Dallas Nicole Woodburn
My computer screensaver is a photograph of a six-year-old girl perched at the kitchen table in front of an old-fashioned manual typewriter. She is sitting up on her knees in order to be tall enough to reach the keys. The little girl stares intently at the blank piece of paper in front of her, deep in concentration – oblivious to the camera, oblivious to her father as he snaps her picture, oblivious to everything save for the story unfolding inside her mind.
I am that little girl, now grown into a young woman of eighteen. The picture on my screensaver always makes me smile because I think it captures the essence of who I really am: a dreamer, a creator, a storyteller trying to share with others the magic I’ve discovered in my own imagination. To say it plainly, I am a writer. For as long as I can remember, writing has been my passion – my great passion.
I published my first book, There’s a Huge Pimple on My Nose (a Collection of Short Stories and Poems), in fifth grade. Pimple is proof that with a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance – and, yes, a lot of support, too – a small idea can snowball into something bigger than you ever dreamed.
My snowball began as a snowflake when I received a fifty-dollar school grant to write and self-publish a children’s book. My first printing, done at a Kinkos copy shop, was modest: twenty-five staple-bound forty-page books. Actually, they were more like thick pamphlets, but no matter – to me, they were books, my books, the most beautiful books I had ever laid eyes upon. J.K. Rowling wasn’t more proud of her first Harry Potter hardcover edition.
My fellow students and teachers, bless them, acted as if Pimple was at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List. The first twenty-five copies promptly sold – “Dallas, will you autograph it for when you become famous?” – in a couple of days. Can you imagine what a turbo-boost this was to a fifth-grader’s self-esteem? To anyone’s self-esteem, for that matter? I was pursuing my dream, but I wasn’t pursuing it alone – my family and friends and teachers were right there with me.
So. I went back to Kinkos, ordered twenty-five more books – and soon sold all those as well. After three more trips to Kinkos, where the workers now knew me by name, I searched out a publishing business and ordered 700 glossy-covered, glue-bound, professional-looking Pimples.
My little forty-page dream evolved from a snowball into a blizzard, with reviews in the national magazines CosmoGIRL! and Girls’ Life; booksignings at the Cal Lutheran Author’s Faire and the Jack London Writer’s Camp in San Jose; a “Dallas Woodburn Day” at the Santa Barbara Book Fair; and being featured as a “real author” alongside famous real authors such as Michael Crichton and Wendelin Van Draanen in the nationally-released book So, You Wanna Be a Writer?
The Los Angeles Times even raved, “If you simply want to enjoy some remarkable writing, it would be hard to find a book more satisfying than Dallas Woodburn’s.” I still have to pinch myself, but Pimple eventually sold more than 800 copies – to me, it seemed like 800,000!
More recently, I have begun writing articles for numerous national magazines including Writer’s Digest, Justine, and Writing, and books including Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV.
I also write a regular “Teen Talk” column for Family Circle magazine about teen/parent relationships – from a teenager’s unique perspective. And this summer, I released my second book, a collection of short stories titled 3 a.m., which is already garnering rave reviews. (“Woodburn is a very gifted writer whose work celebrates the beauty and humor of everyday life.” – Laurie Stolarz, author of the best-selling Blue is for Nightmares series.)
I have received letters from readers across the nation, and even Canada, saying they can relate to my stories. Hearing that I’ve connected with a reader is, in my opinion, one of the most rewarding aspects of being a writer. But at the same time, I know there are countless individuals who are not affected by my writing in the least – because they truly cannot read my words.
Illiteracy is a very serious problem in our society today. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that half – HALF! – the adult population (an estimated ninety-million Americans) does not possess the most basic level of reading ability. This in turn leads to a higher likelihood of poverty, crime, and unemployment.
Helping battle illiteracy is one of my lifelong goals. It is why I also used a portion of Pimple’s profits to found “Write On!” – a non-profit organization to encourage kids to read and write through essay contests, read-a-thons, and an inspirational website (www.zest.net/writeon). I am using a portion of the profits from 3 a.m. to set up a Write On Scholarship Fund to help send a deserving student to a writing camp each summer.
In addition, a couple years after Pimple debuted, I started an annual Holiday Book Drive with the motto “Toys get broken, but books last a lifetime.” In the past four years I have collected and distributed 6,390 new books to underprivileged kids who might not otherwise have received anything for Christmas. My book drive brings me the most pride of any of my endeavors. It not only gives books to disadvantaged children – just as importantly, it shows them people care. From a one-person effort it has evolved into an entire community of volunteers, with collection boxes at local bookstores, post offices, and schools. I have learned that together, we can help give sad tales a happier storyline.
After all, I know firsthand about sad tales turning happy. Born three months prematurely, I weighed a mere two pounds, six ounces, and back in 1987 the chances that I would survive were extremely small as well. A team of surgeons flew to my small hometown of Santa Maria and delivered me by an emergency Cesarean section, then took me to the state-of-the-art Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Fresno, where I stayed for eight touch-and-go weeks.
On my desk I have a framed photograph of my sickly newborn self, a tiny skin-and-bones infant inside a high-tech Plexiglas incubator and hooked up to an array of medical monitors and wires, tubes and needles. To others, the photograph may come into focus as heart-wrenching and tragic, but what I see is a portrait of inner strength and survival. Indeed, the sickly infant in the faded photo has become my personal cheerleader, silently urging me on through every new challenge – physical, academic, spiritual – I undertake. I know the preemie-who-was-me will continue to inspire the grown-up-me in my journey to become The Female John Steinbeck and make a lasting impression with my heartfelt written words. Too, the preemie-in-the-photo keeps the grown-up-me grounded during the highs of success, and gives me perspective during the low times by simply reminding me how blessed I am to be alive and healthy.
One of the surgeons who delivered me told my dad that May 29th night: “Your daughter is a real fighter.” I guess the doctor was right. Actually, I know he was. I was a fighter. I am still. Indeed, whenever I am faced with a challenge, I think about those words – “Your daughter is a fighter” – and I draw strength.
I often need this strength when I sit down to write.
Because in truth, while writing thrills me, it also terrifies me. Sometimes I think wrestling alligators must be less daunting. Some of my friends think I’m crazy. Sometimes I think I’m crazy, too. Running on the cross-country team is one thing – “You mean you actually like to run?! Doesn’t that get boring?” – but at least out on the running trails I’m surrounded by my teammates who are just as looney as I am. Wrestling alligators is quite a different matter. Why do I choose to spend hours each day or night with my fingers tapping across – or worse, sitting motionless on – the keyboard, staring at a computer screen?
Why, indeed? I still don’t really have an answer. I guess because writing is a lot like running – and not just because it’s an activity most normal people regard with eyebrows raised. Running is hard, but – as I learned when I was forced to sit out my high school sophomore and junior cross-country seasons because of leg injuries that eventually required surgery – not running is harder. The same goes with writing. Writing is hard – tortuous, tedious, boring, scary. But, for me at least, not writing is harder.
So. I am a coward. I take the easier route. I keep writing. And writing. And writing some more. Why? I guess because the thrills are worth it. I may not always enjoy the sometimes-tedious, sometimes-dull, sometimes-terrifying process of writing – but I love the sweet satisfaction of having written.
French philosopher Denis Diderot once wrote, “Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” I feel blessed to have already discovered my great passion; to know that I want to study Creative Writing at the University of Southern California and further pursue my craft. My great passion for writing has inspired me to push beyond self-doubt and take the risk of sharing my words with others.
I shared Pimple’s success with you earlier – what I didn’t tell you about was my “failures.” I could wallpaper my bedroom with all the rejection slips I’ve received from editors. But I am a preemie; I am “a fighter”; I keep writing. And all the while, my great passion for wrestling alligators burns brighter with each sunrise.
About the Author:
Dallas Woodburn’s recently released collection of short stories, 3 a.m., is available at http://www.amazon.com/ and http://www.barnesandnoble.com/. Her writing credits include the magazines Family Circle, Writer’s Digest, and Justine, and the books So, You Wanna Be a Writer? and Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV. Dallas is a Creative Writing major at the University of Southern California. Visit her website at www.zest.net/writeon.
© Dalllas Woodburn 2005