Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Sentimental about my Scrivener Beginnings

A popular saying advises, "you can't go back." Time's arrow moves in one direction: forward. While I acknowledge this maxim and know it to be true, I think it's important to visit the past regularly and think about what roles specific people, actions, and events played in scripting the story of my life. I have no intention of writing my bio here. I only want to share an exhilarating and memorable day that reminded me who and what and where was important in the tale of how I came to be what I am today.
April 2014 marked the 32nd anniversary of my writing career. Of course, I've been a writer since I first grasped a pencil in my small, grubby hand in first grade and scrawled my thoughts. In April 1982, however, it became official. My first published piece appeared that month in Ideals magazine--a poem in the "Friendship" issue. A copy arrived in my mailbox in early May, accompanied by a check for $30 and a note from the editor telling me to send more poems. My kids remember that I did a cartwheel in the driveway, so excited that in less than a year of sending out stories and poems I was published. (I can't do cartwheels anymore when articles and books are published, but I still do them in my imagination!)
Anyone who has found satisfaction and earned success as a writer knows the feeling that comes with such a "first." A byline is one thing; earning money for it is quite another, even if it's a mere $30. And being asked to "send more" is the icing on the cake! I made a photocopy of that check and still keep it among my writing treasures.

Thirty-two years is a substantial time to labor in any career, much less one that involves too much sitting, lonesome hours communing with books and notes and a silent room,  and pounding a keyboard day after day to turn out endless strings of words. The craft has taken a toll on my back and hands, and staying "social" beyond having a cat on my desk has required effort. (A lack of tangible human co-workers is much of the reason I teach. Students keep me social!)  Thirty-two years is almost half of my life, years rife with important milestones, including that first $-check-$. Yet, lonely as writing can be, we never find our way in it alone. I don't know any writer who believes he or she single-handedly finds success. There's always help if you look for it and want it.

I've seized it! I had and still have mentors--my mother and mother-law, my college adviser, my husband and kids, editors, friends, librarians, other writers. Sometimes it's not a person I owe gratitude, but a place. One institution in particular deserves HUGE thanks for helping to launch my writing and speaking career....

Last weekend my son's family took me on a memorable visit to Mystic Seaport Museum where I worked from 1986 until 1994. It was a quick, spur-of-the-moment trip, a Saturday jaunt with no time to linger and savor. But it was so nostalgic and revitalizing that I feel the need to share my gratitude here and encourage everyone who reads my blog to re-connect with their past in much the same way.

Working at MSM happened quite by chance. In the mid-1980s I was heavily into research for my second book on lighthouses--Guardians of the Lights. I often joke that this book was my third child. I have two flesh and blood children I brought into the world with effort, help, and love, and then there's Guardians of the Lights. Sometimes you labor so hard on a project, it seems like you've given birth!
How did MSM figure in all of this?
MSM had (and still has) a terrific nautical library on its grounds, the Blunt White Library. (Photo of the library garden from MSM.) Not long after moving to Connecticut in 1985, I made arrangements to visit the library and do research. The collection was a smorgasbord of fantastic resources, mostly books and photos, along with letters, personal collections of papers, and official government publications and documents--all related to lighthouses. But access to the collection was cumbersome. I had to make an appointment with the library and arrange to be met by a library staff member at the library gate; then, I was accompanied to the library, asked to remain in a research room, and all my library activities were monitored and assisted by the assigned library staff member. I had no issues with this protocol; it's standard in specialized libraries. But the process ate into precious hours I needed to pore over books and files. Much of my time in the library was spent waiting for materials to be fetched from the collection and brought to the table I was assigned in the research room. There were no laptop computers at this time, no scanners or IRIS pens. Photocopies cost $0.10 each, and not every item could be copied. I was on a budget too. Those dimes were precious. So I did much of my work by hand, taking notes. It was tedious, but it was a labor of love.

Diligently, I went to Blunt White Library day after day, in the rain and snow and cold of the winter of 1985-1986. The librarians all began to recognize and greet me, and a few went out of their way to make me feel comfortable and welcome, given the rigorous rules for outsiders using the collection. A few weeks into the research, one of the librarians--a friendly guy named Paul--tiptoed into the research room one morning and asked if he could chat with me. I was happy for a break and a chance to talk about my work; he had helped me more than any of the staff.

"You seem to have a big project," he said. "And I'm impressed with your research and study habits! Have you considered working at MSM?"

This caught me totally by surprise, but Paul explained that anyone who worked or volunteered at MSM had free access to the library stacks--no need for a staff chaperone, no rigorous rules beyond a reverence for the collection. Obviously, he knew the frustration I had with waiting and waiting and waiting.... He knew how precious those research dimes were too! And, though I didn't realize it, he knew I'd enjoy working at MSM.

Paul suggested I work just a few hours a week as a relief interpreter, providing coffee and lunch breaks for the all-day interpreters in the public exhibits. The hours seemed right, and there was paid training. I could do my research before and after my shifts. I put in my application and was hired to do the relief shift three days a week (12 hours total) in the nautical instruments exhibit, the working printing press, and the shipcarving shop. My training--three weeks of it--was intensive and inclusive. I learned about the entire museum, with a focus on my three exhibits. For an avid reader and writer, and someone fascinated with maritime history, it was heaven!

Blunt White Library thereafter became my haunt. Its massive specialized collection spawned writing project after writing project, and Paul became a trusted adviser and friend in my research and writing. Soon, my work in the exhibits expanded, as did my interests. The museum provided grist for hundreds of freelance articles about all things maritime and nautical--figureheads (shown in a photo from MSM), messages in bottles, sextants, ships, marine weather, animals that went to sea, nautical words and sea chanteys, scrimshaw, wreckers and mooncussers, shipwrecks, and lighthouses, of course.

Another opportunity I enjoyed at the museum was working as a model on Kodak Photo Day every September. Hundreds of photographers, professional and amateur, would descend on the museum that day to vie for prizes for the best images. Staff and their family members dressed in period costumes to roam the streets of the village. Some of our best family photos were taken on these days. The one of my husband and I below is better than our wedding picture!

I'm in the center, playing a colonial housewife. Notice the woman playing my mother, on the left, is doing all the work!
In the back row are my son, holding the flag at age 10, me, and my husband, and other models posing with visitors.

There were surprises too. One morning a man stepped into the Nautical Instruments exhibit and introduced himself as John, the contractor who operated the horse and carriage rides: "I need a driver pronto," he said with an infectious smile, "and I'm told you can handle horses." Within a week I had signed on for additional work driving a wagon or carriage around the 17-acre museum, in costume, giving tours. I learned to harness and hitch the horses and cared for them every day, including grooming, feeding, and shoveling the proverbial horse poop. Stormy, a Belgian mix, was my favorite, along with Max, a sturdy and even-tempered quarter horse. I was thrilled to combine my love of animals with my work as an interpreter and freelance writer. (Photo below by the late Bob Stinette shows me in costume--dressed as a man because women wouldn't have been hired to drive carriages in the 1870s--with Max and a visitor.)

One warm day in May 1988, the director of the MSM planetarium joined me in the driver's seat for a wagon ride. "Warm today! I need the breeze off the river!" he said, "And I love to hear all the neat things you tell visitors." He often came to the livery to pet the horses and chat, and he had shown up in my exhibits a few times to visit. Some days, as I ate my lunch sitting on the rock wall by the lighthouse, he'd join me for a few minutes and we'd talk about the stars and ships and sextants and chronometers and whatever else interested us. His name was Don Treworgy, and he was probably the museum's most beloved staff member. What I thought was simply a friendly visit that warm May afternoon in the driver's seat of the wagon turned out to be a job offer to teach astronomy and navigation in the planetarium.

I began working fulltime in the planetarium in June 1988 and continued there until 1994. My studies and research for the job spawned more articles and several books on amateur astronomy. The Florida Night Sky for Pineapple Press is pictured above. I also wrote three kids astronomy books through the museum's in-house press.

My final two years at MSM saw me wearing two hats--Assistant Supervisor of the Planetarium and Supervisor of Curriculum & Instruction for the entire museum. I'd come far since that conversation with Paul in the library years earlier. After eight years total at the museum, I left in September 1994 to teach public school. MSM had inspired new stories and projects, given me many new friends, and enriched my life beyond measure. I continued to do contract work for the museum, helping with exhibits and other projects, even after moving to the Northwest.

MSM photo of the exhibit "Sentinels of the Sea."
Which brings me to the two primary reasons for my visit to the museum last weekend--to see a special exhibit and re-visit the planetarium. During my years on staff, I constantly pressured the exhibits staff to do something fun with the interior of the lighthouse on the museum grounds. The lighthouse is a replica of Brandt Point Lighthouse on Nantucket. Visitors repeatedly asked if they could go inside or climb it; they wanted more than walking by and taking pictures. Finally, in 2004--a decade after leaving my job at the museum--I was contacted by the interpretive director about helping to create an exhibit on lighthouses for the interior of the replica lighthouse. It was pure fun, and I jumped at the chance to work for MSM again! I provided archival images and helped write the script. A Boston-based production company created the two videos that are projected on a five-panel screen inside the lighthouse. It's a long-awaited and marvelous addition to the museum.

When you work hard on a project, you ought to be able to at least see how it turns out! But...I've had few trips back to Connecticut since moving to Puget Sound twelve years ago, and I'm usually too pressed for time on my trips east to visit MSM. Imagine my delight last weekend when my son and daughter-in-law suggested we drive to Mystic and visit the museum. At last, I could see the lighthouse project! My son, now 36, was a kid volunteer at the museum in the late 1980s and wanted to see the place too.
Saturday, May 18 was a glorious spring day in Connecticut; it had been twenty years since I left the museum. I visited the lighthouse again and saw its long-time-coming interior exhibit (, met some former co-workers, rode the horse and wagon I used to drive, got to see my granddaughters playing in the Children's Museum inside MSM--an exhibit I helped design in the early 1990s--and visited the planetarium. My director at the planetarium, Donald Treworgy, died in 2009, and the planetarium has been renamed in his honor. He worked there for almost fifty years; the place truly is his legacy to the museum. The dome has a new, more modern projector run by computer. (I used to manually operate the old projector!) Echoes of hundreds of planetarium shows I presented to audiences in the late '80s and early '90s whirled in my head like so many shooting stars...and memories of stellar moments working with Don and the other staff--Ted, Jack, Roy, Barbara, and Martha--came rushing back. Imagine my surprise when I found Martha working in the Children's Museum!

It was a fabulous experience re-visiting MSM after so many years, and great to reconnect with the past and remind myself how critical this place was to my success as a writer and speaker, even as a teacher too. Blunt White Library provided much of the grist I ground into articles and books about all things nautical, especially lighthouses. The exhibits generated story after story too, as did my friendships with people who had special skills and knowledge. I'd like to think the museum and I served each other well and that I contributed as much to the museum as it did to my career and personal life.

The take-away message of this blog post is clear, no matter what passion you pursue in life: As success is achieved, go in search of the history of your story. Be thankful to your mentors, whether subtle or  forthright. Give back. And, pass it along...

A footnote: Mystic Seaport Museum restored and sent its most treasured artifact, the wooden whaleship Charles W. Morgan, on a tour beginning May 17. While I missed seeing it anchored on the river front and being launched on this landmark journey, I'm thrilled with its recent restoration and the very public 38th voyage it's taking. For more info go to

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