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Authors talk writing life with students

Date: 5/1/2012

May 2, 2012

By Debbie Gardner

SOUTHWICK - Fifty Southwick- Tolland Regional High School (STRHS) students spent 90 minutes with four local authors on April 27, but the session was less about the nuts and bolts of the writing craft and more about the path to becoming a writer.

The vision of English teacher Ann Murphy, 'Literary Voices of the Pioneer Valley' brought authors Suzanne Strempek Shea of Palmer, Rolland Merullo of Williamsburg, Michelle (M.P.) Barker of Longmeadow and Donald Calvanese of Feeding Hills to the STRHS library for an intimate talk about their careers, and their works.

The event, which offered two groups of students the opportunity to visit with the authors, was made possible through a grant from the Dickinson Trust.

Murphy told Reminder Publications students had read various works in preparation for meeting the authors, and the many book-related posters mounted throughout the room showed attendees were intimately familiar with the works of their guests. Several came prepared with specific questions for the authors, and stayed through their lunch hour to speak one-on-one with favorite writers when the official session ran overtime.

'I think it's great that they're here, and really cool that they came in to talk to us and let us know that normal people [write],' sophomore Emily Leckie said as students lined up to meet the authors.

Strempek Shea, author of 'Becoming Finola' and 'Selling the Lite of Heaven' among other books the students had read, opened the morning's session by telling students she didn't set out to be an author.

'I just liked reading and writing stories. I didn't grow up wanting to be a writer,' Strempek Shea said, jokingly showing students a childhood photo of herself dressed in a cowgirl-style costume from the 1960s. 'I loved horses and wanted to be a cowboy.'

She said it was a passion for her high school hockey team, and frustration that her hometown paper didn't cover their games, that led her to a career in journalism, as well as to her husband, Springfield Republican columnist Tom Shea, who was a sports reporter for that paper when the two first met.

When it comes to writing, Strempek Shea - who wrote her first book during unfilled daytime hours when she was assigned a night beat at the Springfield paper - said there's no easy way to do it.

'You have to do the work and get it out there . [write your story] little by little then show it to someone and see if they like it,' she advised.

When it comes to finding subjects to write about, Strempek Shea said a fellow author advised her to 'write what you can't shut up about.'

Merullo told students he went to college to fulfill his parent's desire that he achieve something better than the working-class life they had been able to give him, but quickly found he wasn't cut out to be the doctor they hoped he would become, or the Russian literature professor he chose as an alternative.

Merullo urged the students not to try and fulfill the wants and desires of parents or society when planning their futures, but instead to try and 'find what's right for you in life.'

Recounting how, at 24 and driving a cab three days a week he 'felt like a failure' after dismal career attempts as a U.S. diplomat in Russia and Peace Corps volunteer following college.

'I finally asked myself, 'what do I want to do when I wake up every day for the rest of my life?'' Merullo recalled.

The answer, he said, was writing. But again, the path wasn't easy.

'I didn't know any writers,' Merullo said, adding that he was terrified that he wouldn't be able to make a living at his chosen career. In making his career choice however, Merullos said he had 'taken that dread that was inside me and pushed it down.' Twelve years later, the then-carpenter-by-trade published his first book.

'My wish for you all,' he told the students, 'is that you find something in your life, whatever it is, that makes you happy . [to] shed the expectations of the world around you and do what you want.'

Unlike the first two speakers, Barker, author of the historical novel, 'A Difficult Boy,' said she'd always wanted to be a writer, but didn't pursue it as a career for fear she couldn't make a living at it.

Her advice to students, drawn from her 10-year odyssey to get her book published, was to never give up on a dream.

'Mine is a story about persistence, having really, really great friends, and not giving up,' she told students.

Showing the folder holding the 81 rejection letters for her book, which was inspired by documents about an indentured servant she read while working at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, she tried to instill in students the importance of overcoming the 'no's' they will hear in life.

'The important message is, whether you are going to be a dancer or an artist or a writer, there are going to be times in life when you hear that 'no,'' Barker said. 'When people said 'no' [to me], instead of going away with my tail between my legs, I tried to find out how to turn that 'no' into a 'yes.''

Holding up the multiple re-writes she went through to achieve publication, she stressed that persistence really does pay off in life.

Calvanese, whose initial foray into the genre of Science Fiction with the first installment of his 'Carcium' trilogy has not only been well-received but potentially optioned as a film, told students that he was inspired to write the book after watching a fantasy movie with his young daughter.

'I wanted to create my own world and wanted to put what was important to me in [it],' Calvanese said. 'I wanted to build something that was my own.'

He said that he wasn't alone in wanting to send a message to others through writing.

'Everybody in the world has something to say,' said Calvanese, who spent 20 years as a songwriter and restaurant entrepreneur before he tried his hand at literature. 'If you want to say something, you can do it in so many different ways.'

His advice to the students was to not hold back on their creativity, especially if it leads them to try their hand at writing.

'If you want to do this, try it,' Calvanese said. 'The key is to sit down and try.'

It was a message that seemed to echo with junior Ryan Harper, who stood in line to speak with Merullo after the session ended.

'I liked how they talked about just sticking with what you want to do no matter what,' Harper said. 'Even if it's not [a good-paying job], it pays off in the end and makes a better life.'

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