Marlene Wagman-Geller

"As far back as I can remember, it was always on my bucket list, even before the term bucket list was coined,
to be a writer. It was a natural progression to want to go from reading books to writing one."

Leap of Faith

Jul 06, 2024 by Marlene Wagman-Geller


       Dreams don’t just have to be for sleeping: The quotation is what my road to publication has taught me. To reach my mountaintop-whose pinnacle was the joy of seeing my name on the spine of books-was an arduous journey. Each writer has their own story; here is mine.

     Environment is indeed destiny. Growing up in the winter wonderland of Toronto, Canada, made me “indoorsey.” Who would willingly, (at least, not moi) venture forth into biting winds, huge snowbanks, and icy pavements? I still remember coming home and warming my hands with the heat from a radiator. No wonder the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who hailed from a country with inhospitable temperatures, was able to pen his epics Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and War and Peace. Had he been born in a sunnier clime, the world may have missed out on literary masterpieces. 

      The crimp in being “indoorsey:” inside was not a nice place to be. Tolstoy expressed the angst of dysfunctional, (why the fun in that word?) when he wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The coldness of the outside permeated my home. My parents were the archetypal odd couple, but hilarity did not ensue. Their only commonality was eroding one another’s souls. My father’s disastrous investments lost our money; the specter of poverty cried from every corner. My mother had what was then known as manic depression, currently labelled as bipolar. The disease stole her life. Had my mother been confided to a wheelchair or afflicted with an “acceptable” disease, relatives and neighbors would have bent over backwards to help. Instead, they shunned her and called her crazy. I will never unsee visiting her in mental hospitals, strapped to a bed.

      Fortunately, I discovered an escape route of which Emily Dickinson wrote of in a poem “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” My house did not have books; my parents, Polish Jews, never had educational opportunities. However, armed with a paper card, I was able to borrow endless books from the Forest Hill Public Library. I scavenged the Dewey Decimal designated aisles for fairy tales, Greek mythology, historical novels, and volumes of quotations. The library became my home away from home, my refuge, my she-cave-before it was a term. And, as with most avid readers, I imagined one day I would write a book-the Great Canadian Novel. My first attempt at becoming an author is when I submitted a short story to Seventeen Magazine. Unsurprisingly, my story, (inspired by Heathcliff), has been long washed away by the years though I still remember its last line, “And our love, like the sea, will endure.” I also remember my pain when my mailbox never held a response. Authorship was my Man of La Mancha impossible dream- one that would spend a lengthy time waiting in the wings. Moreover, my aspiration wore a different guise than what I had envisioned.

      In her famous essay, “A Room of Her Own,” Virginia Woolf observed, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In keeping with Virginia’s admonition, my first step was to obtain money-Canadian currency that bore the image of Queen Elizabeth II. I took a series of jobs where I worked in a Jewish bakery, a Roy Rogers fast food franchise, and a bookstore. With the aid of student loans, I received my Honors B.A. in English from York University. (As an aside, now that I reside in the United States, when people discover I went to York, they ask if I mean New York University; I don’t feel a pressing need to elaborate). As a degree in English does not lead to the Promised Land of gainful employment, I graduated from the University of Toronto’s teacher credential program. After years working as a substitute teacher, I finally found a position at Eastern High School of Commerce. I would probably still be working on the Danforth, (Toronto’s Greek neighborhood), had not the weaving sisters determined a divergent destiny.

      As a twenty something I had met Joel, a man at the YMHA-the Jewish version of YMCA-by its swimming pool. As his t-shirt bore the marks of paint-spatters, I inquired as to what type of canvasses he painted. His response, “Houses.” Although he was not my romantic ideal of a struggling artist-only the struggling part held true-we embarked on a relationship. When we broke up, my solace in grappling with a tsunami of pain was immersing myself in the pages of endless books. I wrote a novel-based on our relationship, Bubblegum and mailed it off to innumerable literary agents. I received so many rejection notices that I could have covered the peeling walls of my rented basement apartment with their letters. (Some were form letters, some encouraging, some assassins to any future hope of success). Each rejection was a serrated stab in my soul.

      In 1986, Joel, and I reconnected. He had moved to San Diego in the interim to attend law school and asked me to join him. I gave notice to the high school where I taught and bid a guilt-ridden farewell to my mother. My Torontonian friends believed I was living the dream in a city with white sandy beaches lapped by the azure waves of the Pacific Ocean, a paradise I shared with my lawyer-to-be beau.

      The reality was not as rosy; is it ever?  Joel had painted houses to get the money for his move and had immigrated with very little funds; I arrived with only clothes too warm for California. We lived in a mobile home, in a trailer park, (SPACE 20), in proximity to the Tijuana border. Our biographies are bookended by the respective neighborhoods in which we lived, and my Chula Vista home followed that paradigm. Nothing Mr. Rogers ever said prepared me for this neighborhood. To my left was Bill, a pleasant, polite elderly man. When my space had plumbing problems, I asked if I could use his restroom. As soon as I entered, I was in a variation of a Chula Vista Twilight Zone. His walls displayed large posters of women who wore the Emperor’s New Clothes- along with interior shots. Oy. In the bathroom, there were piles and piles and piles of “girly” magazines. I felt like I was Alice falling into a pornographic rabbit-hole. My neighbors to the right could have had starring roles in a television series, “Lifestyles of the Poor and the Perverted.” They serenated our midsummer night dreams with the man calling out, “You f***** a N*****!” The woman’s response, “You f**** my daughter!” Their dog was forever chained in their yard-right next to our bedroom window. He whimpered nonstop. Since the man looked like a former inmate of Folsom, I did not confront him, as I was not desirous of ending up in an episode of The Forensic Files.

      We desperately wanted to move-who this side of sanity would not-but that required the prerequisite funds. Joel went to law school in the day and law-clerked after class, but that did not generate much income. After earning my California teaching credential, I applied for jobs; however, the fly in the employment ointment is I did not have American legal status-AKA a “green card.” The only place I could work was in court schools- for students who did not fit into regular classes. One of these was for what was then called illegal alien children; they were in custody while awaiting deportation. As a treat, I rented the VCR of Top Gun and bought my students copious amounts of candy. Ironically, this holding center was on Normal Street. Another sub site was in San Ysidro. My first thought when I arrived and saw the door emblazoned with graffiti was to hear my variation of Dorothy’s words, “Something tells me we’re not in Toronto anymore.” Many of the girls had tear drop tattoos by their eyes. Teardrop tattoos signify the wearer has committed murder; the outline of teardrops signifies attempted murder. I felt due to their age, and the fact they were not incarcerated, they were merely wanna be murderers. One takes comfort where one can. However, disturbing exteriors sometimes mask decency. One of them came up to my desk and told me not to drink the Sprite bottle I had left in the fridge. When I asked why, she explained a boy had emptied the bottle and filled it with a bodily fluid. After I thanked her, she said she had only warned me cuz I was pregnant. I did not return for the second day. My game plan was to earn as much money as possible that would enable me to spend more time at home when my baby arrived. Another assignment was at a school for troubled adolescent boys. When I was supervising a baseball game, a student, after he struck out, was so enraged he kicked me as hard as I could in my stomach. I left immediately and headed to my doctor, terrified my baby had been injured. The doctor on call no doubt rued he was filling in that day.

      What followed was a series of unfortunate events. One morning, on my way to work, my car, that I parked in the street as Joel used our parking space, had glass all over the driver’s seat, compliment of a gunshot. A few weeks later, a thief made off with my Pinto. I was not upset at losing the car that had a quirk of stopping dead at inopportune times, but I was crushed as my only existing manuscript of my book, a fictionalized story of Dorothy Parker entitled, Mongrel, was in its trunk. I had poured my blood, sweat, and tears into it and now it was likely lost in Tijuana. As it transpired, the police found the Pinto; apparently, the thief did not want my book as it was still in the trunk. What broke my heart was no one wanted my book either. My third attempt at fiction had proved futile. I was bloody and bowed, but not defeated. What served as my metaphorical cane was my mantra, “The power of persistence.”

      In 2008, serendipity finally stepped in. Gwyneth Paltrow was in negotiations to star in Peyton Place, a biopic based on the author, Grace Metalious. The book was an exposé of a New England town whose strait-laced exterior camouflaged its seamy underbelly. As I was on the prowl for a new read, and as I enjoyed reading books that were to be released as movies, I headed to Barnes and Noble. I enjoyed the style of writing, the characters, and the plot where unsavory characters emerged from small town propriety. However, as a voracious reader, the novel would have remained a forgotten footnote except for an incident that impacted my life.

        After I finished the novel, I chanced upon the Dedication Page that bore the words, “TO GEORGE, For All The Reasons he knows so well.” My inner yenta was immediately piqued:  who was George and what were the reasons he knew so well? Research brought to light that George was Grace’s long-suffering husband. He was the school principal in a small New Hampshire town. He returned home to a fridge with food past its expiration date and three children who took their etiquette from the boys in Lord of The Flies. The death-knell to their marriage was Grace’s libido-laden novel that ended his career.

    Intrigued, I became a dedication detective and researched classic novels’ dedications. Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis was “Dear Boisie-Boise had led to Oscar’s imprisonment; Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, “To Frank O’Connor and Nathaniel Branden”-Frank was her husband, Nathaniel her lover, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, “For Mr. Lee and Alice In consideration of love & affection”-Lee was her father, Alice, her sister. The research led to my epiphany: why not write a book on literary dedications? Joel delineated a list of reasons why I should not-namely, it would never see the light of publication. When I said I was going to pursue my idea he replied, “Don’t quit your day job.”

     I did not quit my day job, and I did not give up my dream. I connected with a New York agent and three days later I had a publishing contract along with a sizeable advance for Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature’s Most Intriguing Dedications. I asked Joel if Penguin Publishing meant anything to him; his jaw dropped. Upon regaining his power of speech, he reiterated that I should not consider quitting my day job.

       If asked about the road to publication I would offer the following advice, born from experience. To start, never listen to the naysayers. I heard comments such as writers went to Ivy League universities-Yale not York; they had a string of degrees after their names-not merely a B.A.; they had contacts in the industry, and they were not teachers in an inner- city school.

     Aspiring authors often cite their inability to write claiming they do not have the time. I completed my twelve books while working as a full-time high school English teacher and running a household. Of course, sacrifices had to be made. I used to go out with friends, watch television, walk by the ocean. However, to achieve something one must be willing to forego something else. Time lurks; just catch it when you can.

     An enemy of publishing is the fear of rejection. People are often so frightened of negative feedback they do not send out their manuscripts. Because writer’s put their heart and souls into their work, they are understandably vulnerable to criticism. Dorothy Parker expressed this concept in her poem, “Fighting Words,” “Say my verses do not scan/And I get me another man!” However, the adage applies, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” At the end of our lives, what will present the greatest reproach is not our failures, but rather the hovering pain of, “It could have been.”

     Birthing my books has been the gift that keeps on giving. I have met wonderful people with whom my paths would not have otherwise crossed. Wonderful opportunities have arisen such as television and radio interviews. After the release of Once Again to Zelda, I spoke at Yale; I could finally truly state I went to Yale. Writing my books has given my retirement years a purpose, has given a direction to my days. Had I listened to the naysayers, had I listened to my fear of rejection, I would not have the joy of a second act, one that originated from passion, rather than need.