Storytelling allows me one of the fullest lives possible; it also teaches me writing lesson after writing lesson. These instructions don’t teach me how to write; they teach me how to live.
You may ask, “How is that even possible? Isn’t writing a solitary profession—just a writer, his pen or typewriter or computer and a bottle of something strong?”
Well, maybe if you’re Hemingway or Thoreau! Any writing requires an understanding of human nature, though. That’s not easy to obtain bottled up in a cabin far from civilization. Successful writing rarely comes in total solitude.
My Writing History
My own writing life has been all over the place. It’s only now that I am seeking to make my creative writing a profession. I took my first writing job with a weekly newspaper at age 16. The job had a few rough spots—no pay, an editor who consistently ran my byline as “Joe E.” and my first dose of constructive criticism. But, I fell in love with news writing, especially the feature writing side—human interest stories. I went into college knowing that journalism was the path I would take.
Over the years and jobs and opportunities, I have lost count of the stories I’ve been privileged to tell. Honestly, I can’t even remember all of them; but a few do stand out in my memory. I’m reminded of a different lesson learned with each of these, and I’d like to share four of them with you.
Writing Lesson #1: Bygone Ways Hold Great Value
Two stories stand out to me from my high school newspaper internship. The first centered around an older gentleman and his mule who still made cane syrup the old-fashioned way. In a fast-paced, technology-driven world, that early morning eyewitness account showed me the value of exchanging easy for excellent.
I had to roll out of bed before sunrise (not an idea I liked one bit). I sleepwalked my way through a damp and foggy field—camera, notebook and pen in hand. What waited for me was more than an old-fashioned way to make something sweet. I met adults who saw the value in maintaining a tradition.
Each year these friends came together for the first syrup-making. The mule made his rounds along the well-beaten path around the old machine, squeezing juice from the sugar cane. That juice boiled in a great open-air vat until it was just the right consistency to ladle onto hand-squashed buttermilk biscuits. And the taste? Well, honestly, no factory’s bottling that for a store to sell.
Writing Lesson #2: Humility and Fame Can Coexist
The second story that pops in my mind many times surrounded a patriotic event. I don’t remember if it was an American Legion event or something else. The event isn’t what taught me something that evening. Gerald McRaney served as my instructor that night. Depending on how well you know your television shows, you may know him from “Simon & Simon,” “Major Dad” or “Jericho.”
Let me set the stage for you: I was, as I said, a simple high school girl working for experience and the invaluable byline. I had never had a journalism class or a crash course in interviewing. Talk about a cub reporter! At that point, I didn’t have many events under my belt and had certainly never interviewed someone famous—someone I grew up watching—and admiring—on TV!
My dad was with me, and he’s the one who asked if I could interview Mr. McRaney. I’m not sure I would have had the nerve to do so myself! To be perfectly honest, I was more than a little shocked that he said yes!
Not only did Mr. McRaney unblinkingly agree to the interview, but he also led me back to a quiet room away from other much more well-seasoned media folks. I will never forget that experience. He was wearing a Southern gentleman’s white suit as he led me in for our impromptu interview. He sat down as casually as you please, crossed his legs and said in a fatherly tone, “What would you like to ask me?”
I wish I could tell you what questions I managed to blunder out or what I ended up writing. My guess is they weren’t very good at all, and I may be a little too chicken to dig through my archived clippings to find out. But, I learned something that night. Fame does not have to change you; it does not define you or make you better than someone else.
Gerald McRaney taught me the value of humility that evening when he welcomed the fumbling interview attempts of a very green, very young girl who simply wanted to tell stories and learn as she did so and discovered an opportunity to do just that with a man she greatly admired. Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to thank him in person.
Writing Lesson #3: Everyone Has a Story
This lesson repeats over and over with every assignment I take on and every person I sit down to interview (or pass on the street). Everyone—actor, mayor, grandma, girl next door—has a story. My passion lies in telling those stories.
One of the most difficult aspects of journalism for me has always been approaching people and asking them questions. I am the definition of an introvert, but everything I’ve chosen to do in my life requires me to speak to strangers or talk in public. So, I’ve had to adapt.
Remembering this lesson helps me with that challenge. One of the times I really put this into practice was during a summer internship in college. I joined some amazing writing peers and stellar instructors in Asheville, N.C., for several weeks of training and working at the World Journalism Institute. One of our assignments was to go out and wander the streets of beautiful, eclectic Asheville—I totally fell in love with that place, by the way!—and interview a certain number of random strangers. We also had to photograph them, I believe. (I may be getting other journalism conferences and writing assignments mixed up here, but you get the point!)
For an introvert who starts sweating when she has to make a phone call, that was no easy task. Not only did that challenge teach me how to approach people; it also showed me how amazing every person’s story is if I’m just brave enough to open myself up and ask another person to do the same to me. That lesson proved invaluable in my final (paid!) internship with three weekly newspapers, in my first full-time job with a daily paper, in the public relations job I took next and in every single freelance opportunity that’s come my way.
Writing Lesson #4: Life is Short, Even When It’s Long
The final lesson I’ll share with you comes from two particular stories I got to tell. About half a year into my first post-college job, I got a late-night call from my contact with the police department. He told me there had been a wreck and he would pick me up in a few minutes.
I had the same invisible icy waterfall of dread pour over me then as I did when I got in a boat for a recovery—not rescue—trip through the marshes post-Katrina. (For those who don’t know, Hurricane Katrina was the 100-year storm that devastated much of the Southeastern United States in 2005.)
When the End Comes too Soon
You know those images you see as clear as day when you shut your eyes and open your memory? Well, that car happens to be one of mine—both mangled pieces of it that remained.
Two young teenage girls had been carefree and happy in that vehicle only moments before. I picture them doing what my friends and I did many, many times—chatting about boys, dreaming about the future, singing along to songs you don’t always know all the words to and making them up as you go. When the drunk driver crossed the median and plowed into them, I doubt they even saw it coming.
I wrote the initial article. Then, my editors wanted a follow-up. How insensitive I felt approaching the front door of those grieving parents’ homes! But, they welcomed me in and they thankfully told me their girls’ stories. It was my honor to share the brief story of two best friends—Jasmine and Gabrielle. I spoke with family, friends, school teachers. The second article told the world who they had been and who they had wanted to be.
And then came the day of the funeral. It was a beautiful sunny day, hot. I parked as close as I could get to the church, and I waited in the long line of classmates and mentors and others whose lives had been touched in some way by these young ladies. The looping slideshow gave me glimpses of their lives in still frames. And, I cried. It wasn’t the first or last time. These are the stories that stick with you—the stories that end too soon.
When the End Follows “Happily Ever After”
Around the same time, I interviewed a precious married couple. They had been together a very, very long time. Their story overflowed with a lifetime of commitment, of love, of promises come true and of sticking together no matter what dark days they faced. Their love shone in their conversations together and in the way I would ask a question that one would begin to answer and the other would finish. (How do you attribute credit there?!?!)
That couple shared their story with me and became a special part of my life. They sent a wedding gift that remains a cherished treasure today. We exchanged Christmas cards for a number of years until I got lazy with one of the several moves we made in our first years of marriage.
For both of these stories and several more—one which I look forward to sharing much more about with you soon—I saw played out in others’ lives a truth life teaches. Life is painfully short, even when it is blissfully long. I saw in their weighted glances at each other that many decades together still is not enough when you love as they did.
Every Life a Story; Every Story a Lesson
With each and every life I encounter, a new story unfolds. As a story reveals its characters and plot twists and conflicts and resolutions to me, I learn more—about me, about others, about life.
These real stories and the lessons they unveil fuel the stories I create. There is a thin line between reality and make believe. You see, I believe that, through fiction, we can understand reality; and through a story’s characters we can truly know ourselves.
I write for this reason—to tell others’ stories so my readers can understand their own.
If you are a writer, what writing lessons have you learned? If you are a reader, what lessons have you learned about life or yourself through reading?