Meet Donna Van Straten Remmert
Donna Van Straten Remmert is the author of two memoirs: The Littlest Big Kid and Jitterbug Girl. She is a long-time member of the Story Circle Network and past president of the Austin chapter. Her professional background includes teaching high school English and working as a journalist. For more than twenty years, she has pursued an informal study of Jungian psychology, especially as it relates to dreams. She and her husband live in Boulder, CO. This essay about her work was originally published in The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 4, No. 4, December, 2000).
Interviewed by Susan Wittig Albert
Posted on 12/15/2000
I've been creating stories from the events in my life since childhood, promising myself that I'd write them down someday. That someday finally arrived 4 years ago, when my husband and I moved to Austin and began building our retirement home. Most of my "stuff" was in storage and I had no social or work obligations. My life was scaled down to two projects, building a home and building a more conscious awareness of myself through telling stories about my childhood. Both projects were about self expression. Life was good!
The only contact with the world beyond my projects was the Jung Society of Austin. I called for a catalog and as synchronicity would have it, Susan Albert's writing workshop was being offered. I took it and it triggered just the right flow of creativity in me to produce my book.
It took two years to write and another year to proof, edit and print. Building a house was my creative work, this was my creative play. I'd estimate that I was at my desk playing about 2-4 hours almost every day. Not counting all the hours I spent creating stories while doing something else besides—driving, napping, doing dishes, listening to my husband. I was always thinking about my childhood and ideas would come to me at very strange times. While at my computer writing, I laughed, I cried, I even smelled things from my childhood. It was fun!
I initially defined my audience as family and maybe a few close friends. This would mean printing about 100 copies in some way, probably off my computer in booklet form. Then, I realized that my stories appealed to more than just family and a few friends and I started feeling quite conflicted over how to print. I wanted to print a real book. But, printing a real book would mean marketing, selling. I didn't really want to do that. I never seriously entertained the idea of finding a publisher because of the odds against succeeding and because this would mean changing my stories in ways that may not be best for my original intended audience of family and friends.
Some Challenges Along the Way
While trying to get organized for writing, I thought my challenges would be remembering my childhood and then writing stories that would be interesting. The solution to both challenges was magical. This is how I describe it on the back cover of my book: "When I first started writing stories from my childhood, I wrote from my adult perspective, reflecting back to those years. Then something magical happened: the little girl within me, the one that I had been and was now remembering, started writing my stories for me. Because her version of how things happened was so much more honest and entertaining than I can be as an adult, I surrendered to her influence, never knowing where it would take me from one moment to the next..."
That's exactly what happened. I got myself, the adult author (the critic, the censor, the inhibited one), out of the way and that's when my stories flowed magically and became entertaining. Remembering was easy after I found my voice, the present-tense voice of a kid, and the book seemed to be writing itself.
I also need to mention that my 4 sisters and 2 brothers helped me remember. I sent them stories, they wrote in the margins and we e-mailed each other frequently.
Another aid to my writing process was my Story Circle, five friends who meet once a month to read to each other. All of my stories were read and many changes were made because of reactions to them. They picked up on words I used that didn't belong to the period and some of their stories influenced mine. It really helps to be able to read to others and receive feedback.
My original intention was to print off my computer. Easy, inexpensive. The fantasy of printing a real book, however, wouldn't go away. In fact, it got stronger so I called my son Stephen, a graphic designer. I asked him about designing and then printing a book and when costs seemed prohibitive, Stephen filled me full of enthusiasm for doing it anyway. "You've been practical all of your life, Mom. It's time for you to be wild and crazy and just do it! Think of all the time you've spent writing, you deserve this! Do it!" Such a good son he is!
It's expensive to make a book, yet this is what I wanted to do and I wanted to give the book to some people - my sons, my sisters and brothers, my nieces and nephews, my aunts and uncles (to share with their families, my cousins) close friends. I also wanted to save copies for children in the relation who are yet to be born. My grandchildren!
We decided to print 200 books, 100 to give away and 100 to sell, in order to pay for the possibility of printing again. This is not mass marketing. I simply wanted to have a book available for anyone wanting a copy and it seemed like a good idea, considering costs, to sell some. By this time I knew that my book was good and that it was about more than just me and my family. It's about a time gone by and the way it was for me is the way it was for most kids living then. I felt confident that I could sell 100 copies word of mouth.
We selected acid free paper so that my grandchildren's children will be able to read the book someday. We chose to photocopy the text because it was the least expensive method of printing. Also, photocopy prices aren't dependent upon volume so printing again instead of printing all at once wouldn't be more expensive.
This was not the case with our 4-color cover; for printing again would cost much more than printing enough the first time. Therefore, we paid $150 more to print 1000 covers instead of only the 200 we needed.
Our printing decisions were made but the book was yet to be designed. I flew to Boulder and spent five days watching Stephen work. He inserted my floppy disc (the book) into his computer and within about ten hours, the text looked like pages in a book. The work was tedious and afterwards I needed to proof the entire book again. Of course I found mistakes and changed one thing after another so Stephen had some more tedious work to do. Such a good son!
The cover design was fun. We chose my third grade school picture because it shows my Toni Home Permanent hair that I complain about in a story. I wrote words to songs from the 40's as background cover design because we sang these songs as a family, while driving to Grandpa and Grandma Van Straten's house every Sunday after church. The key pictured on the cover was Grandma and Grandpa Schwister's house key. It was hidden in Grandpa's old brown pants that were hanging on the back porch. The Tootsie Roll was our big treat to look forward to while quarantined with scarlet fever. And the beans are about my dad's way of keeping us out of trouble every summer, by planting an acre of beans for us to pick and earn spending money. Each image contained a story; the cover was finished.
We took the disc containing the text of my book to one printer and the disc containing the cover to another. Our work was done and I flew home feeling thrilled over having shared such an awesome project with my son.
How much did it cost? $1500 to print 1000 4-color covers and $1500 for printing and binding 200 books. Stephen wanted to do his work as a gift to me and I insisted upon paying his full fee of $2500. The first 200 copies of my book cost $5000.
Has it been worth it? This one copy is worth $5000 to me. It's one of the best things I have ever done for myself, and one of the best things I've ever done for my family. My nieces and nephews love the book so much that they've asked for extra copies to put into plastic bags and save for their children, now babies, to read to their children. I'm the first to put our family stories onto paper-my book is a treasure!
I'm awfully glad we printed 1000 covers because the 100 copies I printed to sell are almost gone. I've been selling them for $12 each even though they cost me $25 each. It's not such a losing proposition, however, because I've almost sold enough books to pay for a second printing of 200 copies. It's costing only $1500 this time, because we already have the covers and I've already paid for the graphic design.
Okay, so maybe it is a losing proposition. I don't care. I wrote this book as a way to remember myself and entertain others. This is fun!
Responses to the Book
I knew in advance that my family and friends would love it. That had been tested by sending rough drafts to my brothers and sisters and by reading each story to my Story Circle friends. I got lots of encouragement, lots of help from them. I sent a few stories to people mentioned in the book, to make sure I wasn't stepping over the line.
Would my cousin Jackie see the humor in my story about her bedwetting? I got an okay.
Would my friend, Doris, mind my mention of her father's drunken behavior? I got an okay. I think that when something is true, most people in today's world feel liberated by telling about it.
Not always, of course, and I have done my share of worrying about whether I've hurt feelings. So far, no one I've heard from has been offended; they seem able to laugh at themselves and how things were back then. This is another reason I liked telling my stories as though I were a kid. I was able to tell the truth but leave room for doubt since, after all, I'm just a kid with a wild imagination.
No one has ever written a book about life in Black Creek, Wisconsin, population 492, then and now. Mine is the first and news of it has spread like wild fire. I'm getting lots of letters and phone calls from people wanting a copy. The book is now in the town library and people who have read it there want copies of their own. Maybe I should print 800 more books, using all of those covers in reserve. Not that expensive, actually, and at $12 a book, I may even pull myself out of the red!
A Few Things I'd Do Differently
I'm not a perfectionist. There are spelling and grammatical errors, the right margin is smaller than the left. Sometimes I cringe when I see these mistakes. Mostly I tell myself that it doesn't matter.
My biggest mistake is something that I've only recently realized. I should have included stories about my high school years in the book. I thought at the time that they wouldn't be as entertaining. Well, now that I've written and tested them out in my Story Circle, I realize that they're as entertaining as anything written about my early childhood.
The fact is, I may have to publish again and again because I'm so completely in love with the process of personal writing that I think I'll be writing about my entire life. I'll stay with my present tense "voice", as though I'm the age that's being written about and I think it will be fascinating to watch myself grow up and even into old age.
When I fantasize publishing stories from my entire life, I see that my stories are enough like other women's to make it a good read. That's the feedback I've received from Littlest Big Kid and I think it could apply to stories about my entire life.
Who am I to think that my life is so fascinating that others would want to read a book about me? In my epilogue I explain myself by saying this: "What I most treasure about my childhood is how I felt wonder and amazement over phenomenal happenings almost every day of my extremely ordinary life." I think that this is one of my gifts even as an adult-to see the beauty in ordinary living. This is what I'd like to share with you and others in my writing and I think that this desire comes from my heart more than from my ego.