As I announced yesterday, my Featured Guest today is Donna Marie Merritt. If you read her bio, you know that Donna is a former teacher who keeps busy writing in more than one genre. I enjoyed her article before posting it and know that you will find it stimulating and helpful too. If you have questions or comments for Donna, please leave them in the comment section below today’s post.
WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW WHEN YOU KNOW IT
Donna Marie Merritt
I was in labor. My daughter Brianna—who would turn two the next day—was napping. Instead of packing a hospital bag, I plopped down at my typewriter (yes, typewriter). An editor had responded positively to a query. Once the new baby was born, when would I find the time? Would an editor ever request my work again? For all I knew, this was IT, the beginning of my writing career!
Stop. Wait for the pain to pass. Type I am. Stop. Wait. Type I am in. Stop. Wait. Type I am in labor as I write this cover letter. Surely that would impress the editor. We mailed my picture book on the way to the hospital and Christine was born that night.
Sleep-deprived and busy with a baby and toddler, I perked up a bit and dared to hope every time the mail came. Months later, I received a standard rejection.
Over the next years I kept trying. I was a teacher, so I wrote as much as I could each summer. I’d sit on the patio and write while my girls played in the backyard. It didn’t take long to accumulate enough rejection slips to wallpaper a room, and then a house. In despair, I wrote an article about the frustrations of being a new writer and it was published by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators New England News. Christine was three. Brianna was five. Mom was a writer! It took another year before I sold that same publication a poem about…the frustrations of being a new writer. Why did it feel like I wasn’t getting anywhere?
They say to write what you know. Okay, I knew rejection. Anything else? I wrote an article about teaching and it was bought by Teaching K-8 magazine. Christine was eight. Brianna was ten. Mom was beginning to wonder if she was a writer. I shamelessly thanked the editor of Teaching K-8 profusely. In fact, I thanked her via e-mail about once a month, always saying I’d love to help with the magazine in any way. After a year of this, she got tired of hearing from me or admired persistence. (I like to think the latter.) She had lost her “Life in the Middle” columnist and would I be able to write that month’s column while they looked for a replacement? “Absolutely!” I responded. Did I have any idea how to write a column? Absolutely not! I also knew that this was not an opportunity I should let slip. I swallowed my anxiety and wrote. I was asked to write the following month’s piece and then offered the job.
That year I finally started to think of myself as a “real” writer, the same year Brianna started middle school. Since she was out of school earlier than when in elementary school, she now got home before I did. She didn’t like coming home to an empty house and I didn’t like forcing her to do that. And, I was a real writer, right? I left my teaching job to write. Guess what? Since I was no longer a teacher, my column about teaching was given to an active teacher. Didn’t see that one coming.
Again, what else did I know? Parenting. The writer of the “Parent Connection” column was leaving Teaching K–8 and I was asked to write that for a year. Things began to happen. I interviewed with a small educational publisher who wanted me to create an
electronic newsletter for them about their products and incorporate educational research. My head was spinning when I left that first two-hour meeting, but I wrote that newsletter and continued to do so for over four years. At last they gave me a chance to write children’s books for their new math and science programs. I was paid a small, flat fee for each book, no royalty, but I didn’t care. When that first book was printed and in my hands, I had arrived. Children across the country were reading my books in their classrooms. I was also writing for other companies, contributing to school reading programs, selling magazine articles and poems, and publishing essays about my faith.
Then I got divorced. I worried that my freelance work, despite going well, was not consistent enough to pay the bills and raise two children, so I accepted a position as an associate editor. I learned how to edit and I learned how to edit well. I soaked up the atmosphere and told myself I was in publishing now at a respectable job. It was a respectable job and I was writing, but only what I was told to write.
I remarried and accepted a more challenging job as a senior editor for a nonprofit educational organization. I became consumed with perfecting my editing. Christine was 15. Brianna was 17.
And now let’s back up a bit…
I began this piece by talking about writing when I was already a wife and mother, but, as writers know, our stories begin long before that. In my case, it was discovering the
school library at age six or seven, loving the words that tumbled out of so many books, and wanting to “do that, too.”
At eight, I wrote my first poem in the room I shared with an aunt and brothers in my grandparents’ house. That was a year filled with love, but also with crowded chaos, especially after the last of five siblings was born. It’s cliché, but writing was my escape, something I could claim for myself. I looked around that room—what would rhyme with my aunt’s poster of the Monkees?
At age nine, I sent my first picture book to a publisher. It was about occupations—with an emphasis on mail carriers since, at that time, it was a toss-up between being a writer and delivering the mail; both held equal appeal. It was promptly rejected (much more quickly than today—in retrospect, a plus). I decided that publishers had a lot to learn about good books.
At ten, we wrote Christmas poems in class. My teacher announced that she wanted to read a special poem. In my mind, I practiced a surprised look to wear when she read mine. She read Scott’s. I decided that teachers had a lot to learn about good poems.
In my teen years, I wrestled with heartaches and self-pity through my poetry. I wrote an entire research paper in rhyme. I won a poetry award for material contributed to my college literary magazine. As a parent, my poems reflected the pride and struggles of motherhood.
Later, though, with my success in writing for the educational market and then learning what makes a good editor, my own writing—writing what I wanted—became less frequent. Finally, it stopped altogether because I was so focused on making a living. And I lost something of myself.
I didn’t realize how much I’d lost until last year when something else disappeared: my job. My position was grant-funded and the grants had dwindled to nothing during our country’s economic uncertainty. In the years preceding the lay-off, I allowed myself to identify too closely with my title as Editor. I didn’t know how to feel. I was sad, angry, depressed. Without thinking, I picked up a pencil and wrote poem after poem. It was cathartic.
Not long after I became unemployed, my new husband was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. I felt I would go insane with worry and oncology appointments and hospital stays. Again, poetry saved me. I read it. I wrote it. I encouraged emotions to wash over me and cleanse me with soothing rhythms and images.
I sent out two manuscripts, one on unemployment and one on cancer, aware that poetry is not an open genre for a newcomer and that my subjects were not cheerful ones. Yet, I had written what I, unfortunately this time, knew. Both books were accepted almost immediately.
While I love penning poetry, my experiences have taught me that I should not exclude any kind of writing, from articles and columns, to newsletters and teachers’ guides, to essays and children’s books. The more we learn about various genres, the more we expand what we can do. The more we write, the more we define and refine our craft. And because “what we know” changes throughout our lives, the material is always fresh.
And what do I know now? My husband is in remission, my daughters and stepson like me most days, and I am working as a writer again. I am blessed to be doing what I love, and ready to accept that doing what I love is not steady work and won’t make me rich.
Am I a poet? Yes. A children’s author? Yes. An editor? Yes. But I have learned not to limit myself with a label…On second thought, I think I will label myself. Happy.
DONNA MARIE (PITINO) MERRITT is the author of Cancer, A Caregiver’s View (Avalon Press, 2011, avalonpress.co.uk) and Job Loss, A Journey in Poetry (Avalon Press, 2010); Too-Tall Tina (Kane Press, 2005); 14 children’s math and science books and 38 teachers’ guides (Abrams Learning Trends, 2004 to 2006); and numerous articles on education, family, faith, and writing. She lives in Connecticut and can be contacted through http://www.DonnaMarieBooks.com.
And again, I thank you for promoting my work. My publisher is small and cannot afford the deep discount required by Amazon, so right now, my poetry is only available through her site. It’s a UK press, but the book (and the one in the spring) is shipped from a distribution center in the US, so there are no overseas shipping charges. If you can pass that info along to your readers, I would be grateful.
To order, simply click on Order USA: Job Loss/Add to Cart at http://avalonpress.co.uk/order.html
I am hoping not only to start making my name as a poet, but to help others navigate difficult days.
Happy New Year!