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Steps in a Lifetime of Professional Writing: destiny, determination or hard work?

Number One: The Writing Tree

We’ve featured on this blog site many of our successful Hoosier writers telling their stories from time to time and giving hints on how to succeed in a writing career. Now I think I’ll follow my friends and talk about my own writing career. I wish I could click off a well-organized recipe for success or summon perfect career-altering advice to would-be writers who want to “go professional,” and I do offer workshops in successful non-fiction writing, but this isn’t a magic formula course. I have to say I think building a writing career is a combination of education, grinding effort, learning from “flops,” (which are many) benefiting from present needs in the market and being in the right place at the right time. No magic wands. Still, I’ll chronicle a few landmarks and will enjoy remembering sixty some years of writing, often for pay. Maybe hints for others will come out of the nostalgia trip.

In our back yard in the (then) far northside of  Indianapolis in the 1940s was a young elm tree.

It did not know it was destined to become the victim of an elm-tree blight epidemic which would take down almost every elm in the Midwest, but happily sat instead about ten feet tall with small branches near our brick outside grilling oven. Behind it in this 2/3 of an acre lot on Carvel Avenue, near the Monon tracks, was an abandoned city refuse lot, with many interesting pieces of junk from yesteryear.

But the elm tree was good for climbing for an eight or nine-year-old girl who was often out-of-doors, roaming the woods and fields around the house either with neighborhood friends or alone. These were the days when children left their homes in the neighborhood in the morning after a quick bowl of Wheaties, dropped in for lunch and were outside till supper time. We wound trails through the wooded lots, found kittens among the ruins of the old ice house across the street (there had been a pond, now dried up)  and picked delicious grapes among the abandoned truck gardens skirting the refuse area.

I climbed the elm tree when I was alone and took with me a small brown spiral notebook. I perched comfortably between two branches. No human was around. Birds sang, the wind rustled through the Lombardy poplars and bees buzzed in the strawberry blossoms in my dad’s adjacent large garden. I had come there to write. It was an urge inside me, barely formed as yet and yet insistent. “Write, look around you and write,” a voice said. Where did that urge, so familiar to many of us, come from? Not from my parents. They didn’t suggest anything for my sister and me to consider as a career or even childhood occupation. Plenty of books in the house, intelligent discussions about politics and history going on in there, dog and cat to play with, good dinner to eat—but no suggestions for developing talent.

Some people would claim genetics. My dad, who was a judge at this time, had been a journalism graduate at IU and had been a young reporter for the Indianapolis Times. True, he and another reporter had covered the Ku Klux Klan trials in Indiana in the 1920s and had won the Pulitzer Prize for that newspaper with their coverage of the bringing to justice of D.C. Stevenson and his accomplices. But I did not know that at all at that time, and indeed, my dad did not ever speak of it. School offered opportunities to write small pieces, but they were not interesting.

What was I writing? Do I still have that spiral note book?  I wish I did; like much of a precious hoard of childhood hours it is long gone.

I believe there were poems.

Growing up in Indiana in the 30s and 40s meant becoming well acquainted with local poetry. We knew James Whitcomb Riley but even then wondered why we studied him,  thinking him just a little odd and not understanding the by-now gone old Hoosier dialect. Nobody I knew wanted to emulate the goblins getting “ya if ya don’t watchout.”

No, we were taught Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Walter DeLaMare, Kipling and a whole host of lesser poets which suited the public taste for memorializing cultural and historical heroes and poets of the woodlands and lakes. Every spring Public School 70 had a poetry contest. Each student must memorize a poem and compete by grade; prizes were awarded. So the boys among us chanted “Gunga Din, Din, Din” and “Listen my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.”

Girls could learn those too but generally chose nature or adventure poems, Rose Fyleman’s “Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden” or “Sheridan’s ride,” Thus we caught some of the drama and meaning of a fine heritage of culture and history. Bible stories were read every day in the third grade; psalms were memorized. Classics of literature were part of the educational plan.

Poems were in my own little spiral book, and paragraphs about flowers and rabbits, unimpressive and childish prose, no doubt. And when spring came I climbed down out of the tree and built myself a little lean-to in the nearby woods where I could put down a small blanket, observe the violets and spring beauties and trillium—sometimes raindrops beginning to fall, first gentle as a mist and then more insistent, and write about them.

At some point, as I headed home for dinner from my writing shed, I must have decided I wanted to do this, much more of it. An inner urge, coming from I’ll never know where was calling, akin perhaps to the later urges to be noticed socially, then to find a mate and bear children.  I knew there was more to come from the unidentifiable urge, and I was right.

Any takeaways for others? Only that reading excellent literature and poetry and living in nature can stimulate responses in those who are listening.

CivilWarIndiana-smNancy Niblack Baxter is the author of books available from Hawthorne Publishing; click back for her new title A Cabinet of Curiosities from the Civil War in Indiana.