The Gypsy Years...

Nothing beats getting rid of a bout of self-pity better than seeking out others who are worse off than yourself. You never have to look long because the world is full of them. And if you want to be so bold as to include the WHOLE world, they are the majority. We started out by hiring on as a cook and chief engineer on a Swedish mercy ship that was being refitted for a special mission. It was to be used to ferry Jewish refugee families from the Russian port of Odessa, to Israel’s Haifa. When we arrived, the old WW II troop transport had just been towed into Seattle from the "Mothball Fleet" and wasn’t anywhere near special, yet. It still even had ghosts.

I could write a book about that experience all by itself, but this is not the place. Suffice it to say it was one of the most pivotal points in my entire life. For it was there – in a microcosm of the perfect world (there is nothing that illustrates this better than shipboard life) – I began to truly learn about people. All kinds. From all walks of life. From many countries. Though my duties got me up before five to have breakfast ready for a crew that fluctuated between thirty and fifty, I had wonderful hours in late afternoons. Before having to get dinner ready, I was always pounding away at an old typewriter I found in one of the supply lockers, with the salt air wafting in through a brass porthole of my stateroom.

After that, we bought a camper for our truck and toured the entire U.S. Since we started from our home in Alaska, that included parts of Canada. Then – lonesome for the sea – we moved aboard another sailboat and explored every nook and cranny of Washington’s Puget Sound. Everywhere we went, we met children who wanted to join us. A few times, we gave into staying someplace long enough to start a school before moving on, again. We took miles of video documenting our teaching methods, as well as hour upon hour of wildlife and the "great outdoors." Pretty soon patterns began to emerge.

I discovered I loved the study of human nature. It had its forces and laws in the same way that the natural world did, and – if one took the time to learn them – was not only identifiable, but predictable. It was also the same in any country in any language. Suddenly, I wanted to illustrate these most universal traits of all mankind. Not so much the big stuff as the little stuff. The stuff that we could see in ourselves no matter who we were. The stuff that could make a person laugh or cry with empathy because I painted it – in the words of Hemingway – "… so true that’s the way it happens."

I also wanted to answer some of Life’s more pressing questions in a more gentle, roundabout way that didn’t blast people in the psyche or make them feel worthless. That’s because in all these travels and experiences, I found that I absolutely, positively, LOVED people. I even found myself wanting to tell them that there was a place for everybody, no matter who you were or where you came from: a truly wonderful place if only they looked long enough to find it. So many seemed to stop – disappointed -- in the middle of life and never go on.

During these adventures I never stopped writing. I couldn’t. In spite of a strict speech to all of my "alter egos" before leaving, they simply picked up their bags and followed me. However, I did discover my own voice in the midst of all these things and stopped writing in flavors. I now knew what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I even felt I had enough energy to get back into the marketplace, again.

But it was like Rip Van Winkle waking up from his nap in the woods only to discover that twenty long years had gone by. What a shock to find out that during the seven years (yes, another seven!) we had been "…wandering to and fro over the earth and walking up and down in it…" that everything had changed. Not just in the publishing world…

But the world, itself.

What’s happening on the farm today: Pops is involved with other things, so I have to handle the farm chores, again. Morning AND evening. I must calculate very carefully, as this coincides with quitting time in my study. Which is not a problem at other times of the year. In the short days of winter, however… the night creatures are already up and on the prowl. And neither opossums, coons, or skunks, are very cute when they are cornered unexpectedly in a barn.

Value status: Day 2 (the days are getting longer again, but only because I’m being chased by the necessities of the real ones. This, too, shall pass…)

Following the Yellow Brick Road...

The Yellow Brick Road came into sight again when I landed my first agent. She was a good agent, had good contacts in the industry, was well respected, and knew her stuff. She thought my work showed great promise, and that the novel manuscript I sent her had the sweep of GONE WITH THE WIND. But it needed a little more work.

This time I was willing to cooperate at all costs, even if it meant learning the craft all over again, using strictly conventional methods. I was determined to be conventional. I was willing to put a cap on my opinionated brain, listen to my betters, and – above all – no more shortcuts. Really. So, we set to work. I rewrote a couple of times, added a few scenes that she "would have liked to see included," and took out a few others she "didn’t quite care for." At last, it began to make the rounds.

First response: they liked it. But the dialect was a bit too laborious – could I cut back on it? Or – better yet – take it out completely. Which I did. After another rewrite, it went back to them. Sorry, no longer interested. Twenty-seven times it went out, with a total of about eight additional rewrites, many of which included putting things back that others had requested be taken out. Or vice-versa. The eighth time was a real doozie.

As a family, we were not made of money at this point. One does not grow rich in the teaching trade, or even working as a stringer on some local newspaper. Especially when you are turning over fifteen percent of your salary to an agent who might sell the great American novel for you one of these days. Not that she wasn’t worth it. I’m sure she was hard pressed to break even on submission costs without it, and she was banking on the "big break" as much as I was. I had a lot of confidence in her. But there were times when I had to choose between making a back up copy (this was before PC days, when such things take only minutes to transfer files to disk) or a pair of kid’s shoes. Most of the time I was lucky to scrape up more typing paper and postage money. After all, how many times did things get lost in the mail?

Not half as often as they get lost at large publishing houses. The eighth rewrite was done from memory and original research notes because the worst case scenario had happened and the only copy had disappeared into the abyss of one of the larger houses. No, I did not save old manuscript versions, because we lived on a forty-three foot sailboat at the time. Besides being limited for space, you wouldn’t believe what effect water could have on twelve copies of a five hundred page manuscript that would have to be stored in plastic containers down in the bilge. It was hard enough to keep a new ream of typing paper from starting to mold before project’s end, much less not to smell like diesel fuel.

Starting over from scratch practically killed me, but I did it.

It took months. But in the end (as with most rewrites) it was a better book because of it. The first time out after that we hit pay dirt. A direct call from a top-notch editor at a big time house who… wanted another rewrite. Other than that, she loved it. The first thing out of my mouth was, "I’m not doing another rewrite without a commitment!"

I should have remembered the frozen vegetable experience. Because after all these struggling years, I still could not tell the real opportunities from the false ones. What’s more I didn’t even have enough discipline to put a "safety cap" on my inappropriate responses that would have at least kept one in reach long enough for me to recognize it. In all twenty-seven submissions that was the only one that could have amounted to anything if I had seen it at the time. But I didn’t.

In the meanwhile, I was selling freelance articles to national magazines and writing other novels. Trying my hand at any and all genres even if I didn’t like personally reading them, and changing, changing, changing. More graphic. Less graphic. This may have happened in true life, but it’s not politically correct – has to be changed, etc. etc. Rewrite after rewrite. Nothing ever sold.

Seven years went by.

My children grew up and all left "the nest" in the same year, and suddenly my entire life seemed less than worthless. I began to wonder if it was my destiny to be a wilderness dweller all my life, why I kept dreaming of the Emerald City. Now, even the Yellow Brick Road seemed impossible, because every time I came near it, there was always some great crevasse that kept me from crossing over. What if I had already used up my entire allotment of Life’s opportunities? What if there was absolutely nothing left for me in the world? So – in the face of such catastrophe -- my husband did the only thing that could be done with a wife in such a state…

We embarked on a grand adventure.

What’s happening on the farm today: Tilling the garden, adding ashes to the peach tree soil, planting all manner of seeds in pots inside the house, and keeping the fire well stoked because it’s still ABSOLUTELY FREEZING AROUND HERE. I think I have spring fever and it’s such a long way off, yet…

Value status: Day 1 (if nothing else, I’m going to save money on psycho-analysis)