From the files . . .

I found an old interview I did years ago for a student completing her senior project for high school graduation–I think from 2011. She asked some pretty cool questions about writing. It’s fun for me to revisit my answers. It reinforces for me why I love what I do.

  1. When did you first become interested in writing?

My interest in writing came about rather by default. In school, it was the only thing I was good at; but fortunately, this helped with all the other subjects where I was weak. In honors biology my freshman year in high school, we had to do a genetics-probability type of experiment where we kept a journal of our findings. My journal had really nothing of any scientific value in it, but my teacher enjoyed the lively story about my penny collection. He told me I should consider being a writer when I grow up, and the next year I was dropped from the science honors program.

Later, after I had married and had my first child, I watched horrified as footage of baby victims of the Oklahoma City bombing were pulled from the rubble. I vowed to leave my full-time job in banking and find a career I could do from home. At around the same time, my mother gave me a box of stuff she had saved from my childhood and in it was an award I had won for writing in the first grade. I decided to give writing a try. I started by selling articles about family life and child care to local baby magazines, and was soon hired as a reporter for the Brockton Enterprise, where I worked for about seven years before I moved to Rhode Island.

2. Do you ever get writer’s block?  How do you overcome it?

First, I eat. I’ve gained 15 pounds since I went back to work as a newspaper writer last spring, after moving away from the teaching profession. As deadlines loom, I panic, eat, and chew my nails. It’s not pretty, but there it is.

Then, I start writing anything at all. Often, when I’m really stuck, my opening sentence will look like this, “I really hate this stupid assignment and I wish I hadn’t said yes to it, but I did, and now I have to write about stupid people who make money selling crafts on eBay…” And then I go on to write the story, making absolute certain that I erase the first sentence before I submit it.

And sometimes, I just type in all the quotes I’ve gathered from my research in no particular order. After they’re all on the page, I cut and paste them into a flow that I like, and then I fill in between with my own thoughts and connecting paragraphs.

And when I’m done, I eat some more. I’m thinking of replacing the “eating to break writer’s block” technique with exercising, but I’m not there yet.

3. What’s the most interesting story you’ve ever written about? 

Cool question.

One story I’m most proud of wasn’t actually that interesting to write. It was about a woman who had been a physician in Ukraine before she moved to the U.S. She was collecting money, food, and baby items to send to her former colleagues who ran an orphanage in Ukraine. I just wrote a small piece about what she was collecting and where donations could be sent.

I didn’t know this at the time, but the story was translated into Russian and reprinted in a Ukrainian paper, and Russian officials thought that the U.S. was publishing stories about the government not caring for its children.

A government official was prompted by the article to investigate and visited the facility to make sure the children were getting proper care. The official had recently been at an orphanage 100 miles away, noticed a child who resembled and had the same last name as a child in the orphanage I had written about, and brought the two boys together. Each had thought his brother had been killed in the same accident that killed their parents, and of course were delighted to find each other again.

So while the story itself wasn’t all that interesting at the time, it felt good that my writing had made such a difference in the lives of those two boys.

As for the most interesting story I’ve ever explored and written? I just don’t know. There have been hundreds. I’ve written about former CIA agents, a 9-year-old high diver who was blind (can you imagine???), a young man who survived a rare, often fatal form of brain cancer who went on to graduate from college and become a naturalist and a teacher. I’ve also covered drug busts, political scandals, and murder scenes. Not one stands out as “the most interesting.” I think, in general, I find them all interesting because people fascinate me.

I Will Never Be Like Laura Ingalls

When I was growing up, I wanted to be Annie, Laura Ingalls as played by Melissa Gilbert, and Anne of Green Gables, though not all at the same time, of course, and not necessarily in that order, depending on the mood I was in.

I could never be Annie because, well, that hair, and I didn’t feel smart or well-read enough in my preteen years to make a good Anne of Green Gables, so that left Laura Ingalls. Poor little Half-pint was so hapless and flawed and confused about life that I felt (as Anne Shirley would say) that she was a “kindred spirit.”

In many ways, I still want to be Laura Ingalls. The problem is, I cannot cook. You may think these things are unrelated, but you are wrong. Let me explain.

Joe is working late a lot during the holiday season, which is troublesome since we all rely on him to feed us. Takeout won’t see us through these tough times, so I decided to at least try to cook something, anything, for my starving family. Naturally, this resolution brought me to the bookstore, as nearly everything does.

My plan was to buy a cooking magazine and a cranberry-orange scone (What? I need sustenance, you know.) and to sit and flip through the magazine until I found a recipe that I thought I could make. Then, I would take the magazine to the grocery store, buy all the ingredients I needed, and go home and make supper.

To ensure my success, I bought two magazines. I flipped through the first but immediately felt daunted. How am I supposed to work with all these grams and kilograms? Where are all the teaspoon measurements? And what, in God’s name, is pois? I checked the magazine cover and found it was printed in the United Kingdom and I would have to do all sorts of measurement conversions in order to cook these recipes. Okay, nobody said anything about math. I put that magazine aside and opened the other.

This one was for actual, real-life, foodie-type, gourmet cooks, so, not for me. Although I could certainly read the recipes and follow instructions, I didn’t have the appliances or utensils required. I have a food processor; I know because I bought one for Joe a few Christmases ago, but it’s not the industrial-sized kind capable of pureeing an entire bag of potatoes at once. Also, what do you mean use a #30 scoop? All my scoops are either teaspoon or tablespoon sized because they’re all, well, spoons.

With my scone nearly gone, I knew I would have to do something drastic. I would have to buy an actual cookbook. So, I headed to the sale table and was immediately drawn to one written by a woman who calls herself Kris Jenner but whom we all know is a Kardashian. I have been trying to keep up with the Kardashians for ages, and now here was my chance. I perused with hope, but ultimately decided that the tacos and nachos and spicy seafood dishes weren’t for me, and if this is what these people eat, maybe I should give up trying to keep up with them once and for all.

Then, I saw it. An old-fashioned cover featuring a darling picture of Laura Ingalls, I mean Melissa Gilbert. It was called My Prairie Cookbook: Memories and Frontier Food from My Little House to Yours. I DO have a little house! I LOVE prairie food (whatever that is)! This book was for me!

I bought the book and headed to Stop & Shop for my prairie ingredients, which is just what Mrs. Ingalls would have done.

I flipped through the book as I meandered the aisles (yes, I was THAT annoying, slow-moving, clueless person). I thought I might try for a shepherds’ pie, but the guy in the lab coat behind the meat counter said they had all sorts of lamb body parts, but no lamb shoulder, which is what the recipe called for. At this stage of my cooking career, I am clearly not ready to substitute ingredients, so I had to move on.

I decided to go with a recipe for steak, potato, and leek pie. I propped the book open in the spot where a toddler is meant to sit and made my way systematically through the aisles on a search for the right items. (Now, the annoying, slow-moving, clueless people were in my way.)

I went back to the meat counter to ask the lab coat guy where the tenderloin steak was. He pointed vaguely to the beef section. I stood there long enough for him to realize that I was really asking him WHAT tenderloin steak was, and he came around, plucked a package out of the stack, and handed it to me.

Then, I asked the produce section lab coat guy if he could tell me where the leeks were. He gestured vaguely toward the vegetables, and again, I had to stand there until he understood that I was really asking WHAT leeks were, and he came and grabbed the weird looking plant that was right in front of my nose (but not labeled, mind you) and handed it to me.

As for the potatoes, well, no problems there.

I went through the checkout, chatted with the cashier who had been a high school student of mine and who reported having done very well in her first college English class (Yay!), and made my way to the parking lot. I transferred the bags to the car, dutifully returned my cart to the cart drop-off place (Don’t you just hate it when there is a lonely, rudderless cart languishing away in the middle of the PERFECT PARKING SPOT?), and went home determined to teach myself to cook prairie food so that I could be like my childhood idol, Laura Ingalls as played by Melissa Gilbert.

By the time I got to the kitchen, unloaded the groceries, and was ready to begin my big cooking project, I was crying, with both laughter and frustration. Remember when I dutifully returned my cart to the cart drop-off place? Well, um, I returned the cookbook with it, still propped open to the steak, potato, and leek pie page in the spot where a toddler is meant to sit.

My kids weren’t as astounded at my cluelessness as I would have liked for them to be, but they were pretty unhappy about our prospects for supper, which at this point were none. I called Joe and he agreed to stop at the Stop & Shop on his way home from work to ask for my cookbook back, and he was able to retrieve it from the Lost and Found. (He’s my hero!) He also brought home food. Phew! Little House on the Prairie crisis averted.

I still have all the ingredients for the steak, potato, and leek pie. And now, I also have the book. But I’m having so much fun reading it (there are lots of pictures and anecdotes about Gilbert’s experiences on the set) that I may not have time to cook today. Or ever. Maybe I should just get takeout. Maybe I should have done that in the first place.

EPILOGUE: Made the steak, potato and leek pies tonight. They were FABULOUS!






“All About the Books”

I don’t know how she does it, but this girl knows exactly how I feel about books. Maybe she is a middle child, too? I don’t think you have to be a middle child to be an avid reader, but in my case, it certainly helped.

I was born smack dab in the middle of five children in the late 1960s when five was considered a smallish-sized family. I get along well with others, meaning I do not have to have my opponent’s verbal agreement that I have won an argument; it is enough for me to know that I am right. Though it is admittedly not my greatest strength, I can share my things and my personal space when called upon to do so. This is a reluctant skill born of the fact that I have never had my own bedroom in my entire life.

But perhaps the most significant aspect of being a middle child is that I am comfortable being alone. It is ironic, I know, but true, that middle children like me are invisible and are used to being left to our own devices. And thank goodness for this because when I was growing up, the devices that entertained me were wonderful. Unlike today’s “devices,” which are battery operated and have lights and sounds and bells and whistles, my devices were so much more than that, in a less-is-more kind of way. They lived at the library in the circular, rotating, wire book rack.

The round, wire book rack held the paperback books. And inside the paperback books were stories of first crushes and first kisses and first heartbreaks. There were stories in which young girls in far more tragic circumstances than I fell in love while fighting exotic diseases like lupus and scoliosis. This is not to diminish or romanticize these very real and debilitating conditions, but only to point out that the main characters never had acne and buckteeth, which, quite frankly, would have hit a little too close to home for me. The paperback books told juicy stories of love and betrayal and adventure and time travel. How wonderful for a middle child like me to be left alone with devices like these.

Fast forward a few decades and I am now a grown middle child with a middle child (along with the corresponding first and “baby-of-the-family” children) of my own. My resume reads like a piece of fiction; how could I have fit so many occupations into one lifetime? I was once a library page, a McDonald’s French fry maker, a cashier, a respite worker for the developmentally challenged, a receptionist at a muffler and brake shop, an apprentice optician, a bank teller, a loan processor, a human resources administrator, a day care operator, a private investigator, a newspaper reporter, a high school English teacher, and now a college writing instructor. And believe it or not, that’s not even close to a complete list.

One thing that has remained with me is my constant craving for alone time with a paperback book. They are engrossing and delicious and still carry me off to faraway places to solve mysteries, or fight battles, or dine with the Queen. Who can resist entertainment like this? I apologize in advance if you try to talk with me and I don’t respond. I have a book now and can no longer see or hear you. You might as well be an invisible middle child. Welcome to this wonderful club.