I was stunned, honored and thrilled when renowned author/illustrator Trinka Hakes Noble asked if I would be the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature “Success Story” speaker this year. She asked me to tell the RUCCL attendees about my path to publication, to inspire them, to make them realize that they are the stars of the day. So I tried to be funny and touching and inspirational, and I hope I succeeded with the success story. For those of you who couldn’t be there, and for those who heard it and want a recap, here’s my speech.
Please note: I begin in costume, speaking with a deep English accent like a terrible, stereotypically stuffy author.
Good morning, ladies and gentleman.
Allow myself to introduce…myself.
I am a published author.
I have a luxuriant beard.
I smoke pipes.
I wear tweed jackets with elbow patches.
I take afternoon tea with Joan Didion. Ahh, dear, dear, Joan. Occasionally Joyce Carol Oates pops in with Michael Chabon. Oh, those two are a bloody riot! One time JC snuck a whoopee cushion on Michael’s chair and…well, that’s not a story for mixed company.
Ever since I signed my first contract, I have never received another rejection. Publishers fall at my feet and kiss my freshly polished Oxfords!
I use words like “verisimilitude” in everyday conversation. See, I just used it. “Verisimilitude, verisimilitude, verisimilitude.”
My toilet scrubs itself under the rim.
I have not a care in the world. Ahh, yes, the life of a published author is so very glamorous and elegant, don’t you agree?
[Remove costume. Shake hair loose.]
OK, this is really me.
Just an ordinary housewife and mother from Jersey. No, I didn’t say Jersey Shore. Snooki and I, we’re not author buddies.
But listen, just four years ago, I was you.
Sitting out there.
RUCCL 2008 was my first big conference. Heck, it was my first conference, period. I looked across the room to Kay Winters speaking and thought there was this enormous divide between me, the great unwashed, and Kay, the successful, multi-published author.
Turns out the divide was only five tables wide. Because that’s how far away I was sitting!
Once I approached Ms. Winters to thank her for the inspiring speech, we shook hands and suddenly there was no divide. And I’m here to tell you just that—there is no divide.
You’re here today because you’ve earned it. You’ve written something exceptional that has gotten noticed. Out of—how many applications were there this year, Trinka?—62.8 million applications, 88 of you are here! Amazing! You have great potential. You are on your way. You are so close to becoming published and you don’t even realize it!
If you think, like I did, that there is some great divide and you are going to be a transformed person once you sign a publishing contract, then, I’m sorry, but you are mistaken.
You’ll be just like Samantha Baker waking up on her 16th birthday, staring at her boobies in the mirror and realizing they’re the same size they were yesterday. (Sorry, fellas.)
Listen—we writers are one. We all share a common goal—to tell the best story we possibly can. I strive to do that every day, and so do you. There is no divide.
Of course, you will be jubilant when you receive an offer, but you will still be you. Unfortunately, your toilet will not clean itself. I should know. I’ve been staring at that damn toilet for three years!
So let me tell you a little about how I got here. I took 287 South, got off at Exit 9, merged right and…no sorry…
It began in second grade when I read CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. (And let me tell you, Gene Wilder will always be my Willy Wonka, not Johnny Depp.)
That book was so outrageously delicious, I knew immediately that I wanted to create fantastical stories like that. So my best friend Francine and I collaborated on our own book, a series of fractured fairy tales. I wrote and she illustrated. It was a beautiful little thing, and I still remember the jaunty little cap she drew on the main character. We were so proud of this thing, we called all our relatives and told them it was published.
After all, we were sure it would get published. It was perfection. Who would turn it down? They’d be crazy. If Ally Sheedy was only 12 when she wrote SHE WAS NICE TO MICE, we could beat her record and get published at age 8!
So we made our announcement prematurely and my two 80-yr-old great-grandparents fired up the ’67 Chrysler for the first time in months and creaked their bones to the local bookstore…but of course, our masterpiece could not be found.
So OK, it was my first newbie mistake!
I loved writing as a child and I did not understand why everyone else did not love it. When it was time for creative writing I jumped out of my seat and cheered. Everyone else groaned. Especially when the teacher gave the word count. I always asked, “Please sir, may I have some more?” Yes, Tara, you can write as many words as you want.
So flash forward to college…right here on the banks of the Old Raritan, I studied English and Creative Writing. I had every intention to land a job in children’s publishing so I could learn the business inside-out. But it was 1992, and our country was in a recession. There were no kidlit openings. But I did get a job in publishing. COMPUTER PROGRAMMING BOOKS. Blech.
Bored out of my mind, I didn’t stick around long. I then rode the wave of irrational exuberance of the “Information Superhighway” age and was too busy in high-tech marketing to write for children. Besides working insane hours, I was figure skating four times a week. Who had time to write?
I got married. I had my first daughter. I stayed home. We read together. And then those old feelings bubbled up to the surface. (And this analogy has nothing to do with nursing. Sorry again, fellas.) But I had a colicky baby and even less time. (Well, I really had more time than I wanted—I had 2am, 3am, 4am…)
When I was pregnant with my second daughter, in 2006, I saw an ad in my local paper for an organization called Women Who Write. They were organized into critique groups by genre, and they had an opening in their Writing for Children group. I told my husband I wanted to join. He agreed to put our toddler to bed (no easy feat, she didn’t sleep for four years and now I can’t get her out of bed) and I waddled off to evening meetings twice a month. I was only in the group two months when they went on summer hiatus. Then I took time off to have my daughter, but vowed to return in six months.
Well, six months turned into 12 months and I was more impatient than ever to get published. After all, I had postponed it most of my life. I was like Veruca Salt—“But Daddy, I want to publish a book NOW!”
But my early picture books were dreadful. Didactic. Adult protagonists. 1500 words. I didn’t know a thing about writing them.
So I joined SCBWI. I attended every NJ event I could, beginning with first page sessions. I took copious notes about every manuscript the professionals critiqued. I put those notes on a blog. And some knowledge started seeping in.
And then a mutual friend introduced me to author Corey Rosen Schwartz. Again, I imagined this great divide between us. I thought there was no way this woman, a published author, would want to be friends with me, a nobody, a wannabe. But remember, there is no divide. It only exists in our heads. Corey and I became fast friends. And we started critiquing each other’s work. And my stories began getting better.
Things were going pretty well for me. The Rutgers acceptance in 2008 gave me the confidence to know that I was on the right track.
And then, in 2009, I veered off track. Or rather, my body did. (OK, this is the sad part now. So everybody get your hankies out.)
On Halloween, I slipped on some wet leaves while trick-or-treating with my daughters and sprained my ankle. It was no big deal for me because I always sprain my ankle. I was a figure skater and my ankles had suffered a lot of damage over the years.
So I went home and put my feet up.
But the next day I woke up and half my foot was numb.
It was odd, but I thought maybe I had exacerbated an old injury. I had ankle surgery years ago and I remember my toe going numb at that time. So I just ignored it.
Until my entire left foot lost feeling.
And then my right foot joined the numb party.
Something was terribly wrong.
I went around like this until Thanksgiving, when the pressure of cooking a five-course meal collided with the distinct lack of pressure in my feet. I exploded at my family. I was sick and I needed help.
Three months worth of doctor’s visits and I had a diagnosis: Multiple Sclerosis.
I was devastated. And if there is a word that means beyond devastated, that’s what I really should insert here.
And the timing was really bad. I got the diagnosis a mere week before I was to attend an NJ-SCBWI Mentoring Conference. I had already sent in a manuscript called THE MONSTORE and I was supposed to be meeting with an editor from Sterling to discuss it.
There was no way I could attend.
The organizer was a friend so I called her and bawled, explaining that I was too sick to make it. She said she’d have the editor write up my critique and mail it out.
But I was in a deep depression. Not only was my walking impaired for the rest of my life, I thought my dream of becoming a kidlit author was kaput. Now, you don’t have to WALK to be able to TYPE so I don’t know why I thought this way, but I was not in a rational state of mind.
So when that envelope from the editor at Sterling arrived, I ignored it. I stayed in bed for days on end. My life was over.
Then I received an email from my friend at NJ-SCBWI. She said the editor was upset that I couldn’t make the workshop; she had wanted to meet me in person.
Meet me? WHY on earth would she want to do that? Remember the great divide?
This manuscript had been rejected from Rutgers (GASP! SHOCK! HORROR! I know, you weren’t expecting that, right?) and I had met with a picture book consultant who had gently pushed it back across the table like it was pea soup with a fly in it and she dubbed it “a practice manuscript”.
So I sneered at that envelope, skeptical of what lay concealed inside. It was thick. I assumed she hated it and she wanted to meet me in person to scold me about all the things I did wrong.
Instead I opened the envelope to read, “What a fun title and a unique premise. I was hooked on page one.”
She liked me! She really, really liked me!
I mean, she liked the STORY. (Don’t make that mistake of equating your work with YOU.) She asked to see a revision.
But I had always known I wanted an agent. Holy bacci balls, it was time!
Things then started happening fast. Corey had won a critique with author Jean Reidy and sent THE MONSTORE instead because she had nothing ready. Jean read THE MONSTORE and then Tweeted about how awesome it was. Then Ammi-Joan Paquette saw the Tweet and asked what she was reading. All of a sudden, I had a referral to Joan.
I got busy sending out queries to four other agents I had targeted.
Now you must realize at this time, I was still so sick and filled with anxiety and dread that I couldn’t get out of bed most of the day. In fact, I could barely speak until noon because I was on the wrong medication.
So when an agent called me two hours earlier than he said he would, I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to talk. Thank goodness I had an acting background because it was the best performance of my life.
But ultimately, I signed with Joan. I would like to say that signing with her finally lifted me out of my MS funk, but it didn’t. I knew I was doing something big, something I had dreamed of all my life, but I couldn’t even walk the contract to the post office. And I focused on what I couldn’t do instead of what I had accomplished.
Even when the offer from Aladdin came in a month later, I was only pretending to be happy. I had about two seconds worth of “I DID IT!” and then I went back to bed.
But, I went back to bed with a purpose…and a laptop. If I was now published, I certainly wasn’t going to stop with one book. I needed more. I could not be a one-hit wonder. The name KajaGooGoo Lazar does not look good on the cover of a picture book. (C’mon, who knows KajaGooGoo, the one-hit wonder from the 80’s? “Too shy shy, hush hush, eye to eye.”)
Writing slowly lifted me out of my funk. And once I was brave enough to tell my friends and family what was happening with my health, they began to lift me up, too.
And so, two years after I signed my first contract for THE MONSTORE, I now have two more books under contract…and I’m waiting to hear on a few more. There’s a few editors here I need to speak to…
But again, because I am up here and you are sitting down there does not mean there is a divide. As Kay Winters spoke in 2008, I said to myself, that’s going to be me someday. And look! Here I am! There is a space for you up here, too.
You should be proud of yourselves for making it here. When I attended in 2008, I really had only an inkling of how important this day was. And I had no idea that everyone was here for ME.
We’re all here for YOU.
This is YOUR special day. Like Katy Perry says, “Baby, you’re a firework. C’mon let your colors burst!” (Singing is not one of my talents.)
Remember that everyone assembled is here to help you take the next step in your career. This day was planned with you in mind. This fact was a little difficult for me to grasp back in 2008, so I put together something to help you remember this.
And because our chair informed me it was a fire hazard to set off Grucci fireworks in this room, I have something else that sparkles and glows all day long, just like you. (Will Sheri, Anita, Marcy and Andrew please come help me.)
These glow bracelets are for you to wear today, to remind you of how special you are. Of how you are the star of today. Every time you look down at your wrist, remember that we’re all supporting you. Any question you have, ask it. Anyone you want to approach, step right up, don’t be “too shy shy”. This is YOUR day. Make the most of it. And be a little kid at the same time.
So I leave you with these words:
There is no divide.
But there are glow bracelets!
Enjoy and have fun today!