My life as a fiction writer is new. In fact, as I learned at a recent visit to Janet Rudolph’s Mystery Salon in Berkeley, others, besides me, have trouble calling themselves “writers” when they have spent most of their lives doing something else.
In a recent journey, that took me from Portland to Cleveland to San Francisco, I was reminded of those other lives that ground me and allow me to ride the writing life’s roller coaster with equanimity.
In Cleveland I attended my 50th high school reunion. Lincoln High School was the white working class and immigrant high school on Cleveland’s near west side, bordering on the steel mills and downtown. It’s the place that I longed to escape from and, in my dreams, yearn to return to. I hope to put it in writing some day. Few of my US-born classmates have left northeastern Ohio or the expectations of their youth. The president of my class became an orthodontist. More typical were the teachers, the nurses, the secretaries, the postmen, the newspaper deliverers, the tech for NASA—smart, but without a college degree. Salt of the earth, certainly. Some had grown away from the racism and parochialism that marked our neighborhood culture, others had not. Escape and return.
My friend Livija, a chemist, drove from Pennsylvania to meet me. She was one of the many immigrants that came to live in our neighborhood after the Second World War. Most of them came from educated families and more easily moved up and away. For me, their world of violins and classical music, encyclopedias and foreign languages was exotic and formative. Spending time with Livija and her oldest sister, who was still directing both of us, brought me back into that time of discovery. Little wonder that when I went to college I majored in European history.
Days later I traveled to the East Side of Cleveland, to speak at the Alcazar Hotel and at Case Western Reserve University. Jane Kessler, an eminent retired psychologist and owner of AppleTree Books, sponsored me, and hardly believed that Lincoln High School existed. I could have told her that fifty years ago the feeling would have been mutual. The East Side of museums, concert halls, universities, and the famous Cleveland Clinic was foreign territory where I came from. Now it was all familiar. Another life. Not only did I have the opportunity to give a reading, but also to talk about my career as a university professor of history and women’s studies.
Then on to San Francisco and Bouchercon, the huge annual mystery writers’ conference. I was a newbie, assuming I would be lost in the crowd. But after my panel (one of scores), another newbie, Jane Hammons, approached me and told me that I had been the teacher who inspired her at the University of New Mexico over three decades ago. I was thrilled to be remembered for that past life. Later she wrote a touching homage to me on her blog.
When the writing roller coaster dips precipitously downward, these are the kinds of remembrances that can keep me up. Thanks to my classmates, Livija, and the two Janes!