A Writer’s Own Story

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As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m not a first-time writer.  I’ve written things here and there most of my life.  The first thing I remember writing (at the tender age of six) was a comic book about my cat.  Then, later own down the line, I wrote a short story about my grandmother’s dog.  Of course, my grandmother thought it was brilliant.

In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper – The Lion’s Roar.  I didn’t join the paper out of a love for writing, but a love for leaving school early and “selling” ads for the paper…when all we really did was drive around town and eat Taco Bell.

Somehow, I managed to graduate from high school, and get into college, despite having to take remedial math classes, and having to re-take my high school graduation exam (the math section.)

When I got into college, I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I transferred to Auburn University in Auburn, AL from a smaller school with a 4.0 GPA and a declared major of pre-med.  Since Auburn University (main campus) didn’t have a pre-med major track, I had to switch to pre-veterinary medicine.

With my poor math skills, I knew I would never be able to make it through the upper classes required to graduate from vet school, so I changed my major to secondary education.

As the youngest in my family, who had been around young children maybe once or twice in my life…this was a poor decision.  I did an orientation session at the local junior high school for a couple of weeks, a requirement before officially declaring my major in secondary education.  It was a nightmare.  The younger generation repulsed me.  I thought they were bratty, self-entitled, immature and annoying.  I am speaking of the first round of “The Millennials” – although I didn’t know they would be called by that name, at the time.

Even though my orientation had been a disaster, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.  I’d already changed my major twice, and it was a pain in the butt to change majors.  I kept attending the secondary education classes, and made decent scores, but one class changed my path forever:  Journalism 100.

Journalism 100 was a required core class for those who wanted to pursue an education degree, or a philosophy degree.  The professor of Journalism 100 was  Jack Smith.  He was a retired newspaper man… once a hard-hitting journalist who had covered major events spanning the Civil Rights Movement to the Kopper Kettle explosion in Auburn in the 1970’s. He was skinny and tall with white hair and black-rimmed glasses.  He looked exactly like an old journalist.

Although I knew he had a passion for his old profession, I could tell he resented having to teach this generation of Gen X-ers.  He came from “The Greatest Generation” – his generation had lived through WWII, The Atomic Age, The Sixties, The Vietnam War,  The Great Recession of the 1970’s and the economic boom of the 1980’s.  The kids who sat before him in class every day (present company included) were essentially lazy, video game and pop culture addicted airheads.  We were also carrying around a sense of entitlement, and if something we owned broke….we just threw it away and mommy and daddy bought us a new one.  No big deal.  We were 80’s kids.  We had lived through one of the most prosperous economic times in history, and we thought the world was our collective oyster, with little to no hard work on our part. I sympathized with Jack Smith…I had felt the same disdain for those “Millennials” I had to help teach during my orientation period months earlier.

One of the last assignments I had to complete for Jack Smith was a news article known as a “feature story.” – I don’t remember what I wrote about, but I remember him pulling me aside one day after class.

“What’s your major, young lady?” he asked me.

“Secondary education, sir.” I replied, trying my best not to sound like a timid, brainless college girl.

“You need to change your major.” he said as he handed me back my paper.

I felt the tears welling up in my eyes, and my face beginning to turn fifty shades of red.  Here it comes, I thought. I’m about to get hammered.

I looked down at the paper he handed me, and it was my feature story……with an “A+” in bright, red ink on the top.

“You’re a fantastic writer.” he said.  “Don’t ever let anyone tell you any different.”

I looked up at him, and he smiled and patted me on the shoulder.  I had never received a compliment like that from anyone….about anything I’d ever written.  It gave me the confidence I needed….here was an old journalism man, telling me that I was a great writer.  I was floored.  I decided to take the compliment and let it soak in.

I changed my major to journalism the next day.  As I was touring the hallways of Tichenor Hall, the building where I would be spending the rest of my time in college, I saw him in the front office.

“I hope you’re here to change your major!” he said, looking at down at me over the tops of his black horn-rimmed glasses.

“Yes sir.  I did it yesterday.  I’m a journalism major now.” I said, smiling.

“Great!  Your paper was one of the best I’ve read in a long time.  You’ve got a way with words.” he said.  “But journalism isn’t easy.  You’re at battle with yourself most of the time, and you’re gonna feel like you like you want to quit.  But just remember….tell the story and you’ll be just fine.”

He gave me another pat on the shoulder, smiled and walked away.

Journalism was hard.  I had some tough professors: Nan Fairley, Dr. Jerry Brown, Ed Williams, Judy Sheppard, William White and Gillis Morgan.  My time in Tichenor Hall was no picnic.  I even found myself writing for the school newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman.  My workload was so tough, I had to give up almost everything else….my job, my place in the Auburn University Marching Band, my fiance and my weekends home to visit my parents.

I doubled up on my classes, so I could graduate in 1999.  I never took a Summer off.

I completed my required internship at The Phenix Citizen newspaper in Phenix City, Alabama.  The Phenix Citizen was owned and managed by two wonderful, but tough newspaper folks, Mike Venable and Jill Tigner. They taught me to stop being such a self-deprecating, timid Gen-Xer, and to just get the damn story.  I also learned how to do some ad design….so I could know how the ENTIRE newspaper business worked, and not just the little part I had learned about in school.  I wrote obits, helped manage subscriptions, followed the ad executives around, answered the telephone and did my best to not collapse from exhaustion.  I popped (now illegal) energy pills to keep up with my duties, so I wouldn’t fail my internship, and flunk out of college.

The last day of my internship, I received the news that my father was dying of cancer, a secret that had been kept from me out of my parents’ fear that I would quit college.  I would have quit.  They know I would have.

The day I graduated from Auburn University, my dad had just gotten out of the hospital from having surgery on his lung, to try to remove a cancerous tumor the size of a grapefruit.  He was weak, but determined to be there to see me graduate.  He had also scrimped and saved to buy me a class ring.  Hot tears spilled down his cheeks when he gave it to me, and I hugged him as I sobbed because we both knew he wasn’t going to live much longer. It was a small, feminine class ring with a blue sapphire.   I call it “My Daddy’s Teardrop” – and it’s worth more to me than anything else I own.

My dad passed away four months later.  He was 55 years old.  I was only 22.

After my dad passed, I got several jobs here and there, writing feature stories for magazines, designing ads and advertorial pages, but I was tired of journalism.  I hated writing, and was completely burned out.  So, I had a college degree that had cost me $14,000 after my Pell Grant and various other fees….plus, it had cost me blood, sweat, tears and three years of my life working non-stop to “be something” or “do something” important in life.  I was in deep depression and I couldn’t see my own self-worth.  I didn’t care about writing, when writing was probably the ONE thing I needed to do most.  I kept everything bottled up for years.  I eventually got a job as a graphics designer at a couple of different newspapers through the next ten years, and even did some freelance writing before I gave it all up entirely and stayed home to raise my children.  I didn’t write through my pain of having a child diagnosed with autism, or the pain of divorce, or the pain of not having a direction in life other than changing diapers, wiping noses and worrying about the future.

But that burning need to write never left me.  I tried to shut it up by painting, or knitting, sewing or taking photos…..anything creative that would quench the thirst of writing.  I did write a mommy blog for a local magazine, but I felt that everything I wrote was total crap.  I deleted it all.  Self-loathing, depression and alcoholism seem to plague writers, and I was staring all three right in the face.

I felt like I’d failed at everything I’d started.

Then, when I was at one of my lowest points of self-loathing, my husband came home from work with a gift for me.

“Do you remember a man named Ed Williams?” my husband asked.

“Of course I do!  He was one of the best professors I ever had….and the toughest!”

“He gave me this to give to you.” he said as he handed me a small object.

It was a small coin.

I looked down at the coin and read the words: “All things are possible with faith.”

On the back, it read, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, nothing shall be impossible for you.”  – There was a tiny mustard seed encased in resin on the front.

How did my own former professor know I was struggling?

I’d branded myself a complete and total failure, and as if prodded by the people who believed in me, the people who trained me and taught me everything I knew about writing,  I began to write again.

And so I wrote.

And wrote.

Now, my manuscript is in the hands of an editor, and fellow journalist, who knows what I’ve been through.  She knows the struggles of a writer….the nagging self-loathing, the pain of losing a parent, and she knows the vulnerable writer’s soul.

I’m still nervous.  And I still think everything I write is total crap….even though Jack Smith told me my writing was great…and not to let anyone tell me any different.

I use commas incorrectly, I hate colons and semicolons, I struggle with the correct tense and I’m addicted to ellipses…..I use rather, very, little, pretty and really…..those words Strunk and White say to banish.  I don’t “Omit Needless Words” like I should, and that’s just some of the structural stuff.

I could beat myself up all day long.  But here it is:  I’m an insecure, timid writer with more fear and loathing than Hunter S. Thompson.

I am about to chew my nails off knowing that other people are reading what I wrote, even though other people have been reading things I’ve written for most of my life.

Writers are very needy.  The ones of us who aren’t self-important assholes are actually quite insecure.  We don’t consider ourselves great thinkers, or literary geniuses.  We just tell stories.  Some do it better than others.

The story that I’ve given my editor is a very personal non-fiction story.  I never wanted to write it to begin with, but I had to write it.  I’ve learned that I can’t run away from writing, no matter how hard I try.  It’s what I do.  And it’s who I am.  I may fail at it, or I may succeed, but I can never quit.  Nothing else will do.

So, that’s my story.

I will do my best to remember what Jack Smith told me almost 20 years ago, “Tell the story, and you’ll be just fine.”

Well, Mr. Smith…..I’m telling it.

And Mr. Ed….I have the coin.  It never leaves my pocket.

Thank you to everyone who has believed in me, when I couldn’t believe in myself.

I hope the book is a success, but even if it isn’t….I’ll still keep writing. Like they tell the marathon runners, it isn’t about finishing first….it’s just about finishing the race.

Tell the story, and you’ll be just fine.  I have to remember those words, while ignoring the self-doubt and keep going.

Just keep writing.