- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

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Patricia Elam pushed aside a massive stack of papers and backed away from her mahogany desk, stacked with case decisions, civil infractions and piles of correspondence from disgruntled respondents.

That was 10 years ago. The D.C. judge had had enough. It was time to take a breather from a 16-year law career to pursue her one true love creative writing.

Today, her debut novel, which hit bookstores in January, has success written all over it. "Breathing Room" explores the delicate balance needed to sustain a friendship that spans two decades yet easily could be obliterated with just one judgmental remark, one condescending look.

"I was constantly writing and trying to find time to write. It became a struggle to give a lot of time and effort to something that I did not feel passionate about," Ms. Elam says of her work on the bench.

In 1991, the former District chief administrative law judge, who lives in Northeast, decided her dream had been deferred long enough. She enrolled at the University of Maryland at College Park to pursue her master´s of fine arts degree in creative writing. There she developed the discipline needed to sharpen her skills. Ms. Elam says she was required to write either a novel or a series of short stories to obtain the advanced degree.

Initially, the Boston native, who moved to the District in 1981, set out to pen prose about a friendship that didn´t survive: two girlfriends vying for the attention of the same suitor.

Then she had second thoughts.

"I create a triangle, but the two women aren´t competing for the attention of the same man. I wanted to write about friendship and its different layers," she says.

Teen-agers play an important role in Ms. Elam´s book as they do in her life as a mother of three and teacher at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest. Her affinity for youth comes across in her writing, but Ms. Elam also includes themes such as parenting, divorce and parasitic relatives in the 335-page book.

"I´m mesmerized by teen-agers, maybe because I have a teen-age son. I think they epitomize what it means to be alive, and I wanted to capture them authentically," she says. "I love the energy in their clothes, their music, their way of speaking."

Her book is published by Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. The plot centers on the 20-year friendship between two women, now in their 40s, who first meet as students at Howard University in the late 1970s. Afrocentric Moxie Dillard is determined to hold fast to her rich roots and heritage; Norma Simmons-Greer finds herself a victim of the illusionary American dream. Despite their differences, the two women remain close until a moral conflict threatens to destroy their alliance.

When Moxie´s teen-age daughter, Zadi, is rushed to the emergency room, the two friends put their differences aside and lean on each other for emotional support.

It´s 15-year-old Zadi whom Ms. Elam says she resembles most. Her own life experiences reflect the irrepressible teen-ager´s reality. Zadi documents her thoughts and dreams in a diary she affectionately has named "Sistergirl."

Diary entries begin with notations on her dress for the day: Friday, Jan. 8th, blk Lycra top, Express Classic Fit jeans, Tims. Zadi jots down the challenges she faces at a private school for girls and her aspirations to perform one day with the renowned Dance Theatre of Harlem. Zadi´s is the voice that keeps it real and on the "down low."

Like the youthful character she has created, Ms. Elam, 47, kept journals throughout her teen-age years. She attended the exclusive Winsor School for Girls in Boston and studied ballet under the tutelage of premier dance instructor Elma Lewis.

"When I decided to write Zadi´s voice, my mother happened to be cleaning out the basement, and she came across my diaries, so she sent them to me. When I started reading, it took me back," Ms. Elam says in a wistful tone.

"I wrote down everything I wore every day and integrated an all-girls private school in 1964. I wanted to convey that experience as well," Ms. Elam says.

Ms. Elam says her reminiscences of her own school days on the lush 7-acre campus in Boston, coupled with the contemporary voices of teen-age girls in private schools today, enabled the voice of Zadi to ring true.

A writing workshop at the Black Student Fund on 16th Street NW for girls who attend private school proved invaluable.

"One of my students, who was a fine writer, who had attended Holton Arms, knew the real deal and knew Zadi´s experiences. She had lived Zadi´s life, so she reviewed the pages," Ms. Elam says.

Ms. Elam says she even eavesdropped on her son´s conversations in an attempt to absorb the language. Her son, Justin, 18, doubled as her unofficial editor another voice of authority.

A graduate of Adelphi University in Garden City on Long Island, N.Y., Ms. Elam says her love of literature dates back to her childhood. As the daughter of a librarian and the first black chief judge of the Boston Municipal Court, she learned reading was not optional. It was mandatory. Television was the novelty, not the norm in the Elam household.

"At some point, I made the choice not to feel deprived. I began to love the world books presented to me. I was transported by people and places, and I wanted to be able to do that for others," she says.

She may have followed in her father´s footsteps, but her passion remained in prose.

Her best friend, Debra Iverson of Hyattsville, got first dibs on the book´s galley proofs. Like Moxie and Norma, Ms. Elam and Ms. Iverson met at Adelphi University during Ms. Elam´s freshman year. They, too, forged a 20-year bond.

The Ballou Senior High School teacher says the topics interwoven into "Breathing Room" touch a wide audience. "There are husband issues, job issues, kid issues and marriage issues," she says.

"When you think about 'Breathing Room,´ it seems that everybody was trying to find enough room to take in their own oxygen," Ms. Iverson says.

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