Eerdlings is introducing new guest post categories! We love hearing from our authors and illustrators — and we know you do too! — so we’re giving them more ways to share their stories, advice, and work in progress.
For Breakthrough posts, we ask authors and illustrators to share about a turning point, a “lightbulb” moment, or a big (or just plain lucky) break in their career that helped them get to where they are today. Today Marc Harshman, author of One Big Family, shares advice for aspiring authors of all ages.
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Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away . . .
That’s my breakthrough, right there. Or, rather, that’s my father reciting that poem to me and, I firmly believe, that was a lucky, lucky break, if not exactly a breakthrough. I know it changed me. My father was there planting the first of many seeds that would start me on my way to becoming an author. I was, to put it another way, simply enchanted by his voice.
His voice was usually that of a typically taciturn, no-nonsense farmer just in from milking — but his voice became magical as it was tangled up in rhyme and rhythm and story. Enchantment? For sure! Enchantment lay in the way James Whitcomb Riley’s hypnotic pulse of rhyme and rhythm were wedded to scene and character and the slightly scary content of its famous refrain “An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you / Ef you / Don’t / Watch / Out!” More important, however, was simply the presence of my father doing this reading and reciting, and my mother as well, and together they provided a living example that words and their stories were important, important enough to be shared. This would stoke the fires that led me to write.
Let me add that that particular choice of James Whitcomb Riley was providential. Riley was a Hoosier and, when my dad shared that poem, it was in a voice deep with the resonance of generations of farmers, an exact replica of my grandfather’s voice that I’d hear every few days on the regular back and forth visiting that still went on in our part of the rural Midwest. To this day I am fascinated by dialect, by real voices informed by local culture. I believe that had I not had such a “language-rich” extended household as I did, I would never have gone on to write a single published word.
Not surprisingly my parents’ compassion in reading to me was coupled with their own love of reading, a love that meant that the once a week trip to town for groceries was always a trip to the little Carnegie library there as well, and so the reinforcement that stories, that books were important, was underscored again and again.
Thinking of the “break” in “breakthrough,” it was also true that my young body was broken a lot — not bones broken, nothing too horrible — but regularly, yes. I was sick — in hospital and out — and that all played its role in breaking me through to becoming a writer. The Irish novelist John McGahern has written somewhere that “there are no days more full in childhood than those that are not lived at all, those days lost in a favourite book.” And I now realize for myself because I was sick so often that I had many such “lost” days, days lost inside stories as I languished under the counterpane waiting for my health to return. What a blessing those sicknesses now seem.
One last breakthrough. A table. I think especially of my grandparents’ supper table, how when the dishes there were “red up,” we would continue to sit for what seemed to me hours at a time. We would stay put, sitting and talking and, I realize now, telling stories — the rich reminiscences of the old ones mixing with the day’s gossip and news: whose cows were down sick, how great grandad had shot a wildcat in that very woods behind that very house where we were now sitting, giant black snakes, the talk from the Wednesday night prayer meeting. It was all there, creating what I think of now as a story table. A table, I sometimes think, from which I am only just now pushing back my chair and heading off into my adult life, looking for stories to tell, stories to write.
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Marc Harshman has been the poet laureate of West Virginia since 2012. His new book is One Big Family. In addition to his poetry collections, he has written a dozen books for children, which have been published in several different languages. Visit his website at www.marcharshman.com.