Guest Post: Katherine Quimby Johnson - Scenes from the Life of Pre-published Writer
A kitchen. A mother stirs something on the top of the stove, jelly maybe, or applesauce. Her four- or five-year-old daughter (me) is bored that fall afternoon. My mother tells me to get a crayon—I chose red—and a piece of yellow, lined paper. She dictated letters, I drew their shapes carefully on the paper, and she told me what words they spelled: pa, papa, pop, poppy, pup, puppy, pep, peppy. I looked at the pattern I could see emerging and asked, “What about p-a-p and p-a-p-p-y. She explained that the last two were words, but not ones everyone used. Writing, reading, loving language, it was all there on that one fall afternoon.
Fifth grade. “You will write a book,” Mrs. White says. “And illustrate it. Someone else will edit it. A third person will review it.” I wrote “The Chowder Mystery,” based on an old song: “Who put the trousers in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder?” It was well-reviewed. The sequel, written the following year, was not as satisfying, at least to the author. Still, I knew I liked writing books.
The cafeteria of a college dining hall, circa 1976-1977. A tall, red-headed music-major friend and I are eating breakfast together. Somehow the subject moves around to what we want to do with our lives. He said he was going to write an opera—as soon as he’d taken music composition. I said I was going to be a writer—as soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about.
An office in the English Department of that same college. An upper-level seminar in children’s lit is being offered for the first time ever. It sounds so good, it would be a chance to consider all the books I devoured as a child from a different, more sophisticated perspective. I would love this course, I know. I would devote my soul to it. I am lobbying the instructor, doing everything short of groveling—I must have special permission to register. The instructor remains hard as Vermont granite. Permission denied.
A montage of images, including a wedding photo (not to that red-headed music major, but to my college sweetheart to whom I am still married after 31 years), to illustrate a ten-year detour through German Studies. The montage should include an image like this:
Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, Austria.
Photo: Phillipp Mayer, http://www.worldgreatestsites.com/palace-and-gardens-of-schoenbrunn_austria.htm (Creative Commons)
...which I lived a block away from for one glorious academic year.
I’m leaning back in an armchair, my arm around my daughter, reading her book after book. She loves books as much as I did. As I read, I fall in love with picture books. Eventually I am inspired and write my first picture book story. It’s an interesting premise, but the ending isn’t satisfactory. Still, the picture book is a genre I continue to explore.
A small town library. I am, for one year, the children’s librarian. I begin to read YA novels. They weren’t really around when I was a teenager in the mid-1970s. I fall madly, deeply in love with what has been written since then. I start to read YA almost exclusively.
Me, in my easy chair, laptop on my knees, writing or prepping for a class—I’m an adjunct at a college.
YA is my true writing passion. I have such vivid memories of how it felt to be different in some way, to be going through hormonal turmoil, to be so uncertain and not realize that everyone around me (or at least almost everyone) was going through the same thing, and to be so filled with longing (for sex, for love, to love, to be loved) that you think your skin might burst. (Is this what a butterfly feels as it emerges from its cocoon?)
Me in high school:
While the external trappings of being a young adult change from generation to generation, and certain issues are largely resolved—being gay is no longer the ginormous deal it was in the 1970s, nor is being a woman and wanting to have a career—the Big Questions remain the same: “Who am I?” “How do I find my place in the world?” “How do I find someone who loves me?”
Contemporary realistic fiction seems to be my genre. I’ve finished one novel, SPIDER FINGERS, about a seventh grade soccer goalie who has to re-invent her life completely after a doctor tells her she cannot play any contact sports.
I’ve got notebooks started for half a dozen novels (not to mention that one never-to-be-finished manuscript in a drawer). Until late June I was working on a YA about a sixteen year old whose planned “Summer of Fun” turns into a “Summer of None” when her mother makes her travel to St. Louis to help clear out her grandparents’ home—it turns out St. Louis has boys, too, as well as certain unsettling family secrets.
But in late June—June 21 to be exact—a killer plot bunny attacked. I was on the road from Montreal, Quebec, to my house, when two characters fell into my mind, along with the outline of a story that has now taken over my life. “Super-ooper-duper Secret Project X” (SODSPX) explores gender identity and gender expression, centered on the junior prom (I never went to mine, so doing the research has been fun). While my central character bears a certain resemblance to my high school self, she lives in today’s world, and it’s been fascinating to see how she behaves in a time that is more open about sexual preference, even as it holds on to certain gender stereotypes.
It feels like this is the novel my life, from high school on, was preparing me to write. It has also felt like a gift from the universe. Every time I’ve come to a point where I needed to get information, I’ve known immediately who to ask. I go to a minor league ball game and a kid walking up the stands is the perfect body-double for the second lead in SODSPX. And on and on. In less than two months I’ve written 220 pages of the “shitty first draft.” The full draft should be complete by the end of August. I’m looking forward to revising, and polishing, and seeing SODSPX turn into what I know it can be.
I also look forward to sending it to two agents who expressed an interest in it when I pitched it to them at a conference in July. That’s right—I broke a rule and pitched an uncompleted project. But only after a pitch on a completed project, when I was asked what else I had. The agents’ interest was another “gift from the universe,” telling me that I was not the only one who found this topic interesting, that I was on to something here.
The writing gig has been a bumpy ride to this point, and I know it won’t be easy from here on out, but SODSPX has renewed my belief that writing YA is what I must do. And when SODSPX is out of my hands, I’ll go back to the “Summer of Fun” and see what I can do with that.
Because, as my mantra goes: “Nothing is wasted on a writer.”
I blog about writing, and life—and now about gender identity, expression, and stereotypes—at wordsrmylife.livejournal.com