FACE IT: A Writer's 31 Flavors of Inspiration
By Michele Willens
Reading Elizaebeth Strout's new novel, I was struck by a scene in which the main character meets an impressive woman in a store. "You just look like you do something interesting," she says to the stranger. "Oh no,' comes the response, 'I'm just a writer, it doesn't matter really.'"
Whenever I am asked when I knew I wanted to be a writer, I think back on my 16th year. I was still a year away from my driver's license and my introduction to French kissing. (Thank you, Jim McHugh) But it was the year when I personally discovered that written words could have real impact.
It began with a Letter to The Editor, my first, sent with impassioned zeal to Life Magazine. I succinctly complained about an article in the previous issue in which the author named the best ice cream in the country. Specifically, I criticized the omission of Baskin Robbins' 31 Flavors. I had become seriously addicted to at least 28 of those, including Here Comes The Fudge, Peanut Cluster and Charlie Brownie. I ended my tiny tome by saying something like, "31 Flavors makes all the others on your list seem like chopped liver."
I felt disbelief upon seeing the letter in print, but sure enough, there it was, signed "Michele Willens, Los Angeles." I could have died happy at that point, but it turned out, that was just the prologue. A few days after publication, I received a phone call from my mother's best pal, Ernestine. It was about ten at night and I recall getting out of the bathtub to take what seemed like an odd call. I stood shivering and stunned as Ernestine said how amazed she was to see the "ad in today's paper." I, of course, had no idea what she was talking about.
"I can't be the first one to tell you!" she said. Per her instructions, I immediately found that day's Los Angeles Times and turned to a particular page of the Life section. There, in boldface letters was a half-page (not inexpensive) message: "Michele Willens, who are you? WHERE are you? Please call us. Your friends at Baskin Robbins."
Needless to say, I did not sleep much that night and I may have even grabbed a pint of Jamoca Almond Fudge out of the freezer. I had not been that excited since my brother and I won the entire Top 40 on KFWB for correctly predicting the following week's ten most popular records.
The next morning, hands shaking, I made the call and heard an equally excited and relieved voice inviting me out to the B.R. factory in Van Nuys. I was speechless. (Think Ann Margret picking up the receiver to learn she'd been chosen to meet Conrad Birdie) I asked if my brother could come with me since he was my partner in all things gluttony.
When we pulled up to the block-long factory in a rather desolate area, we looked up to see an equally block-long banner blaring "Welcome Michele!" What followed was a meet and greet with all the top execs and a private tour to watch the ice cream being churned, the fudge sauce being swirled, the fixins being tossed. Did I mention the standing ovations from the employees every step of the way?
Once again, I could have died happy right then and there. But no, they then took me into their on-site Baskin Robbins store, and instructed us to fill the car with however much it (not to mention our freezer at home) could hold. I recall boxes of ice cream sandwiches, quarts and pints galore, and whatever else we could stuff in the car before stuffing it into our stomachs.
I was kind of a mini-star in my 'hood for a week or so: something I would be again five years later when I wrote an Opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times entitled "A Child Of The Sixties: From Mouseketeers to McCarthy." But I soon learned that those starry experiences are short lived...the latter's 15 minutes was quickly superseded by Joyce Maynard's New York Times Magazine cover. (She was a year younger, the paper more prestigious, AND she had a fling with J.D Salinger.)
But I would argue that my Baskin Robbins experience had even more impact, because it showed me the power my words might have, both on readers and on my own life. It was at that point I lay down the spoon (well, sort of) and picked up the pen.