When I was a child, I used to dread Sunday mornings. Each week as I headed downstairs from my bedroom, I’d hear the r-r-i-i-p-p of newsprint, a sound that, to my ears, was equivalent to fingernails on a chalkboard. The culprit? My grandmother….and she wasn’t tearing out money-saving coupons. Oh no. Grandma was ripping the latest listing of spelling bee words. And no sooner would “ ‘morning, Grandma” escape my lips, she’d hand that list to me and my weekly task would promptly begin. I had to look up the words in the dictionary, learn their meaning, pronunciation and correct spelling, and then use each word in a sentence during the week.
While that once dreaded exercise led to my love of words, the next three events spawned my writing career. The first occurred at age five when I got my library card (and I’ve never been without one since); my second was my first typewriter, a green Tom Thumb (a gift from Santa), at age six. And at age ten, my favorite television show, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., was cancelled — driving me to write my own spy adventures featuring April Dancer and Mark Slade.
After college, I moved to New York City and landed a job as an acquisitions editor, and eventually became the VP of Book Operations for that publishing company. After several years, I grew weary of the NYC of the mid-1980s (a city sullied by crack cocaine and horrific homelessness, despite Reagan’s assertion he saw no homeless people during his visit to NYC) and moved to New England where I opened an Italian-Japanese restaurant. One of my customers, Ruth Wells, (author of A to Zen and Farmer and the Poor God) suggested I take a stab at writing again. She thought the stories of my childhood were interesting and threatened to use them if I did not.
I began writing, short stories at first, and with Ruth’s encouragement, I sent them to a quarterly, and had a few published. One short story evolved into my first novel, Sweet Bitter Love, which was published by Rising Tide Press in 1997. Upon selling my restaurant in 2000, I decided to pursue a profession as a freelance writer.
In 2001, while researching the online archives of my hometown newspaper for a client, I made a keying error—a simple mistake that led me down a path I’d been avoiding most of my life; on a journey inside the world of my father, killed gangland-style more than two decades ago.
I wasn’t inspired as much as I was ‘led’ to writing this book. I began writing Painting the Invisible Man as a non-fiction, thinking I could take a journalistic approach to exploring my father’s murder and the truths of this man. When I had about 60-70 pages written I gave them to my partner, Michelle, to read. I trusted that she would be honest. She was.
She told me that the writing was lacking emotion. I remember her saying, ”There’s very little in here about you. None of the childhood stories you’ve shared with me about your childhood, the crazy things you did as a kid. Nothing about your parents’ relationship and the effect of your father’s way of life on their marriage. Why are you not writing any of that?”
I didn’t know why…at least not consciously. But as I thought about Michelle’s comments, I realized that in order to paint a true portrait of my father, I needed to paint a family portrait…and a self-portrait, as well.
I continued writing the story as non-fiction, yet I was struggling to reach my creative stream. My childhood memories, and emotions attached to them, had been sealed for far too many years. Hard as I tried, I could not tap that well.
Being a fiction writer, I understood the freedom that fiction affords. Whenever I began a new story, I awaited that moment when my fictional characters would take hold and begin to speak to me, to tell me their story. It’s a magical moment; it’s the point when my characters begin to breathe on their own. I knew that fiction would offer me the freedom I needed to explore the story with emotional honesty; to explore family issues and family secrets openly while protecting, to some degree, my family’s privacy. Since much of the story takes place during my childhood, I knew I, too, would have to re-create scenes and merge memory with imagination to bring some events to life. And after the A Million Little Pieces debacle, I did not want to risk being “Frey-ed.”
For writers thinking about exploring their personal stories, I will say this. Exploring one’s personal story is a highly emotional journey. I had to think about — and write honestly about — parts of my life I was not too proud of. Yet, in the end, what I learned about myself turned a painful journey into a joyful life.
Rita Schiano is the author Painting the Invisible Man and Sweet Bitter Love. She can be visited at http://www.ritaschiano.com or http://www.paintingtheinvisibleman.com. Rita will be stopping by this week to answer any questions you have for her. She’s also giving away a copy of Painting the Invisible Man to a random commenter. The winner will be chosen on Thursday, April 23 around 5 pm PST.