Unearthing Story While Cleaning My Desk

Kate Flora: This past week, I got stuck in the middle of a writing project. It happens. It

Draft application of Kate M. Burke, storekeeper in Bingham, Maine, to the DAR

Draft application of Kate M. Burke, storekeeper in Bingham, Maine, to the DAR

wasn’t writer’s block, which you all know I don’t believe in. It was story block. Or organizational block. It’s nonfiction, and trying to figure out where the data goes, where the story goes, and how to connect the two can be a challenge. Frustrated, I decided that perhaps I could create greater clarity of mind if I cleared some of the external clutter, and I decided to clean my desk.

Crazy idea. I’ve been in book jail for so much of the past two years that there is a ton of filing waiting to be attended to. Since I live in book time, and book time means that a day or a week and a year are a lot alike, some of those piles have sat, untouched, for a long time, just waiting for me to get back to them. Well, I finally did get back, and the discoveries began.

There was that file—maybe you have one, too—where things I don’t want to throw away but have no particular place for come to rest. It was in that file that I started to make some fascinating discoveries.

First up? A mock property exam that my study group and I wrote during our first year of law school. Since 1974, this weary sheet of lined paper has traveled with me, with several sets of handwriting as questions were proposed. Reading it reminded me how I never would have made it through law school without this wonderful group of friends. It reminded me of two manuscripts I have buried in the drawer–my “practice mysteries” about a group of law students. Maybe someday I’ll unearth them.

Next? An obscure old brown envelope full of clippings. Inside? Tons of genealogical data from my great aunt Kate, after whom I was named, including drafts of her application to join the DAR, and all the data necessary to apply to the Mayflower Society. Fascinating stuff. I can’t help but wonder about Captain Josiah Parker who fought in the American Revolution. What was he like and where can I learn more?

IMG_3455In the same folder is a Farberware ad that was in the New York Times in 1973. The caption? You keep a man the way you get a man: by having the best possible equipment and knowing how to use it. Along with that? A carbon copy of the letter I wrote to Farberware, expressing how offensive the ad was. In that letter, I vowed never to purchase another Farberware product until they apologized. Needless to say—I have never bought Farberware since. But I am amazed that they could be this offensive in 1973. How far, in some ways, we have come. And how important to remember that not so long ago, the employment ads in the papers were labeled: Help Wanted: Male and Help Wanted: Female.

Then a piece of paper surfaced that reminded me how far I have come—two Peanuts comics, clipped from the paper, and sent by the marvelous writer Marilis Hornidge, during my ten miserable years in the unpublished writer’s corner, about how to deal with rejections.

At the bottom of the pile, something that I have treasured since 1976. A short note from Donald M. Murray, who was a Boston Globe columnist I greatly admired but did not know. The kind of letter that can make a huge difference in a beginning writer’s life. He wrote:

Dear Kate Flora:

After I wrote this column, I was feeling glum one evening and grabbed one mystery off the shelf, started to read and couldn’t care less about the characters and their story, and tossed it; then I chose another and tossed it, then I started Chosen for Death and was lost to my world, caring about your characters and what happened to them.

I have ordered your “fun house mirror” book and will buy anything you write in soft or hardcover.

I read you for story and, as a writer who has published a couple of novels years ago and is working on one now, I read you for craft.

Thank you.

Don Murray

In case you’ve ever wondered whether it is worth it to send a note to a writer you admire? The answer is a resounding yes.

I also found an envelope with $460.00

All in all, I may be behind on my work, but I am very glad I cleaned my desk.

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One Response to Unearthing Story While Cleaning My Desk

  1. Fun post, Kate. I once found an envelope with cash in it behind the mirror in an overnight case (old style with hard sides, a handle, and no wheels). I’d stashed it so I’d have an emergency fund on a trip and then completely forgot it was there when I unpacked.

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