Friday, August 6, 2010

Creative Firsts from Army Men to Animals

By Georgeanne Irvine

This is my first blog—ever—and only the fourth on our San Diego Writing Women blog site! Whoopee! I can write whatever I want—as long as it has something to do with writing, of course. Since I will be contributing to this blog regularly, I’d like to start out by sharing a little background about how I began my writing career. And, by the way, I’m a firm believer that dreams really do come true!

I’ve always been a storyteller since before I could read. In my pre-kindergarten days, I staged major productions with my toy soldiers and cowboys. I created scenes and made up dialogue as I played. There were gunfights, cowboys saving beautiful ladies in burning buildings, horses getting stuck in quicksand, bad guys rustling cattle, and major battles between the Yankees and Confederates. Once in a great while I played with dolls but their tales were never as exciting as the stories I concocted about my miniature army men!

In school, I was one of those odd kids who actually liked writing things: geography papers, essays, book reports, poems, even quirky plays. I remember a contest in grade school where we were supposed to create a poster about why we were proud to be an American. There was an “other” category, too, so I wrote a poem, won a blue ribbon, and my mom stuck it in my baby book alongside photos of me wearing my bright red cowboy hat and matching Keds.

Fast forward to junior high. The most colorful piece I wrote for our English class was a collaborative effort with friends. It was a musical called The Adventures of Pighead and His Merry Hogs. It wasn’t very original because it was a takeoff on Robin Hood. But with characters like Friar Pork and the Sheriff of RottingHam, we got an “A” for being silly and for making the most out of our pig theme.

My real “writing-as-a-career” epiphany occurred in high school. I had dreams of becoming a star of Broadway musicals but I had a few challenges: I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t dance. Just before my junior year began, I tried out for “A cappellas,” a choir that was a big deal at our school. I didn’t make the cut, so I signed up for the journalism/newspaper class instead. After a semester of learning about the inverted pyramid-style writing, I ended up as co-editor of the paper with one of my best friends. Our biggest adventure happened when several of us were driving around town together, selling ads for the paper. When we decided to take a lunch break, the driver, our advertising manager, tried to show off a little by using his dad’s hand controls to stop the car. (His father was unable to drive using the regular foot pedals.) He hit the wrong button and we drove—well, crashed—right through the front door of Shakey’s Pizza Parlor! Although we got back to class really late that day, we did sell an ad to Shakey’s so our teacher wasn’t too angry but our ad manager’s dad was furious.

Even before I began my freshman year at San Diego State University, I knew that I wanted to major in journalism and pursue a career that had something to do with writing and creativity. I also got a notion in my head that I wanted to write children’s books. I was rummaging through some old boxes at home and found some unpublished children’s book manuscripts penned by “Grandma in Glendive,” my mom’s mother from Glendive, Montana, who died when I was only 2 years old. The manuscripts, which were written in the 1940s and 50s, are worth a blog unto themselves but some of the titles included Chubbsy Ubbsy: Adventures of a Prairie Dog, The Perky Little Prairie Dog Escapes from Mr. Coyote, and Jane’s Visit to Fairyland. After reading Grandma’s stories, which, by the way, were well-written and entertaining, I decided I would write children’s books, too. Not that I knew a thing about writing for kids but I thought that in some unearthly way, it might bring me closer to the grandma I never knew.

About 8 months after graduating from college, I landed a dream job at the San Diego Zoo as a public relations assistant. My duties included writing press releases and brochures, working with news media and film crews, taking animals to television shows, AND serving as editor and chief writer of our monthly children’s publication, Koala Club News. My boss, Carole Towne Seaton, who I still consider to be one of my greatest mentors of all time, was incredibly supportive of this unseasoned, somewhat naïve 22-year-old with big aspirations. I remember confiding in her that I dreamed of writing a children’s book some day. We never talked about it again until she approached me a couple of years later and asked “Georgeanne, how would you like to write a children’s book? In fact, how would you like to write six children’s books?”

“What the heck? Oh, my gosh! Yes! Yes! Yes!” I replied. “But how? Someone really and truly wants me to write a book? I’m going to be an author? Oh WOW!!!!”

Carole explained that Ideals Publishing Corporation had approached the Zoo and wanted to utilize our photo archives for a series of children’s books for first graders. Each book in the series, to be called Zoo Babies, would feature a tale about a particular animal species. The Zoo’s role in the licensing agreement was to supply the photos, but a writer wasn’t a part of the deal. In her discussions with the Ideals editor, Carole asked who had been hired to write the stories. “We haven’t gotten that far in the process yet,” said the editor. “Well, I have an employee,” said Carole, “who I think would be perfect for the job. She’s the editor and writer of our children’s newsletter, and I’m sure she would be happy to freelance the books.” Then Carole handed the editor some samples of my work and all of a sudden, I was going to be an author!

After Carole reassured me that, indeed, Ideals wanted me to write the books, I vividly remember the thought that raced frantically through my mind, “Holy #&*#! I’ve never written one book in my life, let alone six! Now what do I do?” I procrastinated, worried, researched the animals, selected the photos, procrastinated some more by cleaning out my dresser drawers at home when I was supposed to be writing, and finally created the first draft of my first book, Sydney the Koala. The next day I called my editor to read the manuscript to her over the phone! I now realize that was probably a weird thing to do but at the time, I had to know right away whether I was on the right track. (And, please note that we didn’t even have a FAX machine in those days). “It’s perfect! That’s exactly the type of story we’re looking for,” was my editor’s response. Her approval and enthusiasm boosted my confidence and was all the encouragement I needed to finish the other five stories!

Today, several decades later, even though I’ve written many animal-themed books since the first Zoo Babies series, I still go through some of the same procrastination rituals with each project. In the end, though, the book always gets finished, and my dreams continue to come true!


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