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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Behind the Sign

I came down with the flu. After weeks of drag­ging myself to the com­put­er, I final­ly lis­tened to the doc­tor and let myself be sick. One after­noon I pulled out my old jour­nals. I haven’t kept a jour­nal in the last few years, instead a plan­ner dic­tates my days. My com­po­si­tion note­books are a mish­mash of thoughts, mem­o­ries, obser­va­tions, scrib­blings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s con­fer­ences. I’ve nev­er been a ded­i­cat­ed diary keep­er, but car­ry­ing around a hand­made jour­nal felt less like “being a writer” and more like stay­ing in touch with the world.

Candice Ransom's Journals

Back then, I didn’t fre­quent Star­bucks or muse­ums or uni­ver­si­ty libraries. My obser­va­tions were made in din­ers where the first course for the spe­cial is cole slaw with Saltines, in gen­er­al stores that car­ry week­ly news­pa­pers report­ing a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where peo­ple live in aban­doned gas sta­tions. I cap­tured scenes like this:

In Good­will today, a moth­er and daugh­ter came in talk­ing six­ty to the minute. Nat­u­ral­ly I eaves­dropped. Moth­er: Look, they got Dale Earn­hart glass­es. Daugh­ter: No, I seen ‘em before. I remem­bered shop­ping trips with my moth­er and sis­ter, how we’d “find” stuff for each oth­er.

The daugh­ter was ahead of me in the check-out line. One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced. Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fit­ting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daugh­ter. “Par­don me, sweet­ie,” she said. The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daugh­ter said and paid for her oth­er things.

Her moth­er set down two glass­es, the Dale Earn­hart ones. She pulled two dol­lars fold­ed into tiny squares from her wal­let. I won­dered if she pur­chased the Earn­hart glass­es for her daugh­ter, know­ing she want­ed them but didn’t have enough mon­ey. She thanked me again for let­ting her cut in front. The women talked all the way out the door. I won­dered where they were head­ed next. I longed to go with them.

I know fam­i­lies like that. They’re every­where, but most of us liv­ing our busy, for­ward-focused lives don’t notice the mar­gin-dwellers. I see them because I once exist­ed on the periph­ery. Deep inside, I still do. Peo­ple at the ragged edge will give you their time and any­thing else, even if they can’t spare it. When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.

Read­ing my jour­nals made me won­der where I’ve been late­ly and why my recent work feels so … safe. I was once on track to tell the sto­ries of kids who have fall­en through the cracks. Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trail­er-and-Dad­dy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dig­ni­ty and even humor. After sev­er­al failed attempts, I quit because I knew the sto­ries I want­ed to write would hard­ly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.

Oct. 3, 2014: Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t writ­ten a word. Not my words. I’m remind­ed how much I want to say, how lit­tle time I have to do it.

So I stopped keep­ing a jour­nal. Stopped dri­ving down back roads to get lost on pur­pose. Worse, I faced for­ward and ignored the edges where the love­ly, impor­tant things are.

No Outlet signI found advice from Jack Gantos’s open­ing speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-win­ter con­fer­ence. The slide on the screen showed the cov­er of his New­bery award-win­ner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title writ­ten on a road sign and a boy stand­ing behind it.

Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gan­tos said. “It’s where the real sto­ries are.” I already do that.

When I fin­ished read­ing, I stacked the note­books, reluc­tant to put them back on the dusty shelf. If I did, I’d bury a trea­sure trove of sto­ries, sketch­es, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self. I moved them to the bed­room to dip into, hop­ing my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of for­got­ten voic­es.

I’m the only one stand­ing in the way. No one will beg me to tell the sto­ries I’ve already shot and declared dead with­out writ­ing a syl­la­ble, hear­ing an edi­tor say, No, I have seen this before. It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my con­fi­dence. To get lost on pur­pose and slip behind the sign. To see what I’m real­ly part of.

7 Responses to Behind the Sign

  1. karenhenryclark February 9, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    …“to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my con­fi­dence.” Leaves me breath­less. Sim­ply beau­ti­ful.

    • candice February 14, 2018 at 2:14 pm #

      Karen, your kind words are so appre­ci­at­ed!

  2. David LaRochelle February 9, 2018 at 9:30 am #

    I hope you’ll fol­low the roads that are lead­ing from your jour­nals, Can­dice, and I pre­dict you will enjoy the jour­ney.

    • candice February 14, 2018 at 2:16 pm #

      Here’s what I’m doing in “spare” time: I’m culling 11 years of jour­nals into one. Pulling out the best quotes, the best descrip­tions, and book ideas. Sort of a “best of the jour­nals” book. I should add an index in my jour­nals!

  3. Sue Lowell Gallion February 9, 2018 at 2:24 pm #

    Dig into that trea­sure, Can­dice. Look­ing for­ward to what comes next!

    • candice February 14, 2018 at 2:18 pm #

      Sue! I still miss Kansas, my most fun event ever! Con­grats on your Pig and Pug books!

  4. Joyce Sidman February 10, 2018 at 7:55 am #

    Yes, Can­dace, we are cheer­ing you on!

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