Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Death and Polyester

Portrait of the budding author in Polyester

By Karen Harrington

My mother once told me that she was sorry my grandmother died before the creation of Polyester. “It would've have saved her from ironing every single thing,” she said as she folded our clothes. “What a shame. She did so much ironing.”

That idea stuck with me. To this day, the combination of words won’t let me go. I knew then I wanted to write it down and savor it. Sure, I wished my grandmother got to enjoy Polyester, too. She grew up in the dust bowl of west Texas, married an oil rig roughneck and raised five kids. She did a lot of laundry. But what I liked most about my mother’s comment was how she pared death and Polyester in the same sentence. At age 8, I didn’t know you could do that.

Maybe that was the day a writer was born - or at least, a person in love with the unique juxtaposition of thought – which I think is what we writers like to do. (And why we are thieves of your conversations). Looking back, one of the first signs you know you might be a writer is that you start collecting words and sentences. You begin keeping an ear out for that next unusual idea, that next ‘what if.’ So since that time, I’ve always had a spiral notebook nearby, collecting ideas, sentences and story fragments.

Lucky for me, I was a Dunkin Donuts waitress all through high school. It was a great place to pick up humanity the way a lint roller catches fuzz. Every kind of personality known to man – good and bad – eventually makes his way into a 24-hour donut shop. I didn’t know it then, but this was one of the best training grounds for a story collector. What writer-in-training wouldn’t find it interesting that the night-shift baker allowed his toddlers to sleep on the 50 lb. flour sacks in the store room? I did.

While I sold donuts on the weekends, I had a very influential English teacher who was REAL LIFE author, G. Clifton Wisler. Knowing he was a published author was a little like having a celebrity in your presence. When you are fourteen, there’s something magical about meeting someone who has written a whole novel. The wonderful thing about being young and idealistic is that you get the idea in your head that it’s actually possible to write a novel simply because someone you know has done it. You think, "yes, I want to do that. I think I will."

It would take 22 years after graduating high school and hanging up my waitress hat to call myself a published author. Throughout those years, I had the kind of two-steps-forward, three-steps-back journey common to most writers. (75% rejection/25% encouragement). I wrote two novels in college, one that my professor used as a classroom example of what NOT to do. (Outside class he told me, “This wasn’t good, but I’m not telling you to stop writing.) I wrote short stories and collected rejections and cried. (Eventually one would earn an Honorable Mention at the Lorian Hemingway Story Competition.) I wrote a dozen screenplays and collected still more rejections, though one short script was optioned for an indie short film. (Thankfully, no one will ever see that film.)

Eventually, I took a hiatus from my corporate job as a speechwriter to devote myself to writing. (Why I left a writing job that actually paid my bills, God only knows.) But with the support of my wonder-hubby, we agreed that I could take off a year just to write. I remember that as I was leaving my corporate office for the last time, one of my co-workers, Bob, stopped me and quizzed, “Now why are you leaving again?”

“I want to finish my book.”

“One that you’re reading?” asked Bob. (Yes, I’m quitting my job because I can’t read AND work at the same time.)

Well, the joke’s on Bob because I actually finished writing the particular book I’d started during my one-year hiatus. That first draft would later become my debut novel JANEOLOGY - a story that explores the nature vs. nurture debate as it relates to mothers who kill their children. For this story, it was the painful headlines that I heard on the radio that captured my attention. They left me lying awake at night wondering why and how a mother could be capable of harming her own child. Why did did these women snap? Were they a product of bad genes? Poor nurturing?  I had to write the story to find out. 

I like to think JANEOLOGY draws its roots all the way back to my childhood curiosity and that day my mother was folding clothes, thinking back to her own childhood, and comparing her own life to that of her mother’s, Polyester-free life. I’m certain my mother was thinking about much more than just laundry. That idea set in motion an entire ‘what if’ scenario about how women are raised and what we take and reject from our own upbringing. From generation to generation, we keep some things and leave behind others. 

Today, I’m in another three-steps forward, two-steps back phase of my writing career. Earlier this year, my publisher folded and my book is just inches away from going out of print. That’s the way of this business. It doesn't feel great, but I have a plan. What is it? Keep writing.  I’ve written two more novels – stories I hope to share with you very soon. But I continue to write, ever seeking the next unique combination of ideas like death and polyester that won’t let me go.

Stop by and see the virtual me at  Until then, happy writing and good reading!



River jordan said...

I love the moment you capture becoming a writer, the journey, and your brutal honesty in business we feel compelled to link our lives to. I remember when I received the phone call that hardbacks of The Messenger of Magnolia Street were going to the remainder bins. The quality of the novel publishing alone, the cover, the pages, the artwork, makes it worth the price. But it's the real world and yes, thanks for reminding us ALL, that we pick up our pens and return to the page. Again.

Peggy Webb said...

You perfectly captured the writer's journey with humor and poignance. (I hope I spelled that right!) Janeology sounds like a compelling story, and I hope you get to publish many, many more.

Anna Michaels said...

Karen, I love that you fell in love with words. So did I.

Thank you for sharing your journey with such brutal honesty. That takes courage.

Carol Marks said...

Oh my goodness gracious. I love you! Don't freak out, it's not that kind of love. Heh. It's because you explained my thought process so well. Thank you!

K. Harrington said...

Thanks to each of you for your wonderful comments! You give me the feeling that we're all in this together, which I suppose we are.

Happy Writing!


Susan Cushman said...

I would never have pegged you for a Dunkin Donuts waitress, Karen! But yes, we find our characters and the colors for the palette of our art where people live. Thanks for sharing so much of yourself, and your journey, with us.

dirtywhitecandy said...

You capture so well how writing is like a state of mind inflicted on us by over-attentive imaginations! You could have been describing me at a young age.

cheryl said...

Yes - other people may notice things, like a kid sleeping on a bag of flour, but WE take those images home with us. They are ours forever.

Death and polyester.

I loved this, Karen.