Now I Can Make Something Up

When I was 12 years old, riding endlessly around the block on my Roadmaster bike, I decided that I would be a writer when I grew up. The catalyst for that promise to myself: the corner grocery store my family had lived above for three years. Our store. The Ninth Street Grocery, in a poor South Minneapolis neighborhood.

And what an adventure life was there. We were no longer tucked away in our safe North Side ghetto, in a private house. We were public figures in a strange exposed way. The store people. “The Jews.” We were trying to make it into the middle class. A lot of the people in that neighborhood never would. Mostly because of demon rum. Well, more like 3.2 beer. Which we sold. By the case on Sundays when the blue laws quit at noon.

Once I got past the early name-calling and half-hearted punches on the arm, I had a wonderful time and a lot of great, adventurous friends. I started out working at the candy counter and by 12, I was trusted to use the big meat slicer and even be in the store nearly by myself, with Daddy napping in the back room.

That store was my first real exposure to the lives of people I hadn’t met before. Some of our customers were working class like much of my own family but there were also the abjectly poor and hopeless and even illiterate. A range of “other” that got me thinking, circling that long block on my bike and promising myself that I would write a book about the store before I died. To explain my new neighbors to my old ones. To tell the stories that hid behind those falling-down houses.

So I made myself a promise.

Then I blinked. And the next thing I knew, I’d been a working writer for forty years, had produced thirteen other books, and still hadn’t made good. The damned promise haunted me. Life was flashing by. I could die! I had to do it.

That was five years ago.

I’d saved notes. Lots of them. Bits and pieces I started writing in the Sixties when the memories were still relatively fresh. A big messy pile of history. And as I read through it, trying to create order out of terrifying chaos, I remembered even more. And then it started becoming a book.

Hard to believe, but it looks like I might finish this year.

I feel a great sense of triumph. I like this book. I’ve polished every word. I did it.  I kept my promise.

At the same time, what a relief! That 12-year-old girl can relax. To my surprise I did not die during or because of the writing, and now I’m free. Now I can make something up. Go back to the fantasies that created six Jake Samson books.

I can’t wait to write mysteries again.

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12 Responses

  1. It sounds like a book I want to read very much. I grew up as a Catholic in a Mormon/Methodist town and experienced the outsider/insider feeling there. But don’t forget the mysteries–they’re great.

    Sheila Simonson

    • I got all tangled up figuring out how to reply. Hope I didn’t do it twice. Thanks so much, Sheila–you definitely will understand what I’m writing about. And no chance of forgetting the mysteries. Shelley

  2. I’ve heard you talk about this book for years, Shelley, and I can’t wait to read it.

    Janet Dawson

  3. Shelley, I am beyond delighted to hear that “the” book is just about written! I remember talking about it with you back in the era of the Lethal Ladies Who Lunch (and how long ago was that?) Hoorah for you! Nothing’s better than a dream fulfilled. I cannot wait to read it–and I loved everything you said in this blog about it.
    xoxo Judy

    • Thanks so much Judy. Yes, Lethal Ladies was a long time ago, but not forgotten. How are you doing these days? Shelley

  4. Hi Shelley, coming in late from a trip to Boston. I’m “here” thanks to your encouragement in a class I took from you years ago, so I hope you continue that career as well!

    As for the stranger in town — we Italians tried so hard to fit in, many of my family dropped the last vowel in their names. There was no “Press 1 for Italian.” Looking forward to your take on those times!

    • And a great student you were, my dear. I can’t stop teaching or consulting–I love it. As for our similar backgrounds, I still have that Ellis Island ball cap you gave me a bunch of years ago. Wear it proudly, too. SS

  5. It’s a great story, Shelley. And that 12-year-old turned into a fantastic woman.

  6. Shelley, I’m late getting to read this–and it’s worth the wait. What a moving story! I love that young girl, the family grocery store, and the urge to write. “The Book”–a thrilling adventure of itself! Keep us posted.

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