In 1962, when I was in first grade, kids learned to write. Kindergarten was a half-day, and there was no pre-K, just nursery school, which was all about playing. While we recited the alphabet endlessly in kindergarten, it wasn’t until first grade that we learned to shape letters on Manila paper with wide green lines, and at the same time our facility for reading really took off. It was at this time that I decided I was going to be a writer.
Soon, I was studying the dictionary, writing out words I fancied and their meanings. I began my writing career with poetry, and was immediately a big fan of refrains. When my siblings and I had nothing to do, my dad suggested we read random pages in the encyclopedia. He wished he had more time for doing that, he said. Our household also possessed The Book of Knowledge, a multi-set, illustrated compendium of everything, which even as a child, I found idiosyncratic.
My second grade teacher imbued us with a love of books. She read aloud for at least half an hour each day, and kept lists of all the books we read on our own. But it was my fourth grade teacher who took me aside and said, “You can really write. You have talent.” I remember attending a reading and book talk by author Grace Paley many years later, during which she said that she had been very lucky to have received encouragement and acclaim fairly quickly once she started writing. She said she wasn’t sure she would have persevered had that not happened. Likewise, I am not sure I would have continued honing my craft had it not been for that supportive fourth grade teacher, my parents, and most significantly, my husband.
Although I always saw myself as a creative writer, I needed to earn a living. So, like Nora, the protagonist in my new novel, Just the Facts, I became a newspaper reporter in 1978 shortly after graduating from college with a B.A. in English. Unlike Nora, I never investigated a political scandal that was daunting and scary. The journey of writing this book took me deep into a past dimly remembered and then largely invented. It has been both fun and intriguing to immerse myself in that era after all these years, and ironically I often found myself consulting the internet to fact-check details of a time when there was no internet! The ‘70s were very different; reporters had no cell phones, GPS, or computers. They used pay phones, road atlases, IBM Selectrics – and libraries for research. The news cycle was not 24/7 and ubiquitous, and arguably papers reported the news more objectively than now.
But back to that fledgling writer in first grade. One day, after we had mastered a printing lesson with our fat pencils, our teacher called us up to the blackboard one by one, instructing us to write – in glorious chalk! – what we wanted to be when we grew up. The boys all wrote POLICEMAN, FIREMAN, or GARBAGE MAN (which the job was called back then) while the girls all wrote TEACHER, NURSE, or HOUSEWIFE (ditto). I alone wrote WRITER – and I have never deviated from this dream. Hopefully, this does not indicate a failure of imagination.