It was such an honor to be inducted into my high school's Gallery of Achievement in October. Thank you, Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School! So much fun to visit, and the trip down memory lane was extra special in the company of old and new friends.
Here is the short acceptance speech I gave at the assembly. The last time I'd stood on the stage in my high school, I'd been working backstage as a prompter for the musical South Pacific!
Gallery of Achievement Acceptance Speech
October 6, 2017
Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School
I am delighted to be here today. It was a real thrill to be nominated for this award. I just wish that the person who nominated me could be here, too. My former History and Psychology teacher and longtime mentor, Ronald Marec, passed away last year, and his death leaves a big hole. Still, I’d like to say, thank you so much, Mr. Marec! You were an inspiration to me.
I’ve been asked to speak about what has led to my being here—to detail the path I followed—or forged. And yet it still seems odd to be standing here, because back in high school, I wasn’t a person who won awards, or got the leads in the school musical, or got elected to student government—although I was awarded an AFS scholarship to Peru for the summer between my junior and senior years. That was a huge boost to my self confidence—because mostly I was a kid who hung out at the library and read mystery novels instead of concentrating on homework. My mind was always wandering during my math class, and I’d be thinking, what if . . . What if my classmates started levitating one by one, and floated out the window? What if that was happening because aliens were invading the high school and we had to fight them off? Or...What if I found a
magic talisman out on the football field and it transported me into the past--and I couldn’t get back?
My friend Debra and I liked to go to the Brecksville cemetery and look at the oldest graves and make up stories about the people who died here so long ago. One of those stones even made it into my first book, Time Windows. There is a headstone for a child who ‘died with rosy cheeks’ over 150 years ago. We wondered if that epitaph meant he’d had a fatal fever...or had he been the picture of health and died mysteriously? Years later, when I wrote a scene in which my main character visits a graveyard, I reached back to that memory and brought that rosy-cheeked Brecksville boy into my fiction.
I loved fiction so much, I had to learn not to be a liar—to put my drive to tell stories to better use by joining the drama club, taking creative writing classes, and keeping diaries. Writing helped me through the excruciating times of change and upset and thrills and betrayals and first loves and no loves and bad hair days and bad grades. When I wrote it all as fiction, I could change events to be the way I wanted them.
I wrote Time Windows when I was 22 years old, just out of college and studying in Germany. Then I revised it a million times, and sent it off to a literary agent who, years later, eventually found it a publisher. My passion for writing had finally turned me into an author and led to some real, tangible success! But along the way, I learned to deal with rejection... and I followed my second dream, too, of going to grad school and becoming a professor of English—a career that meshes well with being a writer because there are lovely long summers for writing, and a steady income when there’s not a book contract in sight.
Now it’s many years since the publication of that first book, and I’m still writing. This year saw the publication of my 20th novel. They are all creepy ghosty time travely tales and mysteries and historical fiction. When people ask which of my books is my favorite, I have to say Time Windows. Publication of that first novel accepted truly was a lifelong dream come true.
One hundred years ago, in the small town where I live now, there was a girl who loved writing as much as I do. Her name was Elsie Robinson, and she was down and out, and bored out of her mind in Benicia, California. She wanted adventure, and after high school she set out to find it! She became a journalist and a well-read newspaper columnist, known all over the whole country back in the 1920s and 30s. She even wrote a memoir called, I WANTED OUT! And when people asked her the secret of her success, she said: “Here is the truth—there is no secret.”
(She said): “We’re led to expect that life will proceed like a story book, giving us a rounded plot plus a magic plan to clear our way through difficulties. But, of course, it never does. Yet everything that happens is important--the bad and the good, the sad and the glad, failures as well as triumphs, things done as well as left undone.” (Elsie Robinson, 1883-1956)
And I agree with Elsie Robinson: our lives don’t run like a neatly outlined novel plot. There are loose ends, and sometimes the villains win. But there are passions, and there are great and glorious victories, and sometimes things are just plain hilarious. Our lives contain many chapters, and the ‘good and the bad, the sad and the glad’ are all part of them. There is no ‘secret’ to success--there are only steps along a path... or, as we writers like to say, ‘scenes of increasing intensity.’ Right now your scenes are in the chapter titled ‘high school’. And the chapter might be bright and beautiful, or it might be downright messy. There is no way to know for sure what chain of events you are setting in motion as you go through these hallways with these classmates and teachers, no way to see exactly where the choices you make today will lead you.
But one thing is certain (and this is good to remember the next time you’re feeling depressed or anxious): your next chapter IS out there. You might write it down as you go along—as I did--or you might just live it.
Your story will have twists and turns you can’t even imagine, and there will be mysteries, and there may be ghosts ... and, if you pay attention, there can be magic.
This is the message I hope you’ll take with you: Pay attention—so you don’t miss the magic.