Recently, while rummaging through a box of ancient mementos, I unearthed my first effort at self-publishing: “The Case of the Stolen Money.” This whodunit of 258 words had been handwritten in black pen on (now faded) white-lined notebook pages when I was eleven years old. I had stapled the pages together, added a copyright date, and even provided an illustration of a bowl of fruit, the main clue (see below). My literary debut was dedicated to five friends, three with leading roles in the story, and was offered to readers for a whooping 25 cents.
I was excited by this tangible evidence of my passion for writing and publishing from a young age. I flipped through the five-page “book,” impressed by the bold, enterprising girl who had been confident enough to think readers would deem her mystery worthy of a quarter, a small fortune to me back then. She had blazed a trail in her favorite genre at the time—mystery—unconcerned about target market, social media, query letters, and platform-building. She hadn’t heeded the pesky inner voice telling her that no one cares what she has to say, no one will pay to read her stuff, why waste her time, energy, etc.
Reading the story as an adult, I looked for clues on what I could glean from my childhood muse. Clearly, I had long-ago been sowing the seeds of memoir writing by choosing my friends as characters and putting myself (Lisa), the protagonist-detective, in the middle of the action. I was tickled that I had also envisioned Lisa as a boss with her own office and one lone employee, Jim (a childhood crush?). Quite the modern muse!
As for the story plot, Jamie, the woman who is robbed, lives in a mansion; the key suspect, her maid Kim, is blind. Obviously, I’d had a vivid imagination because my sixth-grade friend Jamie had grown up in a ramshackle, neglectful home, and Kim always wore stylish prescription glasses, as her father was an optometrist. The writer obviously felt sorry for Kim, who “can’t see right because she is too poor to afford good glasses.” She wanted the readers to understand that Jamie liked Kim “a lot,” so that when Kim later confesses to the crime (spoiler alert!), you sense she acted out of desperation and also take pity on her.
When I read these words about Jamie and Kim, I was reminded of all the kids I’d grown up with whose families had struggled to make ends meet. Many of them were bullied at school, as I was, but for a different reason (my Long Island accent). I’d felt an immediate kinship with these girls, which explains why I had glorified Jamie’s living situation and made Kim’s character a sympathetic robber. I’d created an alternate reality for my friends because I wanted them to lead happier lives. This desire has not diminished through the decades—I still want that for the characters on my pages, real or fictional. In my memoir ODYSSEY OF LOVE, two disabled characters emerge as the heroes of the story: Bea saves me from a stalker and János helps me heal from a romantic heartbreak.
It was also interesting to see the manuscript’s crossed-out words, lack of commas, and sloppy use of adjectives, which reveal I was no perfectionist. Case in point: “The room was sloppy. If the room wasn’t sloppy there wouldn’t be any clue.” Of course, proper grammatical usage is critical, but there’s something to be said for not over-editing words (a bad habit of mine) within one strike of the delete key and losing sight of the bigger picture: publishing!
Now as I embark on a virgin voyage through the publishing world with its ever-changing tides, I’m happy to have my childhood muse with me. Her original manuscript hangs on the wall above my desk, cheering on the writer I’ve always been. I’m glad she showed up at a crucial time. Who knows? After my memoir is published, perhaps she’ll inspire me to take a stab at a murder mystery. One thing is certain, though. The price of the book will not be 25 cents.