A Facebook friend posted today that she and her sister were named Amy and Beth, after characters in her mother's favorite book. The book, of course, was Little Women. No wonder her mother loved it...her name was Jo! But what surprised me was that Amy had never read it herself, but plans to. I can't imagine surviving childhood without reading this classic. Jo inspired me in so many ways.
Here's a story I wrote several months ago about how Jo shaped my life.
A Role Model for Life
By Terri Elders
“The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” –Carl Jung
As a child I’d often curl up on the sofa and watch Grandma create pretty dresses for me on her treadle sewing machine. All through elementary school I’d dream of the day when I’d be creating my own wardrobe. I’d clip drawings of countless gowns from her dog-eared Sears and Roebuck catalog, and then flip through its pages in search of matching accessories. I’d imagine designing an outfit for my high school prom. Maybe even my own wedding gown.
Then, when I got to junior high, I nearly flunked my seventh grade sewing class. I couldn’t sew a straight seam, no matter how hard I tried. Stunned, I realized I’d never be clever with a needle like Grandma. I lacked whatever skill that pursuit seemed to require.
Some dreams, though, die hard. My dreams had always involved succeeding at something that I loved doing. I’d love sewing, just like Grandma. But struggling with unraveling crooked seams began to feel like work, not play. When the school year concluded, I decided I’d spend my summer seeking another endeavor…and another mentor.
Soon, after reading a book about Anna Pavlova, I began to dream anew. I longed for a tutu and ballet slippers. After I stumbled through half a dozen lessons, I realized I couldn’t hold an arabesque without toppling over. Next I raced through a book about women athletes, and stared, fascinated, at a photo of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. It took nearly the entire summer for me to accept that if I couldn’t manage ten laps across the Harvard playground pool without becoming winded, I’d never churn my way across the English Channel. It didn’t matter how cute I thought I’d look in swim goggles. It wasn’t going to happen.
So…if I couldn’t be like Anna Pavlova or Gertrude Ederle, not to mention my own grandmother, who could I emulate? Where could I find someone to model my life on? Then, one afternoon as I reread my favorite book, Little Women, it became clear. I caught my breath when read Jo March’s ringing affirmation in Chapter 14. She’d just sent off some stories to a potential publisher.
"There,” she proclaimed, “I've done my best! If this won't suit, I shall have to wait till I can do better."
I smiled. Maybe a role model didn’t have to be an actual living person. Maybe a fictional character would do. I certainly could identify with Jo’s initial hesitation and subsequent bravery. I, too, had attempted to write stories, but aside from a letter on the children’s page of the Portland Oregonian, I’d never been published.
But it might not be too late, I decided. When school began again in September, I asked my counselor if I could take journalism as an elective. I’d always enjoyed writing essays in my English classes. Maybe I could become a reporter for the school paper, The Naturalist.
This time I met with success. I appeared to have the aptitude to pair with the attitude. I particularly relished taking my turn at writing the continuing column, “Silhouettes.” These were profiles of teachers and student leaders. I’d try to flesh my stories out, to make my subjects appear to dazzle, like the characters Jo and her sisters admired in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. If my teacher or fellow students criticized my stories, Jo’s words would echo in my mind…”If this won’t suit, I shall have to wait till I can do better.”
I never had to wait long. If I reread my own work a few days later with a critical eye, I’d almost always be able to do better. That’s when I realized that the secret to good writing, as Jo knew, lay in rewriting.
In high school and college I continued to write, never failing to delight in playing with words…like Jo. When I transferred from a community college to a state university, somebody scribbled in the upper right hand corner of my transcript in a space for comments, “Said to be creative.”
Over the years I’ve wondered who it was that wrote that cryptic comment. It’s always been a mystery. Nobody ever used those words to my face, not a teacher or a counselor. I wonder if that anonymous annotator realized that all I’d ever wanted to do was to succeed at something I loved, while I played. Like Jo, I’m convinced that writing involves play, playing with ideas, playing with words, playing until I can play better, arranging...and then rearranging.
Unlike Jo, I’ve never written a play or even a novel. I’ve stuck to shorter pieces, essays, commentary, reviews, and true stories for anthologies. Writing remained my lifetime avocation, my source of joy, with a blank page always my playground.
When friends inquire about “writer’s block,” I claim I’ve never really encountered it. Jo’s spirit always remains with me…she never thought of writing as work, as something to suffer through, as something to be endured. Oh, no! For her it was always play.
Jo never doubted her ability. She never hesitated to retreat to her attic, assemble her words, and enjoy herself. She remains my inspiration. Her playful spirit never deserts me.
So early on I’d been forced to set aside the dreams of sewing my own prom dress, dancing in the chorus of Swan Lake, and coating myself with oil to cross the English Channel. Nonetheless, I’d never allowed defeat to discourage me from trying something else. Through trial and error, I’d finally found where my talents lay…in persistently playing with words.
Oh, sure, there’s been times when I’m trying to write a story and the patterns fail to form, or the message remains elusive, or I begin to feel too frazzled to dazzle. When it doesn’t feel like play, I put the piece away. I owe myself a break. I take that tip from Jo. I wait until I can do better. It’s the best advice I ever came across.
It’s never a very long wait. And when inspiration strikes again, I remind myself that I owe it all to Jo.