YEARS AGO, WHEN I was working in a health food store in Rhode Island, we kept a small dish for pennies on the counter with a sign that read: “Take a few, leave a few.”
One day a customer shook her head when a young boy dropped his unwanted pennies in the dish. She leaned over the counter and said, “You know, I saved all my pennies, every last one of them, and bought a brand new washer and dryer — and if I had let just one of them go, I wouldn’t have had enough.”
This was back in the mid-1990s.
In 1992, just a few years earlier, I moved to Alaska and got a job at a second-hand bookstore in Fairbanks and wintered in a log cabin — and that’s when the characters for my book sprang into existence. As I huddled under piles of blankets and fought to keep my woodstove running around the clock, I’d open my notebook (like, an actual notebook with paper and a pen) and write down the strangest things:
Dead body in the snow, big balloons, pop!
Mangy dog with frizzy locks, sour temperament, obituary writer.
Ornery squirrel in a custom leather jacket, horny, loves dead people. Don’t know why.
And as the years rolled along and the notes and scribbles accumulated, I’d think about the penny customer and share her story as a source of inspiration for struggling coworkers and friends. For the gal who thought she’d never graduate from college, I told her, “Just take it one shiny penny at a time, and you’ll get there.” And I told a young homeless guy I knew the same thing. Three months later, he had housing and a new job.
There are so many different ways I’ve used the penny story to inspire people — but only recently did I realize how much it applies to my own life as a writer. My book has been completely outlined. The plot is tight, the story is practically bursting off the page. But that pile of notes is daunting.
My mom knows all about this book — and she knows all about my dozens of starts and stops over the years. I’d buy new pens and journals, and clean out my email and closets, and shave my legs (for once) and bathe the dogs.
And I can’t tell you how many copies I’ve owned of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Abandon my writing, off it goes to the used bookstore. Dust off the notes and get at it again, and I’d go get myself a fresh copy.
While mom would faithfully — and sometimes painfully — plow away on her mystery novels, publishing two in her 70s and currently working on her third while undergoing chemotherapy, there I’d be, making my desk pretty but never writing more than a few quick words.
Not even full sentences, so never mind an entire page or a chapter. Words make a book, but words without sentences and paragraphs to house them wouldn’t even feed a chicken.
The penny lady was an old woman when I met her. It’s doubtful she’s still alive. But her story has stayed with me all these years, and just recently, when I pulled out my notes for my book and took a hard look at them, I turned those pennies over and applied that inspiration to myself.
And I got to work.
I’m not crafting entire pages in one sitting. Mostly I’m just writing down pennies. And while I wish silver dollars would pour out of the ceiling and my book would just get done already, those darn pennies keep on stacking together and progress is indeed being made. I deserve a party for that.
The process sometimes makes me feel like I’m covered in hives, and there are days when I really wish I didn’t have talking animals inside my head. But the book is moving along — one dang sentence at a time. That’s a heck of a lot better than over 20 years of scribbled notes and mom reminding me I’m now a middle-aged woman with saggy body parts and gray hair.
And so even though you probably don’t know me, I think that perhaps in one small, relatable way you do — and now I’m going to tell you what I’ve told countless others, and have finally told myself:
Love those pennies, folks. Each one gets you that much closer to finishing your book.
MY WEBSITE IS all about me, and everything I write is about me. I’m really, really good at me.
But crafting a short author’s bio (I’m not short, by the way) has really been hard. In just a few sentences I’m supposed to describe myself. I can’t even say hello with just hello. I need to pad it with backstories and tangents. Just ask my husband.
And then I just went ahead and wrote the thing. Here’s the bio I’m attaching to my freelance work:
Carla DeLauder is an essays blogger at MooseNotes.com. She and her husband Rich cohabitate on a couple of acres in the woods, just outside Redding, California. They have five black cats, three orange cats, and a bunch of dogs and frogs.
I didn’t say frogs just so I could rhyme with dogs. I could have said dogs and ostriches. But we don’t have ostriches; we have frogs. And dogs. I like frogs. I sometimes like dogs.
And it’s not my fault they rhyme.