The Life of A Writer — Learning the Hard Way
The Muse strikes – granddaughter Meagan at age 2, wearing my glasses
Writer’s Block – it strikes young and old alike
IN THE following years from youth to adult I continued to write, but more as a personal outlet than anything in the way of a vocation. College seemed an exotic island off the mainland and I didn’t have the price of the ferry. Though I aspired to, in my more delusional moments, magazine and bestseller status, there was the irritating little matter of food and shelter not provided by mom and dad. Then there was the overwhelming urge for one’s own hearth and home that comes at that age, and time rocked on.
How does a writer get lost between an early good foundation and a long drift upon a literary ocean? After all, I had, essentially, been officially sanctioned at an early age — a bona fide, if you will. Winning contests and awards is all well and good. It helps feed a writer’s hunger for validation. In all the many and varied parts that make up a writer, or any artist, it is not all hubris. But that type of hit-or-miss writing is nothing more than a leaky boat with ragged sails. It’s enough to keep the writer afloat, but not enough to keep him on course.
A writer needs to know that what he writes matters; that he has put a product together that has some substance; that someone is actually tempted to linger a moment over the words that seem to appear, without effort, upon the page before him. But a writer’s product is not a craftily wrought desk or chair from the hands of a skilled artisan. The senses cannot look upon the exquisite dimensions, breathe in the heady aroma of wood and varnish, and caress the smooth fine lines. But the heart can. And, therefore, the writer must produce a product that also has dimensions, a breadth and depth; a heady savor, and lines, whether smooth or grained, that the reader can feel. So a writer must not only have that touch of the Divine known as a “gift” — which is simply the type of material God gives to each person — he must learn, and hone, his craft.
Then, after he has apprenticed for a while, hopefully under a paying tutelage, he is ready to make his mark upon the world. But, as in the case of the gifted with wood, or clay, or cloth, he must sell his product in the marketplace. And that’s where many aspiring writer’s, including me, fall short.
When my children started school, and in between various jobs in the city of Fitzgerald, Georgia, I would try my hand at actually finishing, and mailing, a short story or poem. I really liked the mystery magazines like Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen. No, they weren’t what one might call serious literature, but there would, occasionally, be the thought-provoking story amid all the simply entertaining ones. And I actually sold one poem to Grit Magazine and won or placed in several newspaper contests.
Then there came the very odd, city-wide, writing-and-guts contest sponsored by the local movie theater with an award of twenty-five new Susan B. Anthony dollars. The contestant had to write an essay on why he or she was the bravest woman in town. Then, if the contestant won the writing portion of the contest, she would have to sit through a midnight viewing, alone in the dark theater, of “Prophecy”, which was a touted scary movie of the day. Several people urged me to enter, so, just for fun, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay on why I was the bravest woman in town — killing a spider at ten paces, taking a whole Girl Scout troup on a day trip as leader and driver, etc. I mailed it in and forgot about it.
Then one day people from all over town started calling me. The radio was periodically announcing the winner of the Bravest Person in Town essay, and it was Linda Smith. There were at least a dozen Linda Smiths around town, even a small one like ours in south Georgia, so I didn’t get excited. But I did call the station. Yep. It was me. And I made it through the midnight viewing, alone in the empty, darkened theater. I thought it was rather cool. Mike didn’t. He hovered right outside during the whole thing.
It was during this time when my life-long passion for family history began in earnest. I studied books about the subject and plunged into my own. I learned the ropes through hook and crook and began gathering information, stories, pictures, etc. My grandfather Duncan was alive at the time and there was nothing and no one having to do with family that he didn’t know, and was eager to share.
Somewhere along the line, word got out that I knew a few things about the subject of tracing family history. I started getting phone calls, not just from people I knew, but from people who knew people I knew, wanting to know how to get started, where to go, what to do. Someone suggested I write a how-to for the local paper. So I personalized the bare-bones facts with some flesh from my own endeavors, walked into the newspaper office with fear and trembling (I’ve never gotten the confidence thing down pat), and asked to see Jerry Pryor, the editor.
He obligingly read the proffered couple of pages, gave me a long, searching look, and asked pointedly if I had written it. Flustered, I said that I had. Then he asked if I could write a couple more to appear once a month. A couple turned into a few more. When an opening came on the newspaper staff, he asked if I would fill it as a reporter. He crammed four years of journalism into my head in four weeks, kicking and screaming (him AND me) all the way. How green was I? I didn’t even know what a “font” was. And, to add insult to injury, the paper switched one month later from typewriters to computers. Which meant I had to unlearn what I had so desperately learned, and learn another way. I felt like all three of the Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace without the Divine reprieve.
This began a very fulfilling, if nerve-racking thirteen years in the newspaper business, both in Georgia, later South Carolina, and as a stringer. But in the early years, when I would be pulling my hair out by the roots, Editor Pryor would walk through shouting, “If you can’t stand the fire, get out of the kitchen!”
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Me (left front) at some long-forgotten newspaper luncheon; my hair wasn’t blonde, it was very much prematurely white. And, hey, isn’t that a kitchen in the background? Sheesh. I hate kitchens.