June 9, 2002
Terry Marotta, 53, writes her weekly newspaper column in Massachusetts, "the feisty little state that grew a shoulder on the map and dared the Atlantic to a bout of arm-wrestling."
Her word pictures are mental Pop Rocks that continue to fizz long after she describes small children emerging from the bath "sleek as seal pups" or herself and gal pals at a summer camp dance, miserable in mandated knee socks and Bermuda shorts: "To the boys we must have looked like the Hitler Youth."
Marotta may be the best unfamous writer in the United States. Read her column (this page) on how to do a wedding up right, and decide whether you want 51 more stories from in Vacationing in My Driveway. If so, you're in luck: Marotta is signing books in Boynton Beach this afternoon and Monday evening - details below.
After reading Vacationing, I realized that here is someone who makes story telling seem accessible, something any of us might do well were we to pay a bit more attention and hold still for a few minutes. I interviewed her about writing.
Q: You wanted to write a column in high school, and started after you quit teaching high school and had babies?
Marotta: I thought of myself as a writer when I was 3 and my sister, Nan, helped me with my letters. I asked my mother to get me a
notebook, one of those black, marbly-looking things, and I can remember lying on my stomach with crayons and filling the lines with wiggly things that were supposed to be words. It was clear to me that that's where the action was - words, not pictures.
Q: Your older sister was an influence?
Marotta: She was great, so full of information. She told me where babies came from and the low-down on boys, how they didn't get their periods 'til they were 18.
Q: Did your parents encourage you?
Marotta: I was reared by my mother and my Aunt Grace who told wonderful stories. My mother and my aunt would tell of earlier times
before we were born, so vividly it was like being transported. We're a family of diarists and I've kept a diary as long as I can remember. It
is my secret belief that when we write things down that have happened to us, that they remain available to us more or less permanently.
Q: But now you make your life available to others?
Marotta: I continually ask myself, what kind of adventure can I have on behalf of my readers who don't have the time? I have the time.
Q: You started writing a column 22 years ago from your kitchen. Just like that?
Marotta: I had taught high school English for seven years. It was the best work I ever did. I still miss it. I taught from E. B. White's Elements of Style - "when in doubt, cut it out." I worked myself silly, poring over student essays, writing detailed notes on the backs of their papers. I still help young people with their term papers - and I work with the kids in my church youth group. But I resigned from teaching when I started having babies.
Q: And wrote at home?
Marotta: One day with two very small babies, I was leafing through my high school year book and saw where a teacher wrote that she hoped I
followed through on my dream to be a columnist. Then and there I dashed off something for a writing contest sponsored by Parents magazine - and it turned out to win a prize and get printed. That didn't happen until some months had passed, but still - just the process of doing it felt so good I sat down that same day and wrote a column for the local paper. That was in 1980. And I haven't missed a deadline since.
Q: It sounds as if you were already a writer. How did you become a writer? Do you recall a breakthrough?
Marotta: When I was 21 and got out of college - American Studies concentrating on American literature - I thought you had to use big words. I very quickly learned, especially when teaching, that you have to purge that fancy stuff, the language of academia and that when you use big words it just makes people feel sad.
Q: How did you shift gears?
Marotta: In our home we had hundreds of volumes of poetry and I read a lot of Robert Frost. I loved Robert Frost and his plain talk. Much of my style derives from his, I think: the way he sounds like anyone you might meet on the street who pauses to join you in conversation.
Q: People used to ask the late Erma Bombeck how she could keep writing out of the home. How do you answer that?
A: It helps if you are a diarist. I write in my diary every day, but not everything as it happens. I wait until the end of the day, let things settle out. As you sort through the day, you remember little things, a conversation in a checkout line or something you were thinking about on the subway.
Q: So as you approach deadline day, you think about the last week and come up with a theme?
Marotta: I think it starts with attitude. People say, "Nothing ever happens to me," but I assume the opposite is true. Almost every interaction has the potential to glisten with meaning. I really believe that.
Q: And with that attitude, you start writing?
Marotta: I believe you need a deadline and the ability to pretend that there is somebody out there eager to read what you have to say. It's as if you are an emissary, the one sent out to get the story. Of course you also have to calm yourself and lose your self-consciousness. I talk about this in the book.
Q: Yes, you said that you were uptight about the piano lessons you started with your 13-year-old son and that you envied him when he slid onto the bench like it was home plate, "pulled a yard-long string of gum from his mouth, wrapped it clear around his head and began pounding out a tune."
Marotta: I said that maybe the trick is just staying a kid.
Q: Through your stories, I get a sense of the sacredness of everyday life, but never a feeling that I'm being preached to, more like I'm being shown how to savor life. It's all example.
Marotta: Well, I think that God created the world because he couldn't know himself otherwise and his creations, humans in particular, are a myriad of mirrors he holds up to see himself. Each one of us is a different shard of that mirror and we are important.
Q: What about life as a conveyor belt that keeps picking up speed until it drops you off into who knows what?
Marotta: A conveyor belt? No, I see it as an escalator. I think I'm like my mother who spoke of going from assisted living to a full care facility as "graduating." I believe we move up the escalator until we graduate from this life and move on to the next. What could be nicer?
(Note: Today and Monday Terry Marotta will appear in Boynton Beach book stores to sign copies of Vacationing in my Driveway.)
Sunday, 3 p.m. Borders Books, 525 N. Congress Boynton Beach.
Directions: from I-95, go west on Boynton Beach Boulevard, turn north on Congress Avenue and left on Old Boynton Road. Borders is next to Circuit City.
Monday, 7 p.m. Barnes & Noble, 333 N. Congress Avenue, Boynton Beach.
Directions: from I-95 west to Congress Avenue, north on Congress and first left at Sports Authority and Tony Romas.
©Copyright 2002-2012 Terry Marotta, All Rights Reserved.