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With a Little Help
By Ingrid Ricks
At thirty-three, Suzanne Rosenwasser had proven that the right mixture of guts, passion and self-belief could work magic in the dreams department.
Folksinger Harry Chapin had recently been killed in a car accident. And with only an unpublished children’s book to her name, the longtime fan had first convinced Chapin’s family to let her tell his story, and then had managed to secure a book contract with publishing powerhouse William Morrow to write the singer’s biography.
An Atlanta English teacher who had recently returned to her hometown of New York with her husband and two children to pursue a writing career, Suzanne was living an “as good as it gets” dream. She spent her days delving into Chapin’s life and interviewing those who knew him best – including fellow musician Pete Seeger, and former President Jimmy Carter, who called her to discuss Chapin’s efforts to combat world hunger.
Then midway into the project, the ring of her Long Island doorbell changed everything.
“I answered the door and this guy shoved a paper at me and told me I had just been served,” says Suzanne, the sting still audible in her voice more than twenty-five years later. “Apparently Chapin had a biographer he had chosen who used to ride around with him, and the guy had a contract with Putnam for his biography when he died.”
Reading the subpoena, Suzanne discovered that she was being accused of plagiarizing from the man’s partially completed manuscript. She soon learned that Chapin’s family didn’t approve of the guy and had kept a copy of the manuscript he had been working on at the time of Chapin’s death. The suit claimed that the family had given the manuscript to Suzanne to use for her book.
Suzanne wasn’t prepared for the grueling nightmare that her life was to become. For the next year, she felt like she did nothing but testify. The plagiarism lawsuit was eventually deemed ‘frivolous’ when the manuscripts were compared, but the humiliation of being accused of stealing someone else’s work – an accusation that appeared in a story in The New York Times – was still hard to bear. And just as that lawsuit was being resolved, the circumstances around Chapin's death involving the implosion of a VW he was driving led to legal inquiries into Suzanne's research about the accident. Amid it all, Suzanne began clashing with her editor, who wanted her to take the manuscript in a different direction than she was taking it.
“These people were playing a game I didn’t understand,” says Suzanne. “How could someone just ring my doorbell and bring this lawsuit against me? And then there was the Volkswagen mess and the pressure from my editor. I began questioning my legitimacy as a writer. I felt like I wasn’t sophisticated enough to be dealing with the bigwigs on Madison Avenue and that I wasn’t a mature enough writer to deal with defining someone else’s life while I was giving depositions for lawsuits which went on for years. By then, no one was deader to me than Harry Chapin and everything fell apart.”
The blow was so crushing that for awhile, Suzanne couldn’t write at all. Then in 1986, she was invited to collaborate with another writer on a large Vietnam memorial story, which led to a regular writing gig with a Long Island newspaper. She spent the next few years covering education and writing local feature stories and she won some awards for her writing. Buoyed by that success, she submitted a story to The New York Times, which was accepted for publication in 1991.
Suzanne felt redeemed by The New York Times article and thought she could finally put the Chapin fiasco behind her. But the article didn’t replace the sense of loss and failure she still felt. About that same time, her husband’s business floundered and they decided New York was too expensive. As they left New York, Suzanne also subconsciously left behind her writing life.
Back in Atlanta, Suzanne returned to teaching and spent the next sixteen years pushing her dream aside. She still wrote occasionally, but only for herself. Soon she convinced herself that she was no longer worthy of the writer title.
“People would ask me what I do and I would say, `Oh, I’m just a teacher’. I mean, I loved to teach but all I ever really wanted to be is a writer. But because I wasn’t publishing, I felt that I had lost the privilege of calling myself that. I could hear the put-down in my voice when I said it and I hated hearing myself. It made me so sad.”
The aha moment for Suzanne finally came in 2007, while sitting on the beach with a friend. Out of nowhere, her friend noted that she talked “like a writer.” When Suzanne told her about the Chapin biography fiasco and the subsequent writing she had done, her friend called her on the carpet. “She said, `Why the hell aren’t you writing?’” recalls Suzanne. “She told me that I needed to go home and write. Now.”
That day, Suzanne started working on an essay about a beach back in her hometown of Long Island and sent it to the same New York Times editor who had published her piece sixteen years before. And like then, her story was published. The writing fever was back and Suzanne didn’t stop. She began writing daily, pitching constantly and accumulating a pile of rejections. Then last fall, she discovered Scribd, an online publishing community comprised of thousands of writers who are publishing, reading and commenting on each other’s work. And instantly she found herself surrounded by a supportive community of people who were seeking out her writing.
“It’s been like this hand reaching out to me in support,” says Suzanne. “I know people are reading what I’m writing and it’s been effortless. I just upload it and people find my work. I don’t have to force them. They choose what they want to read. I also get to learn from other writers by reading what they are writing. It’s been so powerful. What I needed to know was that I had a voice that people wanted to hear. That’s what Scribd has given me.”
Through Scribd, Suzanne connected with an editor from The Good Men Project and was invited to submit an article. She has been writing regularly for the publication ever since, sharing poignant stories about at-risk boys from her school who have been thriving as a result of a “Just Love’em” focused program she helped launch with the school’s principal. And thanks to Scribd, she has once again gained the confidence and courage to write a book – this time a novel called Don’t Ya Know, a story some fellow Scribd members have likened to John Irving’s A World According to Garp.
“It started out as a short story,” says Suzanne. “But when I put it on Scribd, I had so many people ask me what’s next and a few writers I had connected with asked why it wasn’t a novel. I started thinking about it and thought, `You know, it could be’, and I’ve been working on it ever since.”
Suzanne has reclaimed her title of writer. She still works with the at-risk boys at her school on a volunteer basis, but she recent retired from her teaching job to devote herself full-time to the writing dream she has carried with her since she was a child.
“It’s really come full circle for me,” says Suzanne. “Ultimately, Harry’s music taught me the lesson that I took from the whole thing. My favorite Chapin song, “Mr. Tanner”, is about a dry cleaner with a beautiful voice who sings while cleaning clothes. His friends talk him into going to New York to perform and he gets bad reviews. But as the song goes: He sang from his heart and he sang from his soul. He did not know how well he sang; it just made him whole.”
To view Harry Chapin singing “Mr. Tanner”, click on this YouTube link.
Suzanne Rosenwasser's writing can be found on Scribd at www.scribd.com/suzanner or at The Good Men Project: http://goodmenproject.com/author/suzanne-rosenwasser/ Dream blog author Ingrid Ricks is currently pursuing her dream to publish Hippie Boy, her recently completed coming-of-age memoir. Read excerpts on Scribd, or at www.hippieboybook.com. To read other Dream blog profiles, please visit: www.dreamitseekit.com