I love quotes. I’ve kept notebooks full of favorite lines from books and movies since I was a kid. My love of quotes is apparent in my novel Traveling Light. It’s apparent to anyone who sees my writing office, too—Post-Its and postcards with quotes cover every inch of bulletin board. Some quotes are painted directly on my multicolored walls. The newest one that inspires me is from Julia Cameron’s The Sound of Paper. She writes, “In order to make art, we must first make an artful life, a life rich enough and diverse enough to give us fuel.”
I feel like my life is sometimes almost “too” artful! And it always has been, for as long as I can remember.
I grew up in Dayton, Ohio in a home where books were prized possessions and reading was a treasured pastime. My dad encouraged me to read great books long before the same titles were required in school. A voracious “chain reader,” my dad still greets me at the door whenever I visit with, “Did you bring me any books?” My sister Monica and I have a friendly rivalry, competing for Good Daughter points based on how many books we deliver. I feel the competition is slightly unfair for two reasons—her husband works in a book store and gets access to advanced reading copies, and the books I actually write myself should count as at least double! When I read a good book, it’s habit to pass it on to my dad and discuss it with him, a tradition we’ve kept since my junior high days.
My mom was a preschool teacher extraordinairre, the kind of teacher all parents want guiding their kids. Even though she’s retired from teaching, neighborhood kids still knock on her door asking her to identify fossils and bugs they find, knowing she’ll be excited and eager to help them. She taught me to be curious and always to look at the world with the discovering eyes of a child. These are traits that serve me well as a writer.
I remember thinking of myself as a writer way back in grade school, although I never thought about writing for publication until I graduated from college. Former classmates to this day tease me about the interminable stories I was always writing about horses or bands of stray animals. I have journals dating back to third grade all the way to present day. Their existence in the world somewhat troubles me, but I don’t ever plan to run for public office so I think it’s safe to keep them! From the time I was a little girl, we often wrote original stories for each other and it’s still a tradition to write a poem for the birthday person. These birthday poems feature such stellar, masterfully rhymed opening stanzas as:
“Once there was a girl named Monica.
She did not celebrate Hanukkah.
She was married to Rick,
who was really quite slick,
‘cause he could play the harmonica.”
“Once there was a woman named Beverly Jean
A more creative woman you never have seen.
Out of a box she’ll make a pirate ship
(And she loves coffee that is good to sip).”
“Once, a man had two lovely daughters,
Time telling them stories was never a bother.
He made up tales outlandish and silly,
Behaving much like a goat, especially a billy.”
I’m embarrassed to admit that those are recent examples and not verses written by an eleven year-old!
My childhood was full of fuel such as hiking in the woods, camping with Girl Scouts, playing with my pet rabbit Stevie (the Fun Bun of Fairborn), bossing the neighbor kids into huge theatrical productions, and horses. I never outgrew that smitten phase most young girls go through with horses. I took riding lessons at the magical Rocky Point Farm. I worked there in the summers—feeding and mucking stalls and soaping saddles—in exchange for board for the horses I would lease for the summer show season. It was my second home and the place where many of my fictional animal characters originated.
I’m eternally grateful to my parents for never buying me the horse I pleaded for. Because I had to plan and work and and budget and save to earn my way to a horse myself, I learned invaluable discipline and the extreme satisfaction of achieving goals, without with I would never have been able to finish a novel.
Originally interested in dance and theatre, I studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts and settled at Ohio University, first as a theatre major, then accepting an invitation to join the Honors Tutorial Program in English. I led quite the artful undergrad life—I had a double major in English and education, worked in the theatre costume shop, rode on the university’s Equestrian Team, kept a Theatre minor, and moved from one funky apartment to another every single year (bless my poor parents who were there to help each time!). I graduated in 1990 with two undergraduate degrees (practicality has never been my strong suit) and earned the honor of Outstanding Graduating Senior in both of my major departments.
I taught high school AP British Literature and theatre for five years, then spent several years freelancing as a children’s theatre director and creative writing instructor. I covered all ages in my creative writing workshops. I taught a group as young as third grade and had an eighty year-old student in my Fiction Intensive once at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop.
During “the freelance years,” I also worked in case management support at the AIDS Foundation Miami Valley (now the AIDS Resource Center), cleaned houses (which I found very Zen-like and perfect for the writing life: you get left alone with your hands busy doing mindless work while your brain can simmer story ideas), and worked as a veterinary assistant. I was always seeking the “perfect job” that would allow me more time to write. I discovered that there is no perfect job, and if you want to write, you simply must. If the true desire is there, you will find ways to carve out time when there seems to be none. I became very disciplined and ruthless about defending my writing time from other obligations.
Next I taught 6th and 7th grade English at the Miami Valley School in Dayton, having learned that my writing thrived on routine. Morning hours were my most productive time, so during the school year, I got up at 5:00 AM and wrote for two hours before going to school. That sounds dismal, but, truly, I got more done in those two fresh hours than I could in an entire free evening after a day of teaching (middle schoolers will wear you out). And I was a happier, more generous teacher, having accomplished that progress for myself before I faced the students.
When papers to grade, parent conferences, and overnight school trips threatened to keep me from writing, I remembered those nurturing words of Julia Cameron’s and practiced gratitude for my “artful life.”
I practice even more gratitude for the ability to (for now anyway) write fulltime. I keep my former school day schedule as my writing schedule, rising now at the more civilized hour of 6 AM, and at the desk by 7:45.
Other loves that provide me with fuel are Latin dancing; gardening; cooking (lately I’ve been experimenting with Indian and Italian food, and my friends seem very willing guinea pigs); playing with my amazingly smart niece Amy and my adorably happy nephew Nathan; spending time when I can in the presence of horses; getting onstage to act whenever possible; and traveling. Some travel highlights include spending the night with a goat under my bed in Ghana, riding horseback through the hills of Sintra in Portugal, and floating on my back in the Mediterranean looking up at the cliff-cut city of Positano, Italy. I already know I’ll return to Italy. My love of the tango may take me to Brazil. And mention China, India, or Kenya and I get a certain glint in my eye…
Fuel. It’s all fuel. I’ve never had sympathy for people who claim they are bored.
Oh, another quote on my wall? It’s from Tennessee Williams: “I don’t believe in dullness. I believe in passion and wonder and excitement.”