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Writing my First Book at Age Sixty-Nine
This is a guest post by Dean Robertson.
I wish I could say, as I know many authors can, that I started writing as a child, that I wrote little stories which I read to my parents and my best friend. I wish I could say I have shelves of journals I kept in high school or college. I wish I could tell you I kept a writer’s journal during my three decades of teaching, meticulously recording conversations overheard in restaurants or descriptions of a woman’s dress or a man’s hat.
I did none of those things. In the late 1970’s—before I started teaching full time—and in the early ’80’s—in the first years in the classroom, I wrote and published four essays. After that I must have realized that I had only so much passion in me and that mine was ignited in front of a chalkboard engaged in lively discussion with teenagers about literature. The only writing I did was to complete a good many essay assignment along with the students.
Over the years, I have occasionally had what I now recognize were really very good ideas for long essays—the experience of recording books on tape; keeping bees; raising llamas. I did research, took notes, made outlines, but I never wrote those essays. I lacked the energy, or the interest, or the discipline required for sitting down and doing the job. For a long time I kept all that material in an old four-drawer oak file with brass labels from a railway office. Somewhere along the line, I misplaced the folders with the research, the notes, and the outlines. It would be difficult to reproduce them now. I gave the file cabinet to my son when he started his first teaching job.
In 2006, I retired from teaching. I did not spend the next eight years preparing to write a book. I spent them catching up on old New Yorkers, reading the New York Times online, re-reading my favorite nineteenth-century novels—Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire and George Eliot’s Middlemarch—and a few more modern favorites—Faulkner’s The Unvanquished, Absalom, Absalom, and “The Bear”; Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels; and Margaret Drabble’s early ones. I’m sure there were many more. I read, and I discovered the guilty pleasure of naps.
But one morning in March of 2014 I woke up early, as I always do, made a cup of tea, sat down at my laptop, and started writing. I wrote all day and into many nights—not eating well and certainly not sleeping enough—for about seven months. Friends worried; cousins called more often and threatened to visit; everyone was alarmed. I only talked to the few who wanted to hear about what I was writing.
Sometime in October, Looking for Lydia; Looking for God appeared— over two hundred pages in my computer files. I had to admit it looked a good deal like a book, although I never once used that word until the day in January of 2015 that I signed a contract with a publisher.
In a television interview on a local news station, I was asked, “What preparation did you do for writing this book?” On the YouTube video of that interview, I look puzzled for a minute before I smile and answer, “None.”
I don’t know if that is strictly true. I spent my life reading very good literature. Although I didn’t write stories as a child, I read them. I was a compulsive reader; if I didn’t have a book, you could find me pouring over the back of the cereal box at the breakfast table. I have never been able to not read. My best memories of my father are of his reading to me at bedtime. There is a passage in Looking for Lydia:
“Stories are meant to be heard and felt. One of my fondest memories from childhood is my father’s reading to me at night. I only wanted to hear one book, an old volume of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books. We lived on two hundred acres of North Georgia woods, and my fantasy life consisted almost entirely of becoming Mowgli, the child raised by wolves, the child whose best friends, Baloo and Bagheera, were a great brown bear and a sleek and dangerous black panther. I read “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and I longed for a mongoose. I remember very little about my father, a kind but distant man who died when I was sixteen, but I can still hear his voice, half a century later, reading those stories.”
There was a guest post on Amber Gregg’s website that caught my attention:
“You’re Not a Writer if You’re Not a Reader.”
Maybe I did prepare for writing my first book at age sixty-nine.
Dean Robertson is a retired English teacher; she is approaching seventy. She spent thirty years teaching literature in independent secondary schools and small private colleges. When she retired, Dean cut off her schoolteacher’s bun and headed to the Tidewater region of Virginia. In 2013 and 2014, she had a bad fall, convalesced at the Lydia Roper Home, bought a co-op, and wrote a book. In 2015, she found a publisher for that book and had her first grandchild. In 2016, she is writing a weekly blog, supporting other writers, and working on her next book.
Looking for Lydia; Looking for God is a memoir. It is a spiritual memoir. It is a confession. It is a family saga and a cameo of life in a southern city after the Civil War. It is the mystery of a nineteenth-century woman, come from Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia, the year the war ended, and the story of the mysteries that don’t get solved and the questions that don’t get answered. It is a study of the Bible that began in the Lydia Roper Home and has grown outward in the most unexpected ways. It is a story about growing older and a story about beginnings. It is a story for everyone.
Dean answers all emails and enjoys getting them!
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My great thanks to Amber Gregg for asking me to write a guest blog for Judging More Than Just The Cover
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