Writing roots

I began writing as a child growing up in a small Texas town. My parents were teachers, and they made sure there were books in our home and we kids had well-worn library cards.

My favorite books were biographies of people who led compelling lives filled with adventure. Davy Crockett, Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney, and George Washington Carver are among the ones that linger in my memory. I wanted to have similar adventures and invent things and defend the Alamo and die honorably as a beloved hero. But I had to be home every evening in time for supper, so my adventures were limited to my imagination. When I discovered Nancy Drew, I read every copy in the library. I’m still hooked on mysteries.

I received my first byline at age 14 with an article I wrote for The Hornet Hive.  Mary Burton was my teacher, and she told me she believed I’d get many more bylines in my writing life. Nothing like encouraging a middle child thirsting for attention to feed her writing soul.

I became feature editor of the Hive and learned so much under the tutelage of newspaper adviser Karey Bresenhan. I still think my best writing shows through when I’m writing lifestyle features and personality profiles. Both teachers taught budding writers like me the art of headline writing, photo cropping, editing, and newspaper layout & design. Some papers were still being printed with “hot metal” Linotype machines, but the Hive was printed “offset.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what I’m talking about; newspapers use neither process these days.

My first job out of college was working at The Huntsville Item as a proofreader and general reporter. I wrote my first obituary when someone called in a death. I took the information to the editor Don Reid, and he told me he didn’t want notes – he wanted the story. That’s the way it was on small town papers. You did a bit of everything and learned what you didn’t know on the fly.

A former colleague, a man who used to work at the LA Times, has everything he ever wrote. Yes, that’s right. Everything. I think an entire bedroom in his home is stacked with files of his published clips and background notes. I wish I’d had that kind of ego when I was younger so I could go back through old stories and see where I’ve improved. But I didn’t. Copies of those articles ended up in the trash. Not all at once, but a little each time I moved.

And how I regret it. Nowadays everything can be scanned and kept easily in a “cloud.” Like this blog. It will make for interesting reading material when I’m in my eighties and wonder where all the time went.


12 stages of life: Where are you?

A few years ago (in 2013), scientists claimed 72 is the new 30. The claim is based on the fact that healthcare and medicine is keeping us as healthy as any 30-year-old from antiquity. Seemed like good news to this old crone as I looked down the road at my 7th generation. But then last year, Georgia Dixon, posting on OverSixty.com, decided 70 is the new 50. Uh-oh. Losing ground here.

Maybe I should be examining the stages of life rather than chronological ages.

“All the world’s a stage” is the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The speech compares the world to a stage and life to a play, and catalogs the seven stages of a man’s life: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and old age, facing imminent death.  It may be one of Shakespeare’s most frequently-quoted passages, but it’s not much help to me. These stages need further analysis.

I spent some time on the Internet and while Dr. Thomas Armstrong is no Shakespeare, he has done an outstanding job in describing 12 stages of life. Twelve is a number that gives depth to the complexity of life.  I especially like the one-word summary of the tasks he identifies as associated with each stage:

Pre-birth: Potential

Birth: Hope

Infancy: Vitality

Early Childhood: Playfulness

Middle Childhood: Imagination

Late Childhood: Ingenuity

Adolescence: Passion

Early Adulthood: Enterprise

Midlife: Contemplation

Mature adulthood: Benevolence

Late Adulthood: Wisdom

Death & Dying: Life

Imagine telling your amazing life story in 12 chapters. Each of these stages has such a optimistic theme. Yes, even the “last” chapter, for it brings us full circle. In Dr. Armstrong’s words, death teaches “us about the value of living.”  Dying reminds us “not to take our lives for granted, but to live each moment of life to its fullest, and to remember that our own small lives form a part of a greater whole.” In other words, fill that chapter with possibilities for the future as you like it… or, more precisely, as you’d like to see it.

Rather than struggle with holding on to our youth, let’s examine our lives for the gifts of each stage, and record our stories to share with humanity. Your life matters; your story is important.

Where to begin

I am coming home to my writing life. It feels good to be home. My writing life has been enriched and interrupted by choices, detours, luck, and blessings. I have lived and observed and experienced and survived and thrived in this journey. With that in mind, I hope my writing reflects a life well-lived.

My books line the walls of my office. And my bedroom. And the bathroom. And the hall. I have a library of e-books on my smart phone, but physical books are as necessary to my environment as the art on my walls. I like the smell and sound of turning paper pages. And the visual heftiness of bound books. They invite me to add to their existence with my own creations.

I’ve been reading annual reports, newsletters, curriculum materials, and other material about my mother and the prison school system she headed. I’ll be honest with you. This project—gathering material to write my mother’s biography—is a hefty one. I’ve got so much in my head right now, I feel like my brain is going to explode. And I still have dozens of people to interview. I wonder how I will get the narrative shaped into a book. Is there too much? Not enough?

I get overwhelmed when I think like this. My courage as a writer dissipates and my internal critic screams defeat in my heart’s ear. But other writers have been here, and I instruct my heart to listen to their metaphorical advice. The best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time… the way to write a book report about birds is bird by bird… D.L. Doctorow says it best when he likens writing to driving at night in the fog. I don’t have to know how this biography is going to work. All I have to do is write what I know as far as I know and be open to what else appears.

I have always said: “The hardest thing about writing is to begin.” It’s time I listened to myself. It’s time to just begin. I can deal with where to put it on my bookshelf—and yours—later.

Keeping it real

When we write fast–ahead of or internal critic–we write from the heart. The writing is raw but also real. Such writing releases the secrets we keep hidden within ourselves… the hurt, the anger, the shame. We open wounds so we can heal, not just scab over.

Writing from the heart takes courage, but it yields so much. We’re able to reflect and make sense of our past experiences. Once we’ve written what is real from our past, we can take a step back and find understanding and perhaps forgiveness, or at least self-forgiveness.

The good news is that we’ve lived through the trauma of childhood (and trust me, there is trauma in anyone’s childhood). Keeping our childhood shame locked inside holds us hostage. Expressive writing gives us freedom. We no longer see ourselves as foolish or fool-hardy. We have self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.

I have been writing from my heart since 1992.   Now, I want to master a writing practice that builds muscle. I want to write from sinew–deep hardened muscles that know the territory, the tone, the language, and the ebb and flow of pacing the narrative arc. I want to harvest the lessons from my life to leave for my unborn grandchildren so that when they face trauma or shame or heartbreak, they’ll know I had similar experiences and survived them. Yes, life can be hard. But it is also worthwhile and exquisite. Write through the darkness; hope awaits with the dawn.