Thursday, May 24, 2007

Work in Progress: Marty Rhodes Figley

I first met Marty Rhodes Figley at a networking brunch during which everyone in the room gave a brief introduction about themselves. Two women mentioned that they had recently learned the secrets of making perfect piecrust from Marty; she had invited them over and they spent an afternoon in the kitchen making “real” pie. Since making perfect piecrust is one of my life goals, I knew I had to meet Marty myself. Within moments of introducing myself, she invited me over to make pie!

We had a great time, and the cherry pie “we” made was by far the best I have ever eaten, let alone participated in making. Having read every list of “helpful hints” for perfect piecrust, I was aghast that Marty didn’t actually measure the shortening, didn’t worry if her hands were cold, used water out of the faucet instead of ice water, and didn’t stress out during the rolling process. As I said, her piecrust was amazing, while mine continues to be…well, better than it used to be, though still not amazing. (See Chapter 8, “Pie,” in my book A Year and a Day for all the sordid details of my piecrust angst.)

Marty is a remarkable woman, gifted at creating pie (and other culinary treats) and gifted at bringing history alive to children with her lovely words. Generous and funny (be sure to read her Washington Post piece about her unique Phantom of the Opera diet—link below), she is one of my favorite people, and I think this essay describing her approach to writing captures her delightful personality:

Gambling is in my genes. I’ve been told that one night, long ago, blood streamed down my grandpa’s face when grandma bonked him with a tin dipper after he crept in with empty pockets from yet another night of poker at the local pool hall. It was the Depression and I guess Grandpa was looking to get lucky. After the bleeding stopped, Grandma and Grandpa had a long, quiet talk in the bedroom. He never visited the pool hall again.

When I was a teenager I was amazed when my dad took a gamble and after 16 years quit the telephone company. He became part owner of a cosmetic company with an imposing, white-bearded man from Chicago named Rudy. I remember the weekend when the building that housed the business burned down. We sifted through the ashes and tried to salvage bottles of astringent lotion and jars of mint masque to no avail. Later, dad’s luck changed. He switched from cosmetics to cable TV and ended up building systems in small towns throughout the Midwest.

My younger brother and I inherited this gambling tendency. One crazy weekend, when my kids were small, we drove to Atlantic City and played for hours against each other at the roulette tables. It was a heady experience but this particular brand of sibling rivalry proved expensive. Together we were double-trouble, two crazy clones of Grandpa. We ran though all our cash, and then had a flat tire on the way home. There was no spare in the trunk—that’s not hedging your bets. MasterCard saved us, and we never gambled against each other again.

My brother ended up with an M.B.A. and turned to the stock market for his gambling highs. He has done quite well.

I turned to writing . . . and then submitting my manuscripts. It’s a cheap but exhilarating game of chance. After I compose and polish what I’m convinced at that moment in time is the BEST THING I HAVE EVER WRITTEN, I put it in a big white envelope, or make it into a Word Attachment and send it out to be read. Even if I’m submitting to an editor I know, or a receptive publishing house, it’s still like rolling the dice . . . or picking red or black on that wicked roulette wheel.

I always have hope. This could be it! The big sale! The movie deal! The book that wins the prestigious award and garners massive public acclaim!

Most of the time, it’s not. Scar tissue is a fact of life with most writers I know. We have all experienced many, many rejections. But we are a hopeful tribe—and totally addicted to submitting.

I know I’ll keep writing and sending out my work. Preparation and continual honing of my craft may improve my odds—who knows? It’s still a game of chance. But I’ll risk it.

Emily Dickinson nails it as usual . . .
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches on the soul -
And sings the tune – without the words –
And never stops – at all –

~~Marty Rhodes Figley

About: Marty Rhodes Figley loves writing humor and history. She has published seven books for children, with two more in production. Titles include The Schoolchildren's Blizzard, Saving the Liberty Bell, and Washington Is Burning. She also enjoys writing for "grown-ups." Recently she published a humorous piece in the Washington Post and an academic article in the Emily Dickinson Journal. Marty is currently working on a humorous middle grade novel.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.