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Word For Word
As many of you know, I’m in the process of moving. I started out in life in a mid-size factory town, Mansfield Ohio. When I married, I moved to a big-size factory town, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. I was very at home in Pittsburgh; after all, it was just a bigger version of Mansfield. My life has been split almost equally between the two towns. Now, I’m making another move. This time I’m going to Somerset County Pennsylvania in the last town on Route 219 before crossing into Maryland. The town of Salisbury, while quaint, is but a whisper compared to what I’m used to.
Being a writer—and by extension, a reader—one of the first places I checked out in Salisbury was its library. Now for the past 28 years, I’ve lived within five miles of Pennsylvania’s ninth largest library—Northland Public Library. Not only have I practically lived there and raised two children within its nurturing walls as well, I’ve given numerous writing presentations and spoken to a variety of audiences over the years about creativity and its many manifestations. I’ve been a part of its monthly book discussion group, packed a bagged lunch and exchanged opinions over characters, plots and true meanings. Northland feels like home—and it’s one of the few places I visit where I can honestly say has more books than my husband and I do. It maintains a modern, up-to-date website; it interacts with a number of other libraries to obtain the books you want if it doesn’t happen to have those books and it has semi-annual book sales to flush out the older because it’s constantly stocking up on the newer.
The library in Salisbury Pennsylvania is slightly different. It has a screen door on its front and shares its space with the Salisbury post office. Its hours are M-F from 3:30 to 4:30 (PM of course), Saturday 11:00 to Noon and Sunday “by appointment.” When I walk in, a single woman greets me and asks if there is something in particular she can help me with. Books line the shelves, yes, but I can see they are overwhelmingly donated books. Most are old, as in dated and there is not an abundance of them.
I browse for several minutes, when she asks again if she can help me.
“Well,” I answer, more to be polite than anything else (the silence between the two of us is very loud), “do you happen to have any short stories by Katherine Anne Porter?”
She hesitated and by her demeanor, I knew she didn’t. However, she immediately brought forth a volume of collected stories by O. Henry and asked if I would be interested in it. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had that exact volume on my shelves—and had had it since I was a teenager—but, nevertheless I declined.
Have you ever felt almost a duty to buy something when you’re in a very small shop, you’re the only customer and it’s obvious the sales lady has an emotional stake in the store? Well, that’s how I felt in the Salisbury Public Library. This lady really wanted to help me find a book…wanted me to check out a book. Any book.
I wasn’t too hopeful when I stumbled upon an original Erle Stanley Gardner book—he being of Perry Mason fame (in case you didn’t know!). It, of course, had a dust jacket on it with wonderful artwork straight out of the 1940s. Gardner was on the back sitting in an easy chair in a jacket and tie, presumably in his study, looking for all the world like the first Mr. Wilson in the TV sitcom, Dennis the Menace. Leather chair, pine paneling, cultural icons, stuffed hawk (yikes!), Frederic Remington prints—all that was missing were the pipe, pipe stand, slippers, newspaper and American Fox Hound in front of the fire.
I definitely judged a book by its cover on this one and besides, it fulfilled my obligation to check out something. I introduced myself and she did the same. There was a glued envelope on the inside back page—something I haven’t seen in decades (and something glaringly different from the computerized, self-serve checkout at Northland) and Barb, the librarian, carefully stamped it with the due date. She then asked for my name and phone number, which she jotted down in a notebook. There was no proof of identity asked for or required.
Now, if it sounds as if I’m belittling this library, you have read this in the wrong frame of mind. As odd as it may sound, that book—The Case of The Fugitive Nurse—took on a greater importance to me than the thousands of books I’d checked out at Northland—many of them returned half-read, or more shamefully, never even opened. I had three weeks to read this book—and by ginger (!) I was going to read every word, even as it killed me to do it.
But killed me, it did not. In fact, I was transported back to a world of which I only have vague recollections. A world where words like “davenport” and “service station” (never “gas station”) were commonly used. A world where nothing was printed on the inside back flap of the dust cover—in the days before every square inch of free space was used for hype, testimonials and meaningless quotes by unknown people. Everytime Perry Mason spoke, I heard Raymond Burr’s voice and although Gardner’s style certainly wasn’t current, it also definitely wasn’t as antiquated as I had anticipated.
Not only had I felt an obligation to check out the book—I felt an obligation to read it from cover to cover and return it on time.
So, what’s the moral here? The biggest of libraries is wonderful—and a source I still plan to use, what with online renewal and a large maximum limit of checked-out material. However, the smallest of libraries also has its place. Yes, it’s a quieter place and perhaps doesn’t make such a huge splash, but it reminds us that any place treasuring thoughts and ideas and the magic of reading is a place to be revered, respected and above all, visited on a regular basis.
Which is precisely what I plan to do!
And that’s my Word for Word.
October’s always been my favorite month and even though it’s almost over, I’m enjoying it to its fullest. October also kicks off a season of holidays to which we collectively refer to in the greeting card world as Fall Seasonals. We all know the major ones—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Years, but there are also minor ones—Grandparent’s Day (okay, so that’s in September, but obviously closer to Fall Seasonals than to Spring ones), Sweetest Day (actually this year Sweetest Day fell on October 21—did anyone notice?) and National Boss Day (actually most people out there better notice). Whether instantly recognizable or one of those “huh?” holidays, as writers we have to be aware of them and their constant presence and importance in the industry. I’ve had assignments for each of these occasions and have sold verses for all of them. So, as these are in our midst and as we celebrate or acknowledge them along with the general public, as greeting card writers we also hold a special responsibility to help define them—via our words—for others.
My work schedule continues to be full and I juggle writing with teaching, filling book orders, answering emails and keeping up the creative content for the website. As some of you know, I not only teach greeting card writing, but also other genres such as writing book reviews, quizzes, eulogies and how to turn full-blown articles into the more eye-catching (and more salable) step-by-steps and lists. (These often-overlooked writing areas are covered in my second book “A Few, Choice Words: Short ‘Do-Able’ Writing That Sells.”
When I talk with other professionals in various areas, we often find that outside concerns override our writing. How easily we’re pulled into the vortex of promoting ourselves and our work—how giving interviews, answering emails, speaking at conferences, conducting workshops, while all having a place in the writing life, actually pull us away from what got us here in the first place, namely our writing. And how, no matter the ego-rush that occurs when others want to take your picture, ask your opinion and then build it into an article, publicity is not writing. It is a pleasant trapping, yes, but it is not writing.
So, in the vernacular of pop psycho, I’ve spent time reconnecting with actual writing. I’ve had a steady stream of writing assignments in October—Christmas and New Years 2007 is just around the corner (at least in the minds of greeting card publishers) and I had the honor—and fun—of writing verses for art done by one of my favorite artists, Erika Oller. A complete line of colorful everyday occasions followed from one company and another sent me sketches of a hip, feminine line that shows the “joys” of aging. I’ve mixed writing and consulting for an innovative Canadian line scheduled to hit the market in the coming months…and just when I suspected short, rhymed verse was taking a permanent back seat to the more conversational, prosy-style verses, along comes a request for lighthearted, rhymed verses for a collection of themed-memory books.
Writing is not only a physical exercise, it’s a state of mind. Billy Joel sings: “But I know what I’m needing/And I don’t want to waste more time/I’m in a New York state of mind.” If you’ve been doing everything else but writing lately, dedicate yourself to being in a writing state of mind. Sit down, allow the words to come. Make it a part of your daily routine, just like washing your hair, showering, making breakfast. Distractions can, and do, occur. It’s your job to see beyond those distractions and actually force them to aid your writing, rather than thwart it. I hear from so many people and the saddest emails of all are those that speak of a lifelong, overriding desire to write that was put on the back burner for far too long.
Remember, the three most important words in any writer’s vocabulary should be: Read. Write. Rewrite. All the rest is fluff.
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