Out of the Box: The Story of a Story

Many US Represented readers are writers, and no doubt, have heard the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” You probably agree with me that behind every story you write is a story. This is the story behind my children’s novel, Molly and the Cat Who Stole Her Tongue, published October, 2016.

Out of the Box: The Story of a Story

It was a dark and stormy night. Literally. The type Georgia O’Keefe may have experienced as she sojourned on this very spot on the high desert of northern New Mexico.

But on that particular night in November, 1994, the towering red and yellow cliffs of the Piedre Lumbre that looked down on the Ghost Ranch retreat center sheltered twenty pilgrims from all parts of the country who had convened for a writer’s retreat.

Writer Gregg Levoy led this four-day workshop based on his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life.

His topic for the evening session was The Hero’s Journey. This iconic theme has existed from the beginning of time in all cultures—oral story telling around African campfires, Icelandic myths, Greek legends, Old Testament stories, modern day movies, TV dramas, comic books, best-sellers, to name just a few of its expressions. Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey a monomyth, meaning it is a universal pattern in human experience.

Gregg related three basic parts:

  1. The hero, involved in every day life, encounters a problem. The equilibrium is disturbed.
  2. The hero hears a call to do something about the imbalance. He needs to take action, and so the adventure begins. Gregg explained several various elements contained in the unfolding tale —including the “Herald” that triggers the hero to take action, the “Allies” who will support the hero, the “Mentor” and of course “The Enemy” and “The Ordeal.”
  3. Resolution –The hero prevails, and the answer he has sought transforms him. He is given a gift, a boon, to take back for the good of the “kingdom”—whatever that metaphorically implies.

We were spellbound. The only sound in the room was the crackle of the pinon logs in the fireplace. But then Gregg broke our reverie by saying,  “OK—I want you to disperse, find a place where you can be alone, and write the myth of your life. Use the pattern of the Hero’s Journey to tell your story. Return in an hour to share your writing with the group.”

We left the main room and settled in different areas in the rambling building. I sat on the floor in a hallway, my back propped against a half-filled bookcase.

And that’s where my book, Molly and the Cat Who Stole Her Tongue, was born. The myth, The Hero’s Journey, of my life was overcoming shyness. As a child I was shamed for not talking enough and asked repeatedly, “What’s the matter with you? The Cat got your tongue?” I relived this painful time, (because I did indeed believe something was wrong with me), by creating a fictional character, who recruited her allies, set out to confront the tongue-stealing Cat, and emerged victorious.

Molly, Tony, Rusty, the Cat, all came to life in four handwritten notebook pages. Gregg and the group liked my tale, but when the retreat ended, I took the Molly draft home, put it in a box, and forgot about it.

My writing career was involved with other things. I was part of the education revolution of the 1980’s that brought a new emphasis on improving writing skills in the public schools. Supported by state Departments of Education nation wide, one area of change recommended was taking instruction in composition to the youngest students. As a writing consultant for over 20 years, I developed a system and teacher’s manual, titled FIRSTWRITE, which enabled teachers to teach six-year-olds composition of their own stories even before they could spell. I continued to work on making the writing process accessible in the primary grades and earned certification as a senior fellow in the Colorado Writing Project.

But as busy as I was, speaking at state conferences, giving workshops at different school districts plus the daily work of my own teaching career, Molly beckoned again from the box, and I began to look around for a writing class.

In 2000, I found it. Award-winning Colorado author, Mary Peace Finley, was offering a six-week class titled “A Novel Endeavor.” She taught the basics of novel writing—how to set up the framework, develop characters, write dialogue, choose point-of-view, and structure a plot through rising and falling action, plot points, climax and resolution.

Molly became a novel. I entered the Pikes Peak Writers’ Conference competition, children’s books division, got middling reviews, put her back in the box, and returned to my normal writing activities.

 But in 2008, after having worked as a naturalist at Cheyenne Mountain State Park for two years, Molly called from the box with a new twist. “Write me,” she said. “We will journey a long way to find the Cat and we will live off the land. You’ll get to write nature side bars!”  I couldn’t resist the call. Molly turned into a 20,000 word, 24-chapter adventure with nature bars full of information on red-winged blackbirds, box turtles, fireflies, edible plants, poisonous plants to avoid and more. As it neared completion, in 2009, the old question came up. What do I do with it?

Mary Peace Finley had by this time moved to Boulder, CO, continuing her successful career. I didn’t even know if she’d remember me, but I wrote to her and asked if she would critique the latest version of Molly.

 She complied, but after one glance she sent me the bad news. “This is too long a publication for this age group. Also, you cannot have children hopping a freight train. You need to give it a realistic setting and cut it by half. Ten thousand words is your limit.”

 This wasn’t as difficult as it first appeared. Molly seemed very cooperative about becoming an ordinary child in a realistic setting. I developed the main characters more and some new ones appeared. 

I sent the reduced version to Mary Peace Finley.  She thought it held promise, and recruited another award-winning children’s author, Barbara Steiner, to help with the critiquing. Many months of back and forth communication followed.

By 2011, Mary and Barbara gave the final copy their blessing saying – “You can stop revising.  It’s done. You need to find a publisher.”

I sent it out to many publishers and agents.  In my earliest writing, beginning in college, long before the Molly story, my writing submissions were followed by rejection letters. I saved some of them—they were personal and encouraging. But now, the traditional rejection letter had become a thing of the past. It was replaced by an impersonal form letter, which then shortened to a post card. And then postcards became obsolete. I got no response at all following my submission of the Molly novel. A follow up inquiry was usually futile.

So, after all that work, the new and transformed Molly went. . . back in the box.

But in 2014 two unexpected events occurred. I learned from a friend that her daughter was a professional children’s author and illustrator. Another friend’s daughter had recently acted on a long-standing dream and established a publishing company with her graphic-designer husband.

After reading the Molly manuscript they said yes to the project. Linda Martin added 22 illustrations to the text bringing the 1950 setting to authentic life.  Publishers Jessica and Billy Lamirand, founders of Ambient Light Publishing Company did all the necessary work to bring the book to print, including nailing a review from the prestigious Kirkus Reviews.

After 20 years, Molly finally got out of the box and is connecting with young readers. As one third-grade reviewer who participated in Young Author’s Day at Scott Elementary in January, 2017, put it:

“Right away I caught the book.

It was like I was in the book.

The book took me on an adventure.

It was amazing.”

***

Lucy Bell is a retired teacher and writing consultant. Her thirty-five year teaching career included creating FIRSTWRITE, a program that helped hundreds of teachers teach first graders creative writing, even before they could spell. She is currently a featured contributor for the online magazine US Represented and the literary journal Almagre Review. Molly and the Cat who Stole Her Tongue is her first children’s novel.