My Writing Life: 1

It’s interesting for me to consider where my writing life began. An image from my very early years comes to me: I’m holding a blue crayon and I’m “writing” all across the pages of a picture book. By the time I got to first grade I realized that was not the way to treat a book. I also realized that I hadn’t been writing — I had been scribbling lines on paper.

I was first conscious that I enjoyed writing — and that I might grow up to become a writer — when I was eleven years old and wrote a poem, “I Want a Horse.” It was a four-line poem in iambic tetrameter (I didn’t know that then) with a rhyme scheme of abcb. I still remember the poem to this day, and I’m kind of amazed that I chose to have two of the four lines not rhyme. Did I do that by myself? Or was I modeling the quatrain on poems I had heard? I suspect the latter, but I have no way of knowing..

My poem, “I Want a Horse,” stayed in my mind for so many years that, a few decades after I wrote it, I used it (exactly as I had written it) in one of the educational workbooks I’ve written. So the poem I wrote at the age of eleven was published decades later.

For who knows what reasons, after I wrote the horse poem I stopped writing poetry. For a long, long time. I finally took it up again in the early 2000s, and for several years I wrote just about everything in free verse, including my book Jack and Larry: Jack Graney and Larry, the Cleveland Baseball Dog.

I published my first book of poetry, Crossing the Skyway: Poems, in 2013. Interestingly, one of the poems in the book is about a horse, and a few years after the book was published I blogged about the horse poem. Writers, as you can tell, use things over and over, but in a different way each time. 

The first time I was published I was sixteen years old, and publication came from the encouragement of my high school English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. One of our in-class assignments was to write a personal-experience piece. I wrote about why I hate onions. My teacher strongly encouraged me to send the piece to the local newspaper. I did, and they published it. “Wow!” I thought. “Getting published is easy!”

Of course, getting published is not easy, and I learned that soon enough when I began writing books.

By the time I was in college I was a writer of poetry (only one poem, true), nonfiction (essays, personal experiences, humor, research papers, etc), and fiction. Although I suspect I wrote fiction in grade school and junior high, I don’t remember any of it. The first piece of fiction I remember writing came in tenth grade, when I wrote a short story about a Pony Express rider (horses again!). I remember really liking my own story. Then, several years later, when in college, I researched the Pony Express for some reason and learned that just about every detail I had made up in the story was wrong. Wrong!

Thank goodness that story was never published: it would be too embarrassing to have readers point out the inaccuracies. One thing the experience taught me is this: research fiction before you write it! That’s something I’ve done ever since.

Something else embarrassed me about my high school Pony Express story, and that was the name I gave the hero. Ashley Marathon. It sounded like a such a wonderful name to me when I was sixteen years old. But just a few years later, I began to realize that Ashley (Gone with the Wind notwithstanding) was an unlikely name for a mid-19th century young man to have. Not impossible, but definitely unlikely. The same was even more true of Marathon.

Ever since writing that Pony Express story I have paid careful attention to character names, both first and last. I use three or four different name sources each time I write fiction: Census Bureau information on common first names in each decade, as well as two excellent reference books on the history of last names in the US. 

And I enjoy knowing that a mistake I made early in my writing, when I was sixteen years old, ended up teaching me to research so that I could make stories more realistic.

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Barbara Gregorich’s most recent free verse book is not about a horse. Cookie the Cockatoo: Everything Changes is about the most famous resident of the Brookfield Zoo.

Keeping Cool in Outdoor Kitchens

Every summer my aunt, who lived on a farm, cooked in the outdoor kitchen rather than in the indoor kitchen. The more generic name for such a kitchen is a “summer kitchen,” but my aunt always called it the outdoor kitchen. The farmhouse, built around 1850, wasn’t air conditioned, and on a very hot day cooking in the kitchen was not only intolerable, it also made the rest of the house even hotter.

The old-fashioned farmhouse outdoor kitchen was not like today’s outdoor kitchens, which are literally outdoors, on a patio or other open area around the house. The farmhouse summer kitchen was usually a one-room roofed and enclosed structure (containing a kitchen and nothing else). You had to go outdoors to enter it. That is, you had to walk out of the main house to get to the other little house that was the outdoor kitchen — which is probably why my aunt called it an outdoor kitchen. 

Luckily the people who built the original farmhouse on my aunt and uncle’s farm also built an outdoor kitchen very nearby. This kitchen consisted of a stone floor, stone walls, and wide eaves that kept out the sun. I don’t remember what the roof was made of, but I do remember that the outdoor kitchen always felt cool. Even on a hot day.

I wrote this poem in memory of that kitchen.

A summer [outdoor] kitchen

Outdoor Kitchens

Before the cool hum of air conditioners
Before the glut of quarter-acre plots
When blazing days heightened kitchen heat
When everyone craved a cooling rainstorm
Women found relief in outdoor kitchens

When sizzling bacon and crackling cornbread
Roasting chicken and baking biscuits
Boiling potatoes, wilting greens, and steaming corn
Would have produced indoor saunas
Women cooked in outdoor kitchens

Thick stone walls defied noonday heat
Wide eaves foiled each invading ray
Stone floors remained divinely cool
Air breezed through uncramped space
Distress simmered down in outdoor kitchens

Though abandoned they have not disappeared
Like faithful friends who will not leave
Many linger close to the main house
Look for one when you pass a farm
Symbol of different ways, the outdoor kitchen

After the techno-hum of a long hot day
After a multitude of hydra-headed tasks
When pressures magnify indoor heat
When everyone hungers for relief
Consider the solace of the outdoor kitchen

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Barbara Gregorich’s poems are available in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.          

Two-Way Street

I wrote this poem many years ago, way before I became a Roadie (see The Endless Highway: My Life as a Roadie). It seems, though, that being a Roadie may have been my destiny.

Two-Way Street


People in my early life mistook me for a messenger,
a carrier, courier, bearer, delivery person.
Cousins saddled me with items for Grandma,
who ladened me with numerous inessentials
to transport elsewhere down the road.

Sisyphus with a twist: no rock, no hill, 
just package after endless package. 
They had cars, they had trucks:
why was I their Mercury?

Moving away, I inserted several states 
between me and them. In my new, 
improved state people do not consider me
a runner. If a package is important,
they know all about United Parcel. 

Today I realize the roads travel 
in two directions, 
askers bound  to house and yard, 
while I — I know streets,
shortcuts, 
destination, 
determination:  
I deliver.

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Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. She hopes to put “Two-Way Street” into a second collection.

Earliest Memory: A Wagon Load

Early memories that stay with us throughout our lives must do so because they have some deep meaning to us. Else why would such a memory be so persistent?

My earliest memory is very vivid. After living with it for decades, I decided to address it in a poem.

 
Pulling My Wagon

My earliest memory, the one I remember remembering,
the one in which I was conclusively aware, “I am me,
I am pulling my wagon,” finds me somewhere between

two and three years old, wearing a white cotton
shirt, red corduroy overalls, and Mary Jane shoes.
I am playing in the basement, whose silver-gray concrete

floor slopes strongly away from the center. As I walk
around and around the imposing coal-burning furnace
which heats our house, and from whose raised eminence

the floor tilts way, I hold a black cord in my right hand.
On the other end of that cord is a toy, a flatbed wooden
wagon perhaps six inches long, varnished, with four red

wheels. In the middle of the oblong platform is a round
groove, and in that groove nestles a red wooden sphere
with a small knob-like projection. I consider the sphere

a rider in the wagon and the knob the rider’s head.
Pulling my toy around the furnace is no easy feat.
Although I am too young to understand this,

cords are insufficiently stiff links between puller
and pullee, so despite my determined path, my wagon
does not follow, but veers off toward the cellar walls,

where it crashes, this in turn causing the little red sphere,
which I wish to remain upright, to slip and slide within
its groove like bathtub soap and, sometimes, to fall

out of the groove and off the wagon. I am aware,
as I continue my journey, that things are not going
my way —that what I want to happen is not happening:

the toy does not follow me but wheels off in unpredictable
directions; the rider does not sit upright in his groove
and sometimes does not sit in the groove at all. In the midst

of this, perhaps because of this, I am aware that I am me,
a somebody doing something. . . . I do not have the thought, then,
that doing something in this world is neither easy nor predictable.

Unknown

Unlike my wagon, this one has three “riders,” each of which could  topple during a revolution around the furnace.

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“Pulling my Wagon” appears in Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway.