Meet an Artist - Frank Morelli

High Point writer Frank Morelli with his soon-to-be-released novel, “No Sad Songs,” at the Bookmarks store in Winston-Salem.

To make it as a writer, Frank Morelli had to move far from New York City, the publishing capital of the world.

A Philadelphia native, Morelli grew up in south New Jersey, impressing his teachers with his writing ability.

“After I graduated (from college), I decided I wanted to try to make it in the big city and moved to New York,” said Morelli, 39. “I had this dream that I would be this famous magazine writer. I wound up sitting in a cubicle, doing a lot of editing.”

He answered an ad to become a teaching fellow in New York City’s public schools, finding he enjoyed teaching writing and literature to middle-school aged kids.

“I met a girl and decided to live a quieter life, a more affordable life,” Morelli said. “We looked up and down the East Coast, and North Carolina kept coming up for us. Moving down here has been one of the better decisions I ever made. It allowed me to gain focus and not worry about making enough money to live in a one-bedroom apartment, and to concentrate on my craft.”

He worked for Westchester Country Day School in High Point, where he lives, then took a job at Summit School, where he eventually became a writer-in-residence, which freed him to write.

The result is “No Sad Songs,” a young-adult fiction novel about a teenager caring for his ailing grandfather. It will be published Feb. 20 by Fish Out of Water Books, a publishing house in Michigan.

“No Sad Songs” is available for pre-order on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

How would you describe your writing?

My art is accessible, light-hearted and humorous in its handling of pressing, sometimes controversial, issues that face us as a society. I write mainly for young adults and middle-grade students, and I’ve found during my 15 years in a middle school classroom that one must find a way to channel the teen that still resides within if there’s ever a chance of communicating effectively with this audience. Young adults and pre-teens are adept readers with complex and shifting perspectives that often swirl around in a hailstorm of new choices and new experiences, so my art is never an attempt to speak down to these impressive, young minds from atop my soapbox. Instead, it’s a give and take.

How have you evolved as an writer?

When I began this journey, I was convinced I would write a few short stories and the powers that be would notice my insane talent, and I’d be living on a private island before the age of 30. I didn’t have any real routines in place to keep my butt in the chair writing.

Over the past five years, I’ve taken a completely different approach. I’ve begun to treat writing as a serious career instead of a mere hobby. Now, I set strict goals and force myself to sit down and write on a daily basis, even when there’s not an ounce of inspiration in me. I’ve learned to spend almost 90 percent of my time doing revisions, and that a first draft is just what it sounds like: a first step on a staircase of at least 50 more.

I also went back to school and completed an MFA, which allowed me to be part of a real writing community and receive regular feedback on my work. All of these adjustments helped me to become much more intentional in my process. The result has been an explosion of completed work over the past two years.

Who has influenced your writing?

As many writers will tell you, I’ve been blessed to run into the right teachers and professors at the right times. When I look back, there’s no denying that writing and creating have always been valued parts of my life. I can remember sitting in my room as an 8- or 9-year-old reading “Tom Sawyer” or paging through National Geographic books from my grandfather’s barbershop.

I used to sit up there at my desk and write new storylines to my favorite video games, complete with the most awful pencil sketches you’ve ever seen, and I’d store them all in a barrel-shaped piggy bank I’d won on the Jersey boardwalk. Never put a dime in that bank, but it was always overflowing with crinkled pages. And terrible drawings. Even though I swore to my parents I’d become a pediatrician, maybe even the next Doogie Howser, they continued to encourage my creative streak up to and including this very day.

On top of this, I was blessed to meet the perfect woman who not only has the guts to tell me when my work misses the mark, but who also endures all of the late-night writing crunches and impromptu brainstorming sessions.

Are there other writers I’d claim as influences? Sure. I’d have to add Twain, Hemingway, Sherman Alexie, J.D. Salinger, S.E. Hinton and Harper Lee to that list.

What is your biggest challenge?

The act of writing and publishing work is long and arduous. I feel like there’s never enough time in the day to get all the words I have in my head down on the page. Working full time adds to the challenge, especially since I’m a competitive person. I often see my weekly writing goals washed out by work-life responsibilities or by life itself, which is never easy for me to accept. A 30-hour day would be fine by me.

What does art do for you?

Art in all of its forms is my life-blood. I can lose myself for hours in a place like SECCA (in Winston-Salem), admiring sculptures and oil paintings and finding myself amazed at the many inventive mediums used by visual artists today. Music and poetry have always played behind my life as a sort of bass line, which is why they’re featured so prominently in my novel. But writing, to me, is the vital organ. It’s not only a venue where I go to entertain and communicate with readers. It’s the place I go to help me make sense of this crazy, beautiful world we live in.

Can you offer any advice for other artists?

Create your art for no other reason than to bring your ideas into the world. Don’t do it for fame or fortune or because you want to prove something to other people. Do it because you love it and because it makes you feel incredible when you paint the last brush stroke or strike the final note or write the closing line. That’s what we’ve been doing as a species since the beginning of time.

Be proud to be part of that tradition. If you live your artist’s life in this way, there’s a good chance everything else will fall into place. Have faith and keep working.

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Lisa O’Donnell is a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal. Contact her at 336-727-7420 or lodonnell@wsjournal.com.

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