When I talk about the writers who have most influenced me as a writer and a storyteller, Aaron Sorkin and Nora Ephron—two screenwriters, predominantly (although Ephron began her career as a journalist and wrote everything from plays to essays to blog posts, and Sorkin is also a playwright)—come to my lips first. In Sorkin I see a kindred spirit of one who hears dialogue like music, and I worship at his altar of “intention and obstacle” when it comes to my novels. In Ephron I find less a kindred spirit and more someone I want to like me, even from beyond. Consequently, after reading Richard Cohen’s book about her, it seems I was far from alone in that regard.
Aaron writes dialogue that sounds smart. Nora wrote smart stuff.
But the writer I talk little about, who perhaps has had an even greater influence on me, for a longer period of time, is Judy Blume.
I was introduced to Judy Blume books in the second grade, when my teacher, Ms. Millman (she was the first woman I knew who insisted on being called “Ms.” instead of “Mrs.,” and she was my favorite grade-school teacher), read Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to the class.
I was hooked from there. As I’ve often said, when it comes to reading, I am a creature of habit—when I find an author I like, I read just about everything s/he’s ever written, often more than once. That was Judy Blume. I took Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing out of the library and read it again. And again. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great came next, followed by Starring Sally J. Freeman as Herself. I remember when Superfudge came out, and my female classmates all clamored to be next on the waiting list at the school’s library to read it.
And then, of course, there was Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
It was the book to read if you were a twelve-year-old girl. And it made an impression on every one of them. Three of my friends and I started our own PTS’s club, complete with boy books and discussion about bras (neither the club nor the books lasted very long; besides, I only had one boy and Paul McCartney on my list—this was post-Shaun Cassidy and pre-Duran Duran).
I ordered a Starter Kit after reading that book. Two girls in my sixth grade class threw a co-ed party and announced they were going to play “Spin the Bottle” (I was relieved not to be invited). Like Margaret, I wanted breasts (I got my wish, albeit not during my teens). I wanted my period. I wanted knitted sweaters with special labels (my grandmother made me dresses for my brothers’ weddings, wraparound skirts, funky vests, and knitted booties, so I’m not complaining).
It’s Not the End of the World turned out to be a refuge after my parents split up, although their demise looked nothing like Karen’s parents. Deenie, Blubber, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t—these were all the books of my childhood and adolescence. I read these books over and over and over again. They were stories that validated me, made me curious, and made me want to grow up. They were the stories that shaped my own stories, secret stories, like the ones Sally Freeman made up in her head and told no one about. I wrote lots of stories in my head. I wrote stories in my notebook and hid the notebooks. I wrote in my diary every day and made up stories in which I inserted myself into a soap opera plot or a Duran Duran video.
Last week I began Judy Blume’s Master Class, and was validated all over again from the very first lesson, this time as a grown up. A writer. An author. A storyteller. And a woman.
I found out that Judy and I share the same phobia of thunderstorms.
I found out that Judy gets ideas in the shower and/or on walks, just like I do.
I found out that, like me, Judy re-purposes the things and truths she both witnesses and experiences and feels in and from her own life into her stories. Not consciously or deliberately, but because they’re there and, to step back into Nora Ephron’s shoes for just a moment, “everything is copy.”
She tells stories about herself as a writer as simply as she writes.
I also found out that there are still a bunch of Judy Blume books I have yet to read. I’ll be visiting the public library in the near future. And heck, I’ll re-read all the other ones yet again, because it’s been so long.
I never got the chance to tell Nora Ephron what her writing meant to me. I got to tell Aaron Sorkin online, and even shook his hand in person. I hope I get those opportunities with Judy Blume. I hope I get to tell her that she’s one of my favorites. I hope I get to show her my novels, and tell her that Andi from Faking It voraciously read Judy Blume’s books. Even mentioned that she did. Sage from The Second First Time probably read all her books too. And Sunny from Adulation. And Eva from Why I Love Singlehood. How could they not? I hope I get to thank Judy Blume for knowing me and writing for me, even though she’s never known I exist. I hope I get to hug her.
I am truly a student of her craft as much as I am a reader of her stories. And I am honored and privileged to be both for the last forty years.