by Helga Ruge
The chapter of our active Foreign Service life came to an abrupt end in 1970. Neil had decided to retire early. The reason were death threats in Guatemala. The leisurely journey back to California along the length of Mexico with wonderful sightseeing detours made us forget temporarily that our lives were about to change drastically. We had no house to return to. Neil had to figure out what he wanted to do with his life and we felt slightly deflated not having to represent the United States any more, just ourselves. The children were apprehensive about new schools.
Fortunately, the transition went more smoothly than we had anticipated. Neil found a position teaching business law at Chico State University, something he enjoyed tremendously. I went back to school and earned a BA in German.
That’s when the fun began. In my last semester they offered me a part-time teaching job as a lecturer in German. It was a challenge, especially when grammar couldn’t be avoided. When the students thanked me at the end of a semester for teaching them English grammar at the same time, they made my day. I taught for nine years between 1973 till 1983 with a one-year interruption that I put to good use. I audited Spanish classes to keep up my fluency and I enrolled in a creative writing class in English. I discovered that I had more imagination than I knew I had. I experimented with various styles. We read our dialogues or stories to each other and critiqued them.
I was the only older student in the class, with more life experience than the others, which was reflected in my stories. I wrote about a hair-raising experience I had as a small child in Moscow where my family was living temporarily. The sound of the doorbell suddenly tore through the still of a wintry night and did not stop. People in the house were afraid of the worst – the KGB looking for someone to arrest. When a brave soul finally went outside to check who was there, a neighbor had discovered the culprit. Two wires were stuck together by the freezing cold and had triggered the bell. They were separated and the house went dark again.
Neil suggested that instead of writing short stories, which are notoriously difficult to compose and even more difficult to sell, I should write a book instead. He had faith in my imagination . “Write a love story, something most people can relate to,” he suggested. ”You have good taste and know where to draw the line. I’ll proofread it and tell you when your story needs correction. Remember, I was an English literature major. They say it is best to write about a subject with which one is familiar or knows something about, so try it.”
With that encouragement I dove into my subconscious and a few topics came to mind. I certainly know about love, I was an immigrant and I am familiar with life in the Foreign Service. I taught a foreign language and also studied one at the Foreign Service Institute. All these experiences bubbled to the surface and soon I knew that my heroine was to be a beautiful young Sicilian immigrant who fell in love with an American Vice Consul who was sent to Moscow.
Because we were still in the midst of the Cold War with a questionable outcome, it was natural to use this period as a time frame for my story. Beyond that I had no specific plan or strategy for the development of my story. One fine day I just began to write and before I knew it, the first ten pages of my book saw the light of day. My tentative title was “Whither the Promised Land.”
My first chapter was born. I read it to the class when it became my turn. After the third chapter, which coincided with the end of the semester, I decided I did not want to listen to some of the more bizarre stories of the students any longer; I would just concentrate on my own. The professor was kind enough to read my chapters as I went along and critique them, but I was essentially on my own. What amazed me was the ease with which I created entire characters, invented situations, and wove historical facts and personages into the fabric of my story. I sometimes felt like a magician producing things out of thin air or like a life-giving force who could change my characters’ emotions or actions at will.
Bringing the story to a close proved to be the most difficult. I had been writing for about a year and it was time to end it. As I recall, we were planning a trip to Europe and I did not want to have this crucial denouement hanging over my head. Mindful that a love story should end happily, I resolved it by letting the protagonists overcome the last of many obstacles put in their way.
Now began the attempt to sell the finished manuscript to publishers. I tried because I believed in my story; but to make a long story short, I did not succeed. To make me feel good I had one typed copy bound by a local bookbinder. It was red with gold lettering and for a while it graced our coffee table or was given to friends to read. Then it disappeared in a drawer awaiting the day of re-discovery.That day came some years later after I had written and published my memoir Flashbacks of a Diplomat’s Wife. What I learned from that experience was significant. Most writers need editors to advise them of “the tricks of the trade.” Even if the story is well written, an editor knows how to improve it by querying the writer in many ways. Should the characters’ personalities be more fleshed out? Is the timeline correct? Can the historical facts be verified? Was that song really in vogue then? Is the sentence structure too complicated? Are the chapters too long? The reader’s attention span is geared to shorter chapters and so on. Editors know what publishers look for and can steer the writer in the right direction without compromising her integrity and self- esteem.
Since my children decided to bring me into the 21st century, they surprised me with a computer after my husband’s death so that they could communicate with me via e-mail. At first I was scared of the little monster; but I gradually learned to use it to my advantage. What a blessing it proved after I engaged an excellent editor. After she had helped me with my memoir, I dug up my novel and together we gave it a good going-over. The basic story remained the same but it underwent some necessary changes for the better and from the review and readers’ commentaries it received, I am very pleased with the outcome.
I established my own publishing company and called it Clay&Marshall Publishing Co., found a good cover designer who crafted both books’ front and back covers. A local interior designer prepared the manuscripts for printing by a local printer who in turn had them bound by his favorite bookbinder in Sacramento. I had to apply for ISBN numbers, decide on the price for the bar code.
All in all it was a daring undertaking, not without its pitfalls, but it was tremendously rewarding seeing one’s literary work in book form. Because both books were self-published, the marketing is my responsibility. Baker&Taylor Book Distributor became my vendor of record, Barnes&Noble, Amazon.com and Wal*Mart Books.com also list my books on their website.
Barnes&Noble gave me a signing for my memoir and the Chico Chamber of Commerce, which I joined, gave me a ribbon cutting. Many local clubs and organizations invited me to speak about my memoir and I expect to be doing the same about my novel Whither the Promised Land, the title I kept. My daughter Madeleine designed a website for me as a mothers’ day present and I am very happy with it. Anyone can visit the site: www.claymarshallpublishing.com.
One is never too old to start a new career as a writer. Most Foreign Service people have had very interesting lives worth writing about. Their children will be grateful to read about their experiences and gain from their wisdom as will the general public. I encounter people all the time who sound almost envious remarking what fascinating lives we have led and how many interesting people we have met. I have enjoyed the writing as well as the response to my stories. It has opened up whole new horizons I never dreamed of and given my life more meaning and possibilities.
To all the retired FSOs and their spouses who feel the urge to put pen to paper I say: “Don’t hesitate. You have nothing to lose and much satisfaction to gain. It is never too late!”
Helga Ruge was born in Germany and studied at the Universities of Berlin and Marburg. She married Neil Ruge, a U. S. Foreign Service officer in 1950 and accompanied him to five posts abroad. After he retired, she taught German for nine years. Ms. Ruge was widowed in 2000. She published her memoirs, Flashbacks of a Diplomat’s Wife, in 2002.