Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fall Seven Times

In April 1990, I found myself sitting at a table in an elementary school library in my home town. I had been invited to speak to students on their Writer's Day Celebration. I had co-founded a nonprofit children's theater company the year before with an accomplished professional actor and her sister, an award winning director/choreographer. Many of the kids at the school had seen our first play, The Monster in the Woods. I had been asked to speak to classes about the process I used to create the many fantastical characters in the play and how we animated them through dialogue, song, and movement.

As a thank you for our time, we were treated to lunch in the library. I am not comfortable with such social events but something pushed down my urge to leave and, there I was, sitting across from a man and a woman. The man introduced himself as Jerry. Sitting next to him was his wife, Eileen.

When we started to eat sandwiches, surrounded by the buzz and bustle of other writers and school staff, I realized that something was wrong. Jerry was upset.

"I can't do this anymore," he said.

"I know something is going to break," she said. "You have to hang on."

I didn't know if I should say anything. I could feel the man's frustration, see his unhappiness.

"What kind of writing do you do?" I asked.

"Children's novels," he said. "Eileen writes poetry and picture books."

"That's fantastic," I said. "You're both writing and getting published."

Eileen went quiet.

"The writing isn't the problem," he said. "I have to work another job to have steady income."

"What do you do?" I asked.

"I work for a magazine whose corporate office is close by. I write blurbs about upcoming TV shows. It's money and constant, but I hate it."

"Your newest book is going to catch on," Eileen said. "We're going to be alright. I can feel it."

"I have a Master's degree in writing from Johns Hopkins," Jerry said. "I've had lots of jobs over the years to support my writing, but I'm not sure I can do this anymore."

People were starting to gather up their stuff. I told Jerry that I admired his courage and determination. Although our children's theater company was taking off (we've gone to have over 100,000 kids see our shows), I was reentering teaching in five months, after taking off for four years, to have steady income.

We said goodbye. Neither Jerry nor Eileen were smiling when they left.

The following January, I opened the Philadelphia Inquirer to see Jerry's picture in large display. His 1990 novel, Maniac Magee, had just won the Newbery Award. It went on to win dozens of other awards, and, in 2007 was named one of "Teachers' Top 100 books for Children" by the National Education Association.

Jerry Spinelli didn't give up. He's now written 35 books. Talent is important. So also is determination and perseverance and faith in yourself.

A Japanese proverb says: Fall seven times, stand up eight.

Copyright (2017) by James Hugh Comey

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