still, he was of his era and class, wasn’t he? Wonder how he would have fared under #MeToo.

  11. It makes me so happy that you too love Shirley Jackson’s family memoirs! My kids are grown now, and I’m about to start reading Life among the Savages to my granddaughters.

    • What a wonderful choice for a family read, Nina. Good for you! Kids are more sophisticated now, I’m afraid. But Jackson’s writing is in a class by itself. It’s covert rebellion and defiance against the expectations of the ’50s, some of which still beset us.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this! I look forward to the next posts and will re-read your autobiography for the 3rd time! And I thank you for giving me so much encouragement (and countless interviews for print stories) when I boldly ventured into the freelance writing market.

    • Easy to do, Linda–you have so much to offer! It’s always a pleasure to see how far you’ve ventured out there and what you’ve made of your writing and your photography. Kudos!

  13. I’m completing my 70th year soon — Happy Birthday to us! (and probably a few others…) And, I had completely forgotten Calling All Girls which was among my favorite reads as a young girl (who also always had her nose in a book) so I likely was familiar with your work long before I met China and Ruby, etc. And…now I have another book to add to my list (so help me, between you and Terry Gross/Fresh Air). Have loved Shirley Jackson since a very hot day at the beginning of the school year. 7th or 9th grade (had the same English teacher for both — lucky, lucky me) and, of course, pre-air conditioning in schools. It was the last class period of the day and we were all out of sorts with the heat and the joys of adolescence. Mrs. Hall had us put our heads down on our desks while she read “The Haunting of Hill House” to us. Who needed air conditioning! Such a vivid and wonderful memory. And, now I see I’ve got a lot more to learn and love about Shirley Jackson. Thank you, Susan and I’m so looking forward to more of your posts!

    • Beth, I remember snatching that book from our little Carnegie library as soon as it was on the shelf back in 1959. I’ve read it many times, and always find something fresh and interesting in it. I remembered it when I started to write Widow’s Tears. You’ll see clear traces of Jackson’s Haunting in that book. Lucky you, with Mrs. Hall to introduce you to Jackson in such a comfortably chilly environment!

  14. Thank you,Susan. I had the great pleasure of meeting you at T.C. Steel’s House of the Singing Wind in Brown County, Indiana several years ago. I love each of your series, and I really appreciate learning of your writing career. Thank you for all the pleasure you have brought so many of us.

    • What a lovely place that is, Gloria. Another Indiana place I love to visit: Limberlost, Gene Stratton-Porter’s home. I remember both of these artist’s homes with enduring pleasure.

    • And considering how hard it is for freelancers to find paying work now, a penny-a-word doesn’t seem so bad, especially in current $$.

    • You’re welcome, Christine. If you’re one of the new writers, here’s wishing you the best of luck–and the opportunity to make the most of all your opportunities.

  15. Thank you for sharing this memoir. A glimpse into your work and life is a treat for a reader. I find the process of creative writing fascinating and admire your gifts.

    • You’re very welcome, Carol. Like you, I love to read about the writing life of other writers–Steven King’s book ON WRITING is a repeat pleasure, I’m always amazed by the imaginative powers of creative people.

  16. Your word have brought much enjoyment to my life. It does not matter which story line you are writing, you always make me have a twinkle in my eye. I treasure your writing.

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