Recently, I was rereading an old manuscript of mine—a memoir, as it happens—and in it, I had written: “Storytelling has curative powers.” I’ve always known that is true. The curative power of storytelling has helped me through the best and worst of times in my life. Storytelling is how I cope with my own issues, how I mother my children, how I teach my students—storytelling is how I live.
When I was a child and my father—a career serviceman—was frequently gone, I told myself happy stories of things we would do when he returned. When he didn’t return, because he’d been killed in action in Vietnam, I told myself happy stories of things we might do if he returned. (I never really believed he was dead—the casket was closed and I was a literal-minded eight-year-old.) After my mother (quickly) remarried, I told myself not-so-happy and often rather frightening stories of what might happen if Daddy returned and found his family had been co-opted.
The happy stories made me feel better and gave me hope. The not-so-happy stories were curative in their own way, too—they helped me process the “what ifs” of my upside-down world.
For her own reasons, my mother didn’t want to hear my stories. I began my writing career that year. I taught myself to type because writers type—I’d seen it on TV, so it had to be true. Then I began typing up my little stories, some with happily-ever-afters, and some filled with what I imagined the blood and gore of war would look like.
This was also the year I fully embraced the novel. I had—by necessity—had a short relationship with picture books. I lived in Okinawa from toddlerhood to nearly first grade, and no one ever read to me there. My mother was busy and our mama-san, Kimiko, a Chinese-Ryukan girl, spoke no English. When I returned to the United States and started school, I did not even know the English alphabet—forget reading or writing! I heard the other children talking about reading and writing, and I knew that I had to find the key to unlock that secret world. I devoured picture books but it wasn’t long before I was cognitively ready to move on. By the third grade, the fall after my father’s death, picture books no longer satisfied me. Luckily, I had a librarian who knew me in ways that my own mother didn’t know me. She began recommending books for me to read.
It didn’t take long before I wanted to write a novel, too. I wanted lots of word count to explore my characters’ feelings, and short stories just weren’t enough space for me any longer!
Writing was not an activity that was appreciated in my house. I come from a long line of musicians. My grandfather, Pop Rhinehart, had a successful orchestra in the 1940s and 1950s—my grandmother and my uncle were also in the band, which traveled around the southeast and played the pop music of the times. By the time I came along, Pop had retired from performing and taught music to all the kids in Montgomery County, including my brother and me. My brother was an apt student. He was (and still is) a talented musician, easily taught. He plays any instrument he touches and plays it well. He was my grandfather’s pride and joy. And for my mother, this was familiar ground. Me? Not so much. I did learn how to read music, but I was not a great musician, nor was I motivated to improve. When I should have been practicing the guitar, I was hiding from my mother with my books and my writing notebooks or typewriter.
Since I never had a writer to emulate, it never occurred to me that writing was a viable career option. If someone had told me, “Candie, someday you’ll write for a living,” I would have laughed. I knew I would work—my mother started working in 1966, on the day I started first grade. But the only two things I ever wanted to do—writing and teaching—were dismissed by my mother. “You’ll never make any money at that!” she would say. For her, an occupation was only as worthy as its money-making potential.
While I never really considered “Writer” as a career option, I did secretly yearn for the experience of having someone read a book of mine and proclaim it worthy. Throughout elementary school, there were a number of books I read over and over—The Moffats, Waiting for Marcy, the Trixie Belden mysteries—and sometimes I would reach the end of a book and turn immediately to the beginning and start all over. I longed to write the same kind of book, a book a child would read and read again.
Fast forward twenty years from sixth grade to my early thirties. Through the kindness of a close friend, I had the opportunity to get my first byline in a business magazine. I began writing (and getting paid) as a freelancer about the same time I went back to school and began writing academic papers in earnest. The feedback was good and good for me—it was validating to hear the positive comments (and the checks were a nice plus). But I still never considered myself a “writer.” I never called myself that.
That all changed when I discovered the Internet. (Not discovered it as in the Al Gore sense, but in the dial-up and jump onto the Information Highway sense!) I found the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and Romance Writers of America (RWA). I began corresponding with real authors and soon I met actual writers and authors—real people with real books out there and those, like me, who were writing and learning.
Around the same time, my mother called one day to tell me that I needed to come and get the letters she’d saved for me.
“What letters?” I asked.
“The letters I saved for you—the letters your father wrote to me.”
This was a surprise. My mother is not sentimental, and other than a framed photo of my father that I had kept in my room, I don’t remember my mother saving anything of my father’s.
Someone had broken into her basement storage locker, opened her boxes and rifled through her things. The perp had stolen my father’s medals—and the flag that covered my father’s casket. The letters were all there, but they’d been opened and tossed about. I collected them into five packing boxes and took them home.
It took a long while for me to be able to read any of the letters through from start to finish without bawling my eyes out. To hear my father’s words in my mind after so many years was exhilarating—and painful. After a few weeks, I was able to put my grief aside (not fully, but to a certain degree) and read the letters with a more clinical eye. The letters encompassed their marriage—fifteen years—and all the trials and tribulations of the military life.
I discovered a lot about my father that I’d never known. The most important discovery was one that lit that side of my world that had been dark for so long—my father was a writer, a wonderful writer! He had written long, lovely, detailed letters to my mother about the places he was stationed at, the people he encountered, and the people he had left behind—my mother, my brother and me.
This was a legacy that was a long time coming but one that I embraced immediately. My father had been a writer—and I am a writer—and writing is something I share with him. From that moment on, I quit denying that I’m a writer. I started telling people, when they asked what I do, “I am a writer. I write.” And I gave myself permission to leap into writing full time.
In 2003, I received a grant to attend the SCBWI national conference in Los Angeles. I submitted for critique the first few pages of a middle grade novel I was working on about a modern-day girl named Zoey who travels back in time to the winter of 1811 and finds herself in the midst of the New Madrid Earthquakes. Mary Wade—a lovely librarian and children’s author from Texas—critiqued the manuscript and told me she was submitting it for an award—the Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award. I didn’t know what that meant, but I was thrilled to hear it. How validating! Even more validating was when I won the award! I thought I’d get a certificate. I didn’t. Instead, SCBWI sent out a press release to editors at the major publishing houses in New York City. Within days, I’d heard from over 20 editors who wanted to see the full manuscript.
There was no full manuscript. There were 40 pages. But opportunity was knocking, and I was prepared, so I told all of them I’d send the manuscript out as soon as I gave it another looksee. Then I finished writing the book. I was ready. I’d been preparing myself for this moment for a long time. After a few weeks, I submitted the full manuscript to 25 editors. I was rejected many times, but an editor at Random House made an offer. The book, The Legend of Zoey, was acquired in April 2004 and debuted in June 2006.
Since then, I’ve published a second book, a biography titled Vivian Vande Velde: Author of Fantasy Fiction, and I’ve written a dozen more manuscripts. Life intervened a few years ago, with my mother’s long and debilitating illness and a full-time (and fulfilling) position as an English professor, but I recently got back in the writing saddle and I’m about to hit the trail.
The Legend of Zoey is a book I’m proud of—besides the Sue Alexander Award, it is a Volunteer State Book Award nominee. Most importantly, it is a book that kids (and adults) have responded to positively.
A couple of years ago, I received an e-mail from a young person who had just finished reading The Legend of Zoey. She had written to tell me that she loved the book so much that she had finished it and immediately turned back to page one and started reading it again.
I cried. What a wonderful story she had told me. A validating and curative story. And this kind of story is the reason I will keep writing, no matter the vagaries of fate or the economy or the publishing climate. Writing isn’t something I do. Writer is something I am—published or not. I write because I can’t not write. I must tell the stories that are in my head and my heart. The stories keep me sane and happy. The stories cure me.
Candie Moonshower is currently at work writing, revising and querying several middle grade, young adult and adult manuscripts. She has extensive experience leading conference workshops for adults interested in writing or children’s literature. She teaches college English and works regularly as a freelance writer, publishing in regional and national magazines. For more information, visit www.CandieMoonshower.com. Contact Candie Moonshower via e-mail at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
School Library Journal wrote about THE LEGEND OF ZOEY:
“Set in two time periods, Moonshower’s novel is a riveting look at actual earthquakes in New Madrid, MO, in 1811-12 and a compelling drama. The narrative alternates between Prudence and Zoey, using a journal/diary format to relate the story. . . . Some clever details are mixed in with the conclusion to give readers a feeling that the whole time-travel incident really happened. Moonshower captures the perfect blend of fact and fantasy, past and present, adventure and characterization to make this a compelling first novel. It’s is a must-purchase for libraries in the Tennessee and Missouri regions. Other libraries should also consider it worthwhile.”
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