By Therese Gilardi
For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to visit foreign territories and write about my discoveries. As a girl I used to page slowly through my mother’s “TIME” magazines while waiting for Peter Jennings to report live from London in his khaki trench coat and silk pocket square, reassuring me that there were new lands, customs, cultures and foods waiting out there, somewhere, for me to devour. Until that day came, I decided I would entertain myself by composing stories about everything and everyone I encountered. I believed I had to imagine everything that wound up as part of my long, descriptive tales – I was certain, living in a semi-rural township with lousy weather and no sidewalks, that there was no drama around me, let alone in my life. I based my stories on people and settings I’d learned of as I read my way through the shelves of our small township library. When I wasn’t reading or writing, I suffered my way through school, never fitting in, never finding my stride, hoping I was one of those “late bloomers” talked about in my mother’s magazines.
I never realized, since I spoke with very few others – one doesn’t encounter a lot of companionship eating alone in the school bathroom – that everyone didn’t create dialogue and back stories all day long, or read every word they encounter,no matter how mundane. (If you want to know the difference between the back of a bottle of Prell shampoo and Herbal Essence, I’m your woman.) With the exception of a few English teachers along the way, no one ever seemed to think I had any extraordinary ability – in fact,no one seemed to think I had any great aptitude at all. “Does not live up to her potential” was the most frequent comment on my report cards. I shared the sentiment; I harbored no illusion I could be like my heroine Dame Agatha Christie, who wrote mystery, other genres of fiction and an account of her life on expedition with her husband. I had about as much chance as being a writer like Dame Agatha as I did of becoming the next Peter Jennings. I was certain, since I wasn’t in some exotic locale, that I was having any adventures about which anyone would wish to read.
When I arrived at college, still unwilling to claim my identity as a writer, things improved. Living with a fellow literature lover and studying English and French, I met others who saw reading as a privilege and shared my love of the written word. Though a few of my professors tried to encourage me to write more creatively, I still wasn’t ready – creative writing was not for the likes of me. The closest I got to allowing myself to surrender to my secret desire to write was the submission of a few mediocre articles to the college newspaper. (I must say, though, that I should give myself credit for the creative writing I did on my computer science final, in which I managed to convince my professor to give me a high grade after a blue book full of impassioned arguments about why I could not grasp the difference between various computer languages.)
I continued to drift aimlessly through early marriage and motherhood, happy but haunted by the fact something intangible was missing from my life. I stalked the library at every opportunity and bored my son stiff with his insistence that he listen just one more time to one of my impromptu made-up stories. Until one afternoon, as I sat in my quiet little house in New England while my young daughter slept, surrounded by more gallons of homemade applesauce than we could eat in a year, I realized I would go mad if I did not find a creative outlet. I picked up one of those free hotel pens my husband had picked up on one of his many trips and began recording my impressions, frustrations and lamentations about anything and everything. Accounts of my days, thoughts about motherhood … anything was fair game. No one else would see my lined canary pages of poetry, short stories and confessional essays not even my husband knew I stored in the bottom cupboard of my grandmother’s old maple china hutch.
At least that’s what I thought. Until the day we moved house, and I came across my mover, hunched over in my rose-colored wing chair, my sheaf of yellow pages between his freckled fingers. When he looked up, I could see it looked like he’d been crying. I remember being numb with shock that my writing could affect anyone like that. For weeks afterward, I pictured him, his forehead furrowed, his shoulders shaking. I knew it was a sign – I was meant to be a writer, no matter that I still didn’t live anywhere exciting or lead a life that was anything other than pedestrian.
I purchased a copy of “Writer’s Market” as well as a thick book that contained encouraging essays by Frank McCourt and Maeve Binchy and a list of publishers willing to accept submissions from beginning writers. I polished a few personal essays and a short story, sent them off for submission to small magazines, and had the misfortune of achieving publication. I’m kidding of course; I was elated that my words were appearing in print, and I could acknowledge to myself and others that I was indeed a writer, reporting on my life just like I was Peter Jennings. I am, though, serious when I say that immediate validation of my work gave me a gross misconception about the business of writing. I was certain, given the fact that I had never succeeded at anything else before, that I had found my niche, and that writing would be an easy gig.
I know you’re laughing right about now, and you should be. Obviously writing is not the high-stakes profession of the first responder, pilot, or ER doctor. But stringing words together until I can make you see, hear, taste, smell and feel what is in my heart is a lot more challenging than most people realize. Over the nine-plus years I’ve been writing for publication I’ve been surprised to find that the submissions I thought had no chance of publication have appeared in the pages of prestigious magazines, while essays and stories I’ve been certain had hit their mark have never been invited to leave the cover of my top desk drawer.
I’ve found writing to be a funny, fickle business. Ironically, my personal life over the past decade and a half has also been surprising and unexpected. Somehow Peter Jennings, rest his soul, must have tossed me some fairy dust across the universe as I followed in his footsteps, living for many years in Europe, where I worked and traveled among many foreign people whose lands,customs, cultures and food provided fodder for my writing. My experiences living abroad gave me a lot of material for my work, for which I am grateful. However, the more I’ve left the comfort of home, the more I’ve realized that my early perceptions were wrong: with the exception of travel writers and restaurant reviewers, most writers need never leave the comfort of their armchairs in order to create charismatic characters, heart-stopping settings, and sensational stories. Those of us old enough to read and write need only worry about applying what life has taught us – life itself is the great creator, the ultimate writer with the unforgettable tales. It’s the job of the writer to act, like Peter Jennings, as life’s correspondent.
Therese Gilardi is a poet, essayist and novelist who lives in the hills above Los Angeles with her husband, children and numerous pets. Therese’s poetry and short fiction can be found online at “Literary Mama”, “The 13th Warrior Review”, and “The Dirty Napkin”, as well as in numerous print publications and the books “Knowing Pains” and “So Far and Yet So Near: Stories of Americans Abroad”. Therese’s paranormal romance “Matching Wits With Venus”, about a Hollywood matchmaker and the Roman god Cupid, will be released by Astraea Press in mid-April.