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Lemons To Lemonade
by Patricia Misiuk


At the age of eight, I overheard my piano teacher telling my parents that I had no musical talent. In high school physical education class, my being the last chosen for the team (or worse, tallying the score) was a given. And today, my sadomasochistic attempts at gardening result in nothing less than an all-you-can-eat buffet for, not vegetarians, but insects.

See a pattern? No matter how often I tickled the ivories, the result was never music, just noise. And my two left feet and lack of coordination in gym assured my seat on the sidelines, as scorekeeper. Today, incidentally, my kamikaze thumb even kills Astroturf.

Sure, I could have taken the expensive route- psychotherapy- but, without even realizing it at first, I chose to capitalize on my weaknesses.

Yes, it took me nearly four decades but I finally bought into the "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade" maxim.

Once when I was wallowing in a pool overflowing with self pity, a friend said, "Enough already. Deal with it. Get over it. See a shrink or write to Ann Landers."

Analysis was a tad pricey so I opted for the writing. But instead of airing my insecurities to a syndicated columnist, I relived my embarrassing and humiliating moments by analyzing the events and gleaning the "laugh about these someday" or "lessons to be learned" elements. Then I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. A verbal catharsis to the max.

Oh, I still relapsed into babbling about audio junk mail, that hang-up-on-one-telemarketer-and-three-more-call-at-dinnertime phenomenon. Then I segued into a play-by-play account of my most recent culinary fiasco, a deflated soufflé caused not by a temperamental oven but my failure to follow the recipe to the letter.

"Hey, that's funny," the same friend remarked about my homily about the true test of friendship: helping a friend move to a fourth-floor walkup. "Write these stories the way you tell them to me and maybe somebody will publish them."

Hmm. Maybe she was right. I dashed off a piece about moonlighting in a discount store during the holidays. A unanimous straw poll conducted by coworkers voted me the worst cashier in the store. Instead of bemoaning the stress, my aching feet, the peon pay and never-ending line of customers, I focused on the humorous incidents of the thankfully temporary job.

Early on, I regarded myself as a pro at writing. After all, I did write, albeit book reports and essays, all through school. Let's not forget all those thank-you notes my mother badgered me to write before she allowed me to enjoy the gifts.

Disregarding the unfamiliar-to-me commandment, "Research thy market," I sent my article to a trade magazine I never heard of, much less read but only discovered in a listing of markets for freelance articles.

They bought it, but not without a reprimand.

"If you want to be a writer, put your phone number on the manuscript," the editor advised. "It took several calls to the information operator to find your listing."

I was humbled, embarrassed and ashamed, emotions that would fuel future articles. But at that moment, I had an epiphany. I finally discovered something I was good at: writing about what I was NOT good at.

As with most writers, my freelancing has taken me on detours- features showcasing the accomplishments of others, how-to articles, and chronicles of my hitchhiking trek around the world- but I always gravitate to my niche: writing about downright unpleasant experiences that have resulted in growth, change and an occasional laugh.

For instance, misplacing or losing eyeglasses is a trait firmly imbedded on my genetic map. A magazine targeted at eye care specialists published my take on my countless Mr. Magoo-style searches for elusive eyewear.

Remember that physical education never-a-player trauma I mentioned? Years later, I realize I coped in my own way- by inventing excuses so I could opt out of the class completely. In a column entitled "Excuses, Excuses," I recall feeling out of the loop when classmates dubbed me the "Queen of Klutz." But now I am having the last laugh because my fine-tuned skills at dreaming up alibis for every occasion have served me well. And not a one mentions "the dog ate the homework."

But not even the wildest whoppers can explain my fascination with things that (are supposed to) grow. Last Christmas a poinsettia refused to respond to my version of horticultural CPR. I did the obvious: gave it a decent burial in my compost pile and shared my botanically challenged efforts in an article for a senior tabloid.

Examining the ups and downs of everyday life is the best insurance policy against writer's block. My idea file not only overflows but it expands with incidents guaranteed to spark articles.

By laughing at and writing about my inadequacies and quirks, ranging from my inability to reset a winking VCR to my fixation on stockpiling paper towels, I can learn more about myself and hopefully inspire others to see themselves in similar quandaries.

So, if you find yourself emotionally logjammed, drag out a pen and paper (or word processor) and let the articles evolve. You'll be amazed at what you'll discover about yourself. And if you're as fortunate as I am, you'll earn money often. In fact, I'm earning enough now to treat myself to a session with a psychoanalyst whose areas of expertise include scoreboard phobia and Burpee seed mania. And, if I've done the math correctly, I'll still have a few bucks to spring for some lemons and a juice squeezer.

A FEW TIPS TO HELP YOU SQUEEZE THE MOST JUICE FROM LIFE'S LEMONS

Find the common denominator, the universal experience or emotion everyone can relate to.

Few can sympathize if your yacht is in dry dock and somebody else already reserved the suite for the around-the-world cruise you're booked on. Instead, explain how you deal with the constant barrage of chain letters that flood your mailbox or how all the traffic signals invariably turn red when you're running late. These are everyday aggravations we can all identify with.

Do unto yourself as you do unto others.

If your spouse burns five gallons of gas driving all around town in search of the cheapest price at the pump, fess up about your habit of purchasing 10-gallon containers of ketchup at a warehouse store, just so you can pocket the pennies you save.

Think globally.

If you're constantly losing eyeglasses, an eyewear publication might welcome an article. If misplacing your glasses is a part of your get-ready-for-work, get-the-kids-off-to-school routine, your article may find a home in a parenting or family-oriented magazine. Change the venue to the workplace and target a career or time management publication.

 Review the day's events and keep a diary.

Take a few minutes to recap the non ho-hum events of each day. Did you choose the shopping cart with the wobbly wheel...again? Grist for the article mill. Get a speeding ticket, fine and an invitation to attend a remedial course for drivers, despite the fact you've had a license for 25 years? Spin it into an "I finally got caught" article if you have lead-foot tendencies.

Don't forget milestones and holidays.

In the chaos of the "too many cooks spoil the broth" truism, perhaps you stuffed the turkey, popped it in to cook and forgot to turn on the oven. If the family tradition includes an up close and personal photo op for the annual holiday greeting, write about the time Dad forgot to load film in the camera. Keep in mind, though, editorial calendars often require an advance of six months to a year.

Lighten up.

A popular automaker urges us to "enjoy the ride." That mind-set applies in writing. Enjoy the journey as much as the destination. The process of tweaking the brain for ideas, writing the piece and, finally, revising the article can be as fulfilling as seeing it in print and cashing the check.

© Copyright 2000, Patricia Misiuk

Patricia Misiuk could have been the sole interviewee for Studs Terkel's "Working." Her jobs have ranged from migrant work in New Zealand to the replenishment of sanitary products in the "Big Apple's" restrooms. When she grows up (she is 61) she wants to be a columnist. She still works at "McJobs" but "writing is what she does."

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