Helena Writes #3: On a writer’s persistence

Helena Writes
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Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her third post, Helena tells of the persistence required for writers who pursue publication–and how it served her in ultimately publishing her first book, A Grain of Rice. Enjoy!

When personal computers were brand new, in the late 1970s, a friend showed me exponential progression on his computer screen.

“Look at this!” he said.

I was awestruck.  I watched the numbers go from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 to 32 to 64 to 128, just to start. The numbers continued doubling on the screen, up to 40 transactions. That was as far as a personal computer could go in the 70s!

I had begun writing for children a few years before, submitting story after story, honing my skills, getting myriad rejections. But I also got some encouragement from a few editors. That helped me keep going, helped me to continue to write for children, and to keep submitting my work to the marketplace.

Math was never my strength, anything but! But I worked out the transactions up to one hundred doublings of the numbers. Exponential progression. Kids would love this, I thought. I hadn’t yet imagined the pictures the numbers would ultimately inspire me to conceptualize and draw—the book was published in black and white, its drawings in pencil. I was just taken with what the numbers did.

My friend told me he had seen the number sequence in a math problem when he was a young boy in school. I searched for it, thinking I’d pattern a story on it, but never found it. I decided I’d try to write my own. The story took two years to germinate after seeing it on that screen. It came on my birthday. Little did I suspect then that those numbers would become my first published story, and never did I dream the story, A Grain of Rice, would remain in print for 33 years!

I belonged to a writers’ group at the time. Everyone in the group had published books—everyone but me. But with each story I wrote and sent out, I was learning. It is, in fact, the way I learned to write. Writing and writing, submitting and submitting stories; getting rejected and rejected, rejected and rejected and rejected. Yet, sometimes, a hand-written note on a rejection slip would come back to me like a message in a bottle, and I was joyous! Such was the mystique of publishing to me.

Now I’d say it was a sense of destiny. And, a good thing, too.  It kept me going amidst all that rejection. Occasionally, I’d get a full and original letter, addressed to me, about my work. Some of those editors’ comments were really key to shaping the direction my work has taken. I knew that if I stuck with it, I would eventually succeed. I just knew I would not quit.

That was my way, testing myself against the marketplace, and it continues to be a way I recommend. It’s like jumping into the water and having to swim—writing muscles developing, a lifestyle taking shape.

A Grain of Rice was rejected 25 or 35 times. I began working on the pictures. I also wrote many other stories and submitted them to editors, so a lot of things were going.  One day I got a phone call from an editor at Hastings House—they asked to acquire the book. I sat in the fetal position on my couch for an hour.

A Grain of Rice has just been published in a new edition by Random House/Delacorte.

[Persistence in submitting writing] is like jumping into the water and having to swim—writing muscles developing, a lifestyle taking shape.


An Offering

Here is something from a note I found this morning, a notation on a student manuscript from long ago—something that turned up on the back of a small piece of paper in a pile of small papers I cut to staple together as a homemade note pad. Perfect timing! I say this because, after the many long stories I’ve written, I am absorbed by one-word-to-a-page picture book texts. I see that I was playing with that idea when I’d written my comments on my student’s story.  The piece was about a joyful memory of being in a playground as a young child.  It was a writing of sentences and paragraphs. I’d suggested underlining key words. This is how I reworked that idea this morning:  Playground/Crowded/Climbing/Up-side down/Scrambling/Swings/Sky!/Sprinkler/Splashing/ Screeching/Sunny/Summer!

I’m imagining very simple pictures. Words are like the numbers I saw in that math problem. They open a world in my imagination. They may in yours too—one-word-to-a-line stories, taken from a longer draft, or not. I’ve seen some beautiful books lately using that idea.

Will you try Helena’s method of underlining key words to fortify a piece of writing? What part of Helena’s offering resonated with you the most? Share with us in the comments!

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