Noe Valley Voice
Florence's Family Album
March 1997


How I Became a Writer

By Florence Holub

When friends and acquaintances ask how an unlikely candidate like me happened to become a Noe Valley Voice columnist, this is what I say: No one is more surprised than I am to be regarded as a professional writer. The idea had never entered my head until 10 years ago, when I was 68 years old.

I was down on 24th Street one Sunday, at a bustling street fair where the Voice had a booth manned by co-publisher Jack Tipple. At the time, I was a housewife with grown children, and I needed a new direction in my life. Although I loved to draw, I did not have an outlet for my creations.

Eureka! The Voice booth had posted a sign welcoming contributions to the paper. Since I admired the quality and content of this periodical, I told Jack that I would like to submit my line drawings for his consideration. He encouraged me to send some in. That is all it took to spur me into doing the thing I loved most -- drawing!

For a year or so after that, I was a common sight strolling around our neighborhood -- a little old lady in tennis shoes, recording with pencil and pad the Victorian houses and current happenings in the area.

Back at home, I finished the sketches in ink, then submitted them to the Voice. They were accepted, and it was satisfying to see my drawings in print.

I made many delightful new friends as I visited the Voice office to deliver my work. In fact, I would converse with anyone who would listen to me.

Voice co-publisher and editor Sally Smith seemed especially eager to hear what our valley was like before she arrived. I know its history well. When I was a little girl in the 1920s, my family moved to San Francisco from a quiet farm in Idaho. We lived in a Chattanooga Street flat, next to a rubble-filled block where the new (now old) Edison School was built.

As a 6-year-old, I started first grade in the original Edison School, a wooden building at 22nd and Church streets, where the Theresa S. Mahler Children's Center is now.

Every morning I climbed the steps set into the sidewalk of 22nd Street -- the steepest street I had ever seen. Midway up, a wrought-iron gateway led into the Edison play yard, and then to my classroom.

I remember my teacher fondly, because she called me "the ah-tist," an occupation I yearned for even at that tender age. But I noted that she did speak strangely, without sounding the letter r, as did most of the other San Francisco natives -- not at all like Idaho folk!

One day, after I had completed a childish masterpiece, my teacher corrected me, saying that the sun and the moon should not be shining at the same time. Reluctantly but obediently, I removed one heavenly body, although I knew that in Idaho the sun and the moon were often visible at the same time.

When I told this simple reminiscence to Sally, she suggested I write it down. Astonished, I sputtered that my training was confined to the arts. I would not even know where to begin such a task!

"Just write it down exactly as you told it," Sally said.

"My writing is illegible," I replied.

"Then type it."

"I abandoned typing long ago, upon my teacher's advice."

"Give it another try. We won't grade you."

"My spelling is rusty."

"Use a dictionary."

"I'm unsure of my tenses."

"We can fix all that."

Out of excuses and bolstered by Sally's faith in me, I hurried home. There, armed with pencils, paper, and eraser -- and the sturdy old Smith Corona typewriter that my sons had left behind -- I embarked on a challenging new venture.

In the beginning it was frustrating, with much wasted paper and countless mistakes -- writing, rewriting, typing, and retyping numerous copies many times!

In spite of their untidy appearance, however, my manuscripts were well received, and I became a regular contributor.

When I attended my first Voice Christmas party, which the editors give for the writers, photographers, and other professionals who contribute to the paper, Jack asked each person if they'd stand up and say a few words. I was startled when my turn came and he introduced me as a writer!

I responded by confessing that I was a fraud. But Jack took issue, saying I was a "natural writer."

I began to believe him when after a year I was given my own column. But I was no natural typist! In fact, several people, when they saw the results of my finger action, suggested that I might be slightly dyslexic. Actually, I think that might be true, because my left and right hands are often reversed, and the pages are peppered with transposed letters.

Nevertheless, I have managed to cope by pasting correctly typed words over botched ones. Happily, the patched pages are legible after xeroxing.

Few people can imagine the effort I expend to arrive at this level of imperfection, but my nephew John Mickelson and his bride Linda saw it firsthand. They dropped in one afternoon when I was in the midst of my cut-and-paste madness. Linda took one look at the typewriter, the scraps of writing all over the counter and floor, the scissors, glue, and tape, and declared, "Now I know who the Unabomber is!"

When Jane Underwood joined the staff as features editor, she read my articles first, offering helpful suggestions that I attempted to follow.

When I brought in a Mother's Day story, Jane read it over, then told me, "You have a beginning and an end, but you don't have a middle. Go home and write a middle." So I did.

Every month it is Jane's unrewarding duty to prod each writer to meet the deadline. Last month, she called to remind me that my column was a few days late. In spite of my list of excuses, she firmly requested that I do my best to complete it within a couple of days.

Then she asked me what it was about. I told her I was thinking of explaining how I became a writer -- and then revealing how she had hounded me all the way! But Jane, unperturbed, only laughed and said, "Go for it, Florence!"

Seriously, the past 10 years have been an education for me, and I consider it a privilege to be part of this fine newspaper. In truth, I know that if I am a writer, I am the creation of the editors at the Noe Valley Voice, and I am most grateful to each of them -- Jack Tipple, Sally Smith, and Jane Underwood.