Escaping the Tupperware Tub
My mother says that she knew I would become a writer when I began talking at a freakishly early age. I suppose she had to believe that. When you're a young mother who finds herself in the eerie position of conversing with a chatty six-month-old, I imagine your choices are limited to believing your child will turn out to be an author or accepting that your baby is possessed and waiting for him to self-levitate and spin his head like an owl.
I've known I wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. As soon as I got my first library card, I announced to anyone who would listen that books written by me would soon be on library shelves.
If I were to fictionalize the story of my life, the first few chapters would contain tales of my youthful achievements, grossly exaggerated in order to make me look like a little genius. I would invent something dark and mysterious for my teen years because readers would be bored by the awkward, mostly uneventful, suburban truth. Or I might skip my adolescence entirely and jump to the part when the Edward Kelsey Moore of my novel decides that the only sensible use for the gifts I've made up for him would be to become a writer. After that, my protagonist would suffer very artfully over an adversity or two. Then, at 25, he would triumph over his woes with the publication of his first masterpiece.
Life has played out differently for the real me. My precocious period was over by my second birthday. And a few years after I first declared my intention to become a writer, I began to play the cello and took a 30-year detour from writing.
Well, not a detour, exactly. I wrote plenty. At first, I scribbled down enough words to fill a thick notebook. Then a few notebooks. Then a small box. Then a couple of small boxes. Finally, a large Tupperware tub in the basement of my house became the resting place for hundreds of stories and essays I had written over the course of three decades. To be more precise, that Tupperware tub was the grave of hundreds of beginnings of stories and essays. Unlike fictional Edward, I never managed to finish anything.
For decades, my pattern remained consistent. Full of excitement over each new project, I would begin to write. But then I'd have to prepare for a concert, or my cello students would need extra attention, or there might be a Doctor Who marathon on TV. There was always some distraction that kept me from finishing.
Unsurprisingly, my habit of wandering away from things rather than seeing them through had also caused trouble with my music career, my friendships, my romantic life, and my financial stability. So around my 40th birthday, I vowed that I would change. I set a goal for myself of finishing one short story, thinking wrongly, it turned out that getting to the end of a story would both snap me out of my bad habit and rid me of the writing bug once and for all.
As it happened, the deadline of the annual short story contest for the Chicago Public Radio series "Stories On Stage" was approaching at about the same time that I promised myself I would finally become a closer. With that contest in mind, I began a short story inspired by my great aunt, Oleytha. She was the greatest storyteller I've ever known, and she was also a funeral connoisseur who traveled all over town, attending funeral services for anyone to whom she had even the slightest connection. The only thing my great-aunt loved more than a well-executed funeral service was issuing scathing critiques of services that didn't meet her high standards. She gleefully badmouthed everything: the floral display, the outfit on the deceased, the quality and volume of the grieving. From the first paragraph of the story my great-aunt inspired, I was certain it was the best thing I'd ever written.
But then I got distracted yet again. When the contest deadline came, that short story went, unfinished, into the tub in the basement.
My writing career might have languished in the Tupperware tub, but a few months later my music career and my writing aspirations collided in one of those coincidences that would be wildly unbelievable in a novel. I was hired to play in a string quartet for a reception in downtown Chicago. When I arrived at the gig, I discovered that the reception was a celebration for the winners of the short story contest that I hadn't managed to enter. I spent three hours playing Mozart quartets and kicking myself for falling back into my old habit of not finishing. That evening, I made a new promise to myself. I vowed that I would do whatever I had to do to never feel that awful again.
When that same contest was announced again the next summer, I fished the unfinished story based on my great-aunt out of the tub and finished it. That short story, "Grandma and the Elusive Fifth Crucifix," won the contest and began my writing career. Since finishing that story, I've had a number of unforeseen, wonderful experiences. Several other stories found homes in literary journals. My first novel became a bestseller and was optioned by a major film studio. I've been able to meet some of my favorite writers. I had an international book tour. I've had an adventure worthy of the fictional Edward who got everything right at a young age. And those big, dramatic moments make for excellent party stories. But the greatest experience of my writing career to date was the walk from my front door to the corner mailbox with the envelope holding my first finished story. The impact of that short walk has been immeasurable. I still remember every step of that journey to the mailbox and I pursue that feeling every time I sit down to write something new.
And if I need a reminder of the importance of finishing, all I have to do is look at that Tupperware tub. It now lives in my office beneath my writing desk; just so I don't forget.