By Julianne Palumbo
When I was very young, I used to write poems on 3 by 5 index cards and paste them onto the blank pages of a large scrapbook. Then, I’d crayon pictures next to them, half-circle trees outlined in Electric Lime green with dots of Scarlet red apples scattered below. My coloring was never worthy of the 64-count Crayola box that I relished, the untouched points lining up in a progression of vibrancy. Perhaps my poetry was not much better. It looked small surrounded by all that white space. At seven, I hadn’t yet mastered the art of figurative language. A tree was typically only a tree. Once in a while it was its roots and its branches, but always I wanted it to be as vivacious as the colors in that box.
My parents typically dispensed the appropriate amount of praise when I showed them my poems, always willing to read my new creations and to pass them around to collect the obligatory nods and smiles of relatives. It was enough to encourage me to keep writing.
But, I remember one poem I wrote while passing a few hours at my grandmother’s house. I was seven, and visiting her home always left me feeling like I never could really sink into the chairs she covered with dishtowels before our visit. I would roam around her quiet raised ranch, inhaling the scent of cherry tobacco and mothballs, and scouring the shelves of black and white family photos searching for a likeness of my own face. The wood floors creaked achingly under my quiet steps as I peeked into the lifeless rooms upstairs searching for the perfect place to write.
The poem I wrote that day was about best friends, a boy and a girl, perhaps a friend I wished I had. In the poem, the friends played together all day, and then, when nighttime came, the boy stayed over the girl’s house. I remember showing it to my grandmother who whispered to my mom, pointing to my small paper with her curled and spotted finger. My grandmother handed my poem back to me. “Put it away,” she said.
I remember the embarrassed cry that welled up inside when she informed me that little boys don’t stay with little girls and that I shouldn’t show the poem to anyone else. I remember ripping up the poem and being so embarrassed that I had written it. I snuck it into the trash bin under her sink, wishing it would just decompose among the milk cartons and coffee grinds so it would be forgotten.
I’m not sure why I remember this so vividly. Perhaps it was my first experience with writer’s rejection.
But, the pull to keep writing remained strong. I wrote through high school, contributing to my school newspaper and entering poetry contests, but mostly I wrote for myself. My writing was usually well received as youthful writing often is. Adults are happy when a teen expresses herself in writing. No one really pays attention to the words she says or to the stirrings that hide behind them.
I didn’t experience rejection again until my valedictorian address was spread across the chopping block by a Sister of Mercy at the all girls’ Catholic school I attended. Sister Marie said something about my speech not being religious enough before she took her merciless red marker to my manifesto. I had earned the title of Valedictorian but apparently not the right to say what I wanted at the podium. It was my first attempt at the art of compromise, actually daring to remind her that I was writing the speech and that it was important that I believed in what I was going to say. It was perhaps my first chance to be heard by my peers, really listened to, and I wanted them to know me through my words.
After high school and college, I practiced law for many years. Law, with all its terseness and arid sentences parceled out into tiny billable minutes, parched my writer’s voice. I wrote legal and business articles profusely, but my creative side nearly wilted under the weight of all those legalisms. During those tedious days I longed to return to the imaginative and colorful. I allowed myself to think back on my earlier years and to remember myself as a prolific creative writer.
It was motherhood and all of the overwhelming feelings that come with birthing and raising another human being that brought my pen back to the page. The joys and struggles cried to be vented someplace. It strikes me now that an introvert like me suddenly became so comfortable sharing myself with you and countless readers I’ve never met. If you knew me in person, you would know very little about what I need and what makes me happy. If you read my writing, you will know so much more.
We write to be read, to be understood, and to understand. We write because when someone else reads us and processes her own pain, we have given a gift. You are either a writer or you’re not. You either understand the need to put down words or you don’t. You will either read someone’s writing and desperately need to know them, or you won’t.
I found that old poetry scrapbook the other day. It had been tucked into a cardboard box in my parent’s cellar then moved to my basement when they cleaned out theirs. It surprised me to find that the cover was nothing more than an industrial speckled tan with a thin functional bronze frame thoughtlessly surrounding the word “Scrapbook.”
In truth, I hadn’t even filled half of the pages with my index card poems. The fancy gold cover, the gilded tipped pages, and the large satin ribbon of my memory had been imagined. I had remembered the book teeming with poetry that documented a young girl’s life with the mastery of a memoirist. But, the poems that had seemed so large back then were in fact nothing more than a few words written squarely on pre-penciled lines. They contained barely even a simile, and many of them were loaded with treacherous rhyme.
Inside the scrapbook was my old valedictorian address, written in bubbly letters, blue pen on a stack of oversized index cards, tea-stained by age. It’s funny how those two relics of my writing past found refuge together for those thirty dry years. It’s as if they knew someday I’d return to them.
As I opened the scrapbook and turned its thick manila pages, a small creak in the binding reminded me of that old feeling of putting myself out there and having it torn. I remembered thinking that day that I hadn’t meant any harm by my words.
When I decided to leave my law partnership and take up writing again, I also decided that I would embrace the rejection that would inevitably follow an attempt at a writing career. I vowed I wouldn’t let fear of rejection silence me. Instead, I would drink in each word of criticism like it was the last drop of water in my inspirational well.
We face rejection in so many facets of our lives. Why then is it so difficult to stomach when it comes in the name of improving something important to us?
I submitted my young adult novel manuscripts to professional editors and poured over their redlines like they were treasure maps to the spot where my future best seller was buried. I refused to allow myself to feel the sting of their criticism. Instead, I read between their cryptic lines, sifting out any tidbit or morsel that would help me to reach the better writer trapped deep inside of me. I told myself that the editors were not offering criticism to make me feel bad but because they understood the human need to communicate well. They were helping me to reach my goal, and I wouldn’t allow my pride or my sensitivity to silence my own voice.
There are so many good writers out there. And for each of those, there are that many more who are even better. I read those writers like I am prospecting their gold, sifting their gravel through my strainer. Turning and shaking it until I find that tiny glittering bit that will raise my own writing, inspire me to reach deeper, to try harder. With each critique or rejection letter, I strive to glean something, anything that will move me forward even a step.
Then I come across a piece of writing that makes me stop short, hold my breath, and wish I could have put those very words down in that very same way. Pangs of writer envy, I guess, but not in a way that shuts me down, in a way that makes me root for the writer to continue to spread her gift to the world. I realize that I had to write those simple poems about tree branches that dropped apples in order to write the better ones about trees branches that blossomed.
I turn the page in my old poetry scrapbook and lift the tired satin ribbon that marks the page. There, in the center, is a poem about me. I read it and I know myself.
I am a writer.
Julianne Palumbo’s poems, short stories and essays have been published in Literary Mama, Ibettson Street Press, YARN, The MacGuffin, The Listening Eye, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Mamalode, Coffee + Crumbs, and others. She is the author of Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013), and Announcing the Thaw (Finishing Line Press, 2014), poetry chapbooks about raising teenagers. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for my YA poem, “Stuffing Bears” and received a Letter of Merit from the SCBWI in the 2014 Magazine Merit Awards. She is also the Editor of Mothers Always Write, an online literary magazine for mothers by mother writers.