At least, I beat Grandma Moses’ record. She was discovered at age eighty; it happened to me three days short of my sixtieth birthday.
I always did do things out of sync with my contemporaries. While others went straight from high school to college, I took off a year to find myself. Staying lost for an unusually long time, I finally obtained my Bachelor’s degree upon taking one or more courses nearly every term for nineteen years. I married at age thirty, only after family and classmates threw up their hands in despair. (Most married young in my farm community.) I didn’t get certified to teach until I acquired a Master’s degree that took only seven years; in a better-late-than-never scenario, I was fifty-four. And although I’d first learned Spanish in the mid-eighties and then immediately forgot it during the whole raising-kids-not-to-be-savages phase of my life, I sought out opportunities to re-learn it. The success went to my head and at age fifty-seven foolishly switched from a cushy job as an ESL teacher—where everyone loved me, by the way—to that of a Spanish teacher—where, you guessed it, I became the devil incarnate to a handful of hormone-crazed teens. Never mind that my eighty other students found me to be amazingly stimulating. (Writers are given a license to exaggerate; are they not?)
At any rate, unlike Grandma Moses, who was discovered shortly after she launched her painting career in her seventies, I’ve been writing for twenty-seven years. I’m acutely aware of the number because it correlates with my son’s birth and untold hours of reading Dr. Seuss, Al Perkins, and Robert Quackenbush.
To give myself some slack, it’s not as if I were writing everyday and stockpiling rejection after rejection during all that time. That only started happening recently. At the risk of embarrassing myself, I did win a couple of questionable contests back in the eighties. I was one of 100 finalists selected from 5,000 in the America’s New Traditional Homemakers Contest sponsored by Working Mother magazine in February 1986. Oddly enough, the frozen-food industry held a contest seeking people who would speak out on the importance of incorporating frozen food into everyday food preparation. I’m not kidding. The other, the Redbook/Merle Norman Makeover Contest of 1984, netted me a whopping $50 worth of Merle Norman products and a complimentary makeover. I’ve since lost my entry—no such thing as “save” on a typewriter—but seem to remember stressing the importance of “washing” my face with water instead of soap. Ha! I also wrote a few (less embarrassing) newspaper articles in the nineties. All of these but the Redbook contest entry will become available on this blog if you only ask.
After a few years in a classroom, I decided that I might not have Grandma Moses’ stamina, so I stopped teaching and focused on writing. Thanks to email, rejections came within days rather than months. But I knew my luck had changed when I attended my first writing conference in the fall of 2011 and my name was announced. Bonita Herold, First Place, Illustrated Fiction, Southern Breeze SCBWI Annual Contest. Wow. I went onstage, grinning from ear to ear, knowing good things were about to happen. Well, they didn’t—not measurably, anyway—although I started getting more personalized rejections due to my subject line: “Winner, Illustrated Fiction.” Ah, those agents and editors were ever so hopeful.
I edited that darn manuscript dozens of times and finally changed it from lyrical rhyme to poetic prose after hearing someone read it aloud and butcher it in the telling. Still no takers.
Back in September, I wrote a story with a moral. I thought it was wonderful, got impatient, and sent it off immediately. Of course, it wasn’t wonderful; first attempts rarely are. So then I followed my usual path of re-writing—sometimes to the detriment of the story, no doubt—and eventually requested comments from my critique group.
The bad news for me is that I love to read and sometimes do it to excess; the good news, however, is that I try to write something nearly everyday. Particularly inspiring was the Picture Book Marathon group I joined in February. The point was to write (or, at least, start) a PB manuscript every day of February except two, correlating with the twenty-six miles of a marathon. I adhered to the plan . . . until February 8. Then I realized that the story I was working on begged for research and much more depth. I knew where I wanted the story to go and penned an outline. Finding myself deeply engrossed, I dreamed about my story repeatedly over the next month and wrote from first thing in the morning to late at night. Before long, a 25,000 word middle grade novel lay completed on my desk. No takers as yet, but I’ve only contacted two agents. It’s too early to be discouraged.
Once Grandma Moses was discovered, her career spanned another two decades; there’s still hope for mine.