Words imagined and written are a big part of my lifeline to the world. Since childhood, they seemed to be how I processed what I saw and experienced. But as I grew, I realized that words and actions were what gave meaning to my life. And so, it is not surprising that I became a writer and a social worker, and why so much of my writing, as well as my author visits, gently blend the two professions.
The beauty and power of storytelling opened different worlds to me as a child, and I stashed my favorites, from Golden Books to classics, on the little bookshelf I shared with my sister, Becky. At some early age, I received Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and I believe the rhythms and language resonated with something deep inside.
Leaning In Towards Poetry
Maybe poetry was a natural inclination for me because rhythm and the lyrical tropes of song and music—classical, opera, folk music, and more—were always part of my life. Memories of my parents singing Yiddish lullabies as we drove in the night on road trips still chokes me up—and I’m guessing that via genes or environment, music and poetry began to score my life.
Among my favorite books like All-of-a-Kind Family, Ballet Shoes, King of the Wind, Black Beauty, Nancy Drew, and The Black Stallion series, were works of Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay, given to me by a favorite aunt.
And Yet . . .
On the other hand, my love of poetry didn’t keep me from dreaming of becoming a cowgirl or a ballerina, and plastering my side of the bedroom wall with magazine and newspaper photos of horses and dancers. During college, I returned to my childhood camp to teach Western riding. Much of my somewhat stilted early rhyming poetry attempted to capture events that had awakened me from an idealized picture of the history of my country. My family’s historic activism was embedded in my siblings and me.
And Then There Was This . . .
While I loved to read, and had begun to write my own poetry, I almost failed at speaking in front of others (yes, when I went to school, “Speaks clearly and distinctly” was a graded expectation.) Words evaded me, or at the other extreme, affected me so deeply that my emotions spilled over and out. In seventh grade during our study of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, we read Evangeline aloud. The final verses landed with me. I recited them choked-up, with tears rolling down my cheeks. And although I’ve been comfortable speaking in front of others and in groups for many, many years now (you’ll soon see why), I can guarantee that if I picked up Evangeline to read the final verses, I’d still choke up.
My writing took a temporary turn toward journalism in high school, after I walked my still-introverted self into the student newspaper office at Oak Park-River Forest High and announced that I wanted to be a Cub Reporter. Three years of almost daily work on Trapeze news and features rewarded me with becoming co-Editor in Chief in my senior year, after a summer at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism “Cherub” program, where I was encouraged to stick to creative writing, rather than strict journalism.
I began writing weekly columns about internal and interpersonal issues I believed could be helpful to others. These days, I’m a regular columnist for the Illinois Society for Children’s Writers and Illustrators’ Prairie Wind, a reporter for Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Cynsations, a member of the GROG group blog, and an occasional guest poster at other sites. And I never stopped writing poetry.
A Great Teacher Provides a Cure
Then one day, a speech class in high school—my older sister’s strong suggestion to my parents —changed my life. James Eitrheim, an extraordinary teacher, spoke to me quietly: “You’re a poet. You need to read poetry aloud.” Before I knew it, I owned The Mentor Book of Major American Poets and was marking up my personal “tropes” on poems selected for Illinois State Speech Contests. Although the book seemed limited in its choice of poets, I found much to love. It was a first step out of keeping my love of poetry private. It freed me. I learned to perform because I had something beautiful to share.
My newfound strength propelled me into drama performances, children’s theatre group, my favorite place, the Pantomime Troupe, and a wonderful group of friends.
Send It Out!
My poetry and creative nonfiction work files grew throughout college, but I never submitted anything. I received a BA in Creative Writing, then an MSW from Yeshiva University Graduate School in Social Work. I’d fallen in love with groups one college summer volunteering at one of Chicago’s historic settlement houses. My passions for poetry and social justice seemed inseparable.
Writing accompanied me wherever I went and whatever I did. During graduate school I was lucky enough to meet an older poet who read my work – much of it about my father’s recent death – and encouraged me to give a poetry reading at the community center where I worked. I did, and loved it. But he also pushed me gently to begin sending out the poems. “Once you write a poem, it belongs to the world,” he said. I sent out packets of work, and had some of my early, strongly feminist poems published. However, I was not yet resilient in the face of rejections, and still kept much of my work to myself.
Several years after graduate school, a psychologist who supervised my first year in private practice taught me what any kind of writer needs to know—how to research potential markets to make “good matches” with editors. My first publication was in The International Journal of Group Psychotherapy. During the years that followed, as a clinical social worker in a community center working with children and the elderly, in hospitals and ultimately private practice, I wrote scholarly papers, essays, and poetry.
A Life Scored by Music and Poetry
More than anything else, poetry captured the music of my life—the ups, the downs, the wonder. Eventually it captured the gifts of marriage and a child. That wonderful journey led me to my son’s school library, where another extraordinary educator, Irene Sufrin, opened the doors to a new generation of children’s literature, particularly middle grade novels and picture books different from any I’d seen in my own growing up. I began to volunteer one day a week, my day off from my private practice in clinical social work, and read, read, read. My writing direction became clear: I passionately wanted to write for children.
I took classes, went to workshops and conferences, and wrote many picture book texts, a novel and a few stories, the first of which, “The Inside Ballerina”, appeared in CRICKET. I learned and practiced, a process that continues each day. I began this new journey along with the emotional resilience I'd finally found by reading Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, which I devoured, practiced, and taught for a number of years. I felt prepared, finally, to handle submissions and rejections as part of the writing journey.
And Then There Was REENI'S TURN
REENI'S TURN evolved from “The Inside Ballerina”, my own experiences, and my work with women to end dieting and find comfort with food, body, and self. Many of my clients identified their tween years as the time comfort with their bodies evolved into the self-disparaging cycle of dieting and re-gaining weight. I believed it was important to create a middle grade story that explored this issue.
The first draft was prose. But when I revised to a second draft, the words danced through my brain in free verse. Many challenging revisions followed, many years of hard work and learning. A few scholarships, awards, a Ragdale Writer’s Residency, and an Illinois Arts Council Grant peppered the years. I kept hoping, and kept working. The Filmelodic film series used “The Inside Ballerina” as inspiration for the theme of the award-winning film, La Folía. The positive response to La Folía encouraged me to hold on to my belief in REENI'S TURN and continue navigating through obstacles in order to move forward.
After closing my private practice, I had the opportunity to work at an extraordinary early childhood center. My wide variety of assignments included the ability to spend time in the classroom with young friends, and to read them the best of children’s literature. Although I’m a full-time writer now, I continue reading weekly to my young friends. I love this time with the children. Their work (their play!) and their conversations about it and themselves inspire poetry and picture book ideas each week.
My husband and I enjoy our connections with friends and family, a lively synagogue community, and political activism. We love travelling to visit our son, family members around the country, and as-yet unexplored places.
And yep, I always carry along a notebook and pen.