My take on "Go Set a Watchman"

By Suzy Barile

Poor Harper Lee. No matter how hard she tried, no one would leave her alone! Each declined invitation -- sometimes politely, sometimes filled with exasperation at not being left alone -- merely underscored her desire for solitude. She lived as anonymously as she could in New York City, returning to Monroeville, Ala., only occasionally. And why not? My daughter lives in California, and like Lee, gets home once, maybe twice a year. She is, in fact, the same age as Lee was when she penned "To Kill a Mockingbird," and in the midst of her career, as was Lee.

I note these similarities to make a point: Lee was a young woman in late 1950s/early 1960s America -- women were supposed to be wives and mothers, yet she was attempting to "make it" as a writer -- when suddenly she was thrust into the limelight as the author of an award-winning -- Pulitzer-winning --novel. How does one handle that? She declared in an interview a couple of years later,

"I never expected any sort of success with Mockingbird. I was hoping for a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers but, at the same time, I sort of hope someone would like it enough to give me encouragement. Public encouragement. I hoped for a little, as I said, but I got rather a whole lot, and in some ways this was just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected."

Just because someone produces an astounding work doesn't mean that person wants notoriety, yet she has now lived 60% of her life in that unwanted realm. And whether her lawyer "discovered" an old/new manuscript, whether Lee is fully capable of making decisions about publication of the manuscript, whatever background there is to its publication, it is with us for better or for worse.

Not wanting to wait until Aug. 4 to receive my pre-ordered copy of "Go Set a Watchman, (really, Amazon? 2 weeks after publication?!?!), I bought it for my Nook. I had no expectation other than hoping to read a good story. I did not re-read "TKAM," nor did I read any reviews. What I found is that much of Chapter 1 and all of Chapter 19 reminded me of a researched essay a student once turned in: the beginning and ending were my student's work, but the middle belonged to someone else.

My gut is that someone fiddled with the beginning and ending of Lee's work -- thinking that was making it better? Maybe more 21st century? Who knows? The giveaway for me is the overuse of the word "thing" -- my writing bugaboo. It appears 4 times in Chapter 1 -- twice in ways Lee used in the past, but twice that are questionable. In "TKAM," the word "thing" is used 7 times. In five of her essays written after the publication of "TKAM," the word appears 4 times in 7,000+ words. There's also overuse in "Go Set a Watchman" -- particularly Chapter 1 -- of the words "anything," "something," "everything," and "nothing." Again, these are not words Lee used regularly in her writing.

But the middle -- oh! the middle! It is pure Harper Lee, from the long paragraphs and formal English, from the literary and religious references, to her personal take and thoughts on 1960s America and Civil Rights -- that had to be hidden in a metaphor: "To Kill a Mockingbird."

I think her agent found "Go Set a Watchman" too in-your-face for an early 1960s audience, and suggested she tone it down, take a different approach, which she did, and that became "TKAM." But the feelings Lee held about what was happening in the South are expressed beautifully and voraciously - so I vote that this "new" book is her handiwork and I enjoyed it immensely!

Granny Paintbrush – My Mom

By Suzy Barile
Back in the late 60s and early 70s, depression wasn’t acknowledged or talked about, and seldom was it treated. That is when my mother became depressed.

Suzy Barile and Eleanor Hope Newell Maynard
By today’s standards, she had every right to be. Her favorite aunt died of cancer in January, and less than a month later, both parents died unexpectedly within three days of one another. She was left with a loving-but-domineering uncle, a mentally and physically handicapped sister, seven children ranging in age from 18-months to sixteen, and a lot of regrets.

That amount of loss and stress is enough to push anyone over the edge, but instead of an understanding of her losses, she was expected to behave like nothing unusual had happened. Life went on, and she should too. And she did, for the most part. She got us up and to school, to soccer practices and baseball games, to scout meetings and doctor appointments. Laundry was done, meals prepared, diapers changed, and hugs given. As normal as it seemed, all was not well, for my mom lost her faith in God.

Here’s how it happened. The day my grandmother died, I arrived home from school to find my dad there and upstairs in their bedroom. What’s going on, I asked. What Mom said next is one of the two phrases I hear when I conjure up her voice in my head: “Oh, Suzy, the most horrible thing in the world has happened. Granny has died.”

On top of that, her father, my Poppee, had been hospitalized, collapsing shortly after his wife was taken by ambulance to the hospital. Dad took Mom and my 10-year-old brother to the airport and called for his parents to come down from New York to help with the rest of us. A U.S. Navy officer working at the Pentagon, he was expected to be at work, no matter the problems at home. Today’s military is so much more family friendly.

Two days later, Poppee died after acknowledging that he knew his wife was gone by marking his name with an X on an official document. Dad got down there, and first one funeral, then the other, was held. Mom did for her sister what her parents had always told her to do: Packed her bags and took her to McClenny, the state hospital where she’d find lots of activities to keep her handicapped mind and body busy. Some legal work was taken care of and then they were home. Life was moving on, or so it seemed.

From the first call that my Granny had been hospitalized, Mom kicked herself: she’d not gone to Florida for Aunt Pat’s funeral, and by not attending and taking my baby sister Pattie with her, Granny and Poppee didn’t have a chance to see the youngest child one last time. Over the course of what by then was Dad’s nearly 20-year Naval career, Mom had often felt like an awful daughter for living so far away from her parents, and what she considered a lapse in judgment simply added to that guilty load. Then there was the matter of dealing with Uncle Tyn, who was embarrassed that a niece of his would become a ward of the state. He promptly ignored his sister’s and Mom’s wishes and moved my Auntnie into a group home where, we later learned, she did little all day but read and watch television. It was such an awful situation that even packages we sent didn’t always get to her.

When school got out in June, Dad took all of us to Orlando so Mom could clean out her childhood home. Although we’d visited for at least a week every year, none of us could envision what was in store. Built in 1896 as a wedding gift for my great-grandmother, it had been lived in continuously since then, and as I tell folks who marvel that I have so many family heirlooms, no one ever threw anything away. After two weeks of trying to determine what in a dresser drawer was worth saving and what was not, Mom called in an estate firm run by two women my sister Ellie and I called “the vultures.” They arrived each morning at 8 and rummaged through closets and drawers and cupboards, selecting what they deemed valuable and could be sold. What they really did was to take Mom for a ride, as they offered her pennies for what they later sold for dollars.

During the two months we stayed in Orlando, Pattie was potty trained, friends of my grandparents came and took us places so Mom could have a break from sorting, childcare and sister-care, and Uncle Tyn stayed as close as he could to make certain nothing of even slight value was overlooked. Dad had already said we couldn’t take a lot back home with us, so I cannot imagine being my Mom during those weeks as she watched furnishings and belongings she’d known since the day she was born vanish into the vultures’ van.

The days leading up to the sale of the property brought no relief, either, for it was a sale that promised this grand house on a street once called “Honeymoon Row” because of the many newlyweds living there would be torn down to make way for condominiums. I remember Mom telling me once that my Granny had never liked the house because it wasn’t “hers.” It was the home of her mother-in-law and had been decorated long before she and Poppee married. None of the home’s touches were hers. Nevertheless, knowing the house would be no more was painfully sad.

Back in Vienna, a northern Virginia suburb of Washington, DC, the next school year began, then I graduated and went off to college, and slowly Mom quit going to church. No more look-alike Easter and Christmas dresses specially embroidered or with smocking for me and my sisters; no more cramming all seven of us kids into the blue VW bug for the ride to church – the four older on the back seat and the three younger ones in the “way back.” This, of course, was long before mandatory seatbelt laws. It was frightening to hear the woman who had made certain that as babies we all were baptized suddenly cry out, “If there is a God, how could he do this to me?”

Once in college, I made it home on school breaks. But by then I was in a world that revolved around me, even opting to remain in Chapel Hill to work the summer between junior and senior year. I wasn’t privy to what was happening to my Mom – not until I'd graduated and was on my own and she called one night in spring of 1979. I was hosting a going-away party for a friend and Mom heard partying in the background. She told me to have fun. But when she called back the next day, she heartbreakingly told me my Dad had left her. She hadn’t told me the night before because she didn’t want to ruin my party.

Suffice it to say the next few years were difficult for her. At 52, she was past being able to get a newspaper job. She tackled real estate, but sold little and hated it. She worked  in the media center at NC State’s D.H. Hill Library, but it was the night shift and she hated walking to her car alone at 10 p.m. She was a substitute teacher at Cary High, which was probably her saving grace, for she was loved by the students and she loved them. When offered an assistant’s position in the Trainable Mentally Handicapped classroom, she was thrilled to be working daily with a classroom full of appreciative students.

To supplement her income, on the weekends she turned into Granny Paintbrush, a clown who made balloon animals at children’s birthday parties and at the twice-monthly Family Day at Pizza Inn. As at the high school, she was in her element -- working with children, something she’d loved as a troop leader when I was a Brownie and Junior Girl Scout, and a den mother when my brothers were in Boy Scouts.

As a mom, I often wished I’d had my mother’s creativity: she designed the embroidery and smocking on our childhood dresses, she could create anything we wanted atop a birthday cake  – like “monk-monk,” the only teddy bear that looked like a monkey and was loved by my brother Donnie. She cooked a mean leg-of-lamb and sesame seed pork chops. She made her grandchildren feel special, like picking up Jen each Tuesday afternoon from school for what came to be known as “Tuesdays with Granny.” And she made each of her children believe they were the only one in her life.

In December 1990, when she was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme – the fastest-growing and deadliest of brain tumors – she tore out its description from her encyclopedia to keep us from knowing its seriousness. She had the doctors tell us they’d removed “a neat little package” and she’d be back teaching the following fall. When we finally learned the truth after an awful weekend of setbacks – a weekend where those same doctors who lied to us for her told us to put her in a nursing home – I was the one who had to tell her we knew, that there was nothing more they could do. Then we waited.

Eleanor Hope Newell Maynard – the sports editor of her high school and junior college newspapers, a reporter for UNC’s The Daily Tar Heel, a UNC journalism grad and former reporter for The Raleigh Times and The Orlando Sentinel – gave up her dream of one day owning a small community newspaper to support a husband’s career, to raise seven children, and to “mother” many more.
Despite the unacknowledged and untreated depression that gripped her for many years, what we had inscribed on her marker said it all when she died April 29, 1991: “Granny Paintbrush – She left them laughing.”

Love and miss you, Mom.

How Bill Powell Challenged Me to Be a Better Tarheel
April 28, 1919 - April 10, 2015

It hardly seems possible that 40 years ago next month, I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism and a reporter’s job awaiting me at The Messenger in Madison, NC. A “Navy brat” with no real hometown, I had made the decision to remain in the Tarheel state after arriving for college from Northern Virginia and being introduced to BBQ, sweet tea, Southern hospitality, and William S. Powell’s HIST 366 – the History of North Carolina to 1865.

William S. Powell

A Statesville resident from the age of three and a proud graduate of what was then called Mitchell Junior College, Bill Powell made his way to Chapel Hill and received an undergraduate degree and served in the U.S. Army in World War II before earning a master’s degree, and then a few years later, landing a job in the University’s library. His own love of history led him to make use of the abundance of research available, and soon he was writing the more than 1,000 books and articles about the state that brought him the well-deserved-though-unofficial title “dean of North Carolina history.”

I knew nothing about Professor Powell’s illustrious background when I enrolled in his course, only that in deciding to live and work in North Carolina, I probably needed to know a bit about its history. While my maternal grandmother was born in North Carolina, and that line of my family goes all the way back to Jamestown, my knowledge consisted mainly of family stories, not facts and figures. That is what Professor Powell could provide.

For 50 minutes each Monday, Wednesday and Friday of Fall semester of my senior year, I listened to him lecture on North Carolina’s history, throwing out dates –the Halifax Resolves were signed April 12, 1776 – and tidbits, such as the names of the four busts found on the second floor rotunda of the state Capitol are John Motley Morehead, William A. Graham, Samuel Johnston and Matt Whitaker Ransom. The midterm and final exams were filled with the information he expected us to learn, as well as an essay question. On the mid-term I wrote, “I don’t know this answer, but here is what I do know,” then wrote an essay on that topic. I failed it, the final exam, and the course.

Never a failure, however, I registered again for HIST 366 -- Spring semester when I was to graduate and for a Pass/Fail grade. But the mid-term and final exams went no better the second time around, and while I can discuss the heck out of just about any topic, remembering those names, dates and places Professor Powell believed important wasn’t a skill I’d mastered, even after four years of college. In a week, I was due to graduate, but only if I passed HIST 366. My entire family was coming for the ceremony – Mom and Dad, and two sisters and four brothers who all were younger than I and expecting me to be the first of we seven to graduate from college. Though I did have that newspaper job waiting, not having a degree would not go over well with my dad.

In the days between exams ending and graduation, I called Professor Powell four times, in each call asking if I’d passed. Now, for the past 12 years, I’ve been an associate professor of English at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh. Any student who contacted me after exams wanting to know a final grade was told I’d send out email when grades were posted. Yet Professor Powell politely told me the first three times that he didn’t have the grades ready. The fourth call brought an exasperated “Yes, yes. You passed, you passed.” Had I really, or did he not want that fifth call? I’ll never know.

It wasn’t until years later when I began researching a book about a UNC family that I learned the extent of Professor Powell’s knowledge of North Carolina history. Time and again, queries directed me to his work. I discovered that he’d loved history from the time he was an elementary school student in Statesville, and that 40 years later, when he was to be named a UNC professor of North Carolina history, the appointment was scrutinized because he didn’t have a doctorate. After someone wheeled in a library cart overflowing with the books he’d written, the discussion ended, and when he retired in 1986, it was with the title “Professor Emeritus.”

I also learned that I was one of some-6,000 students passing through his courses during those teaching years that began in Fall 1973, just two years before my entry into HIST 366. Perhaps as a new professor, he hadn’t yet found the heart to tell students to wait for final grades to be posted!

Sometime in the early 1990s, when I called on him for research assistance with my book, and asked about the possibility of me writing an entry for the Encyclopedia of North Carolina he was compiling, he graciously said yes to both, and added that he recalled me as a student, but not the four phone calls. The Encyclopedia was finally published in 2006, nearly 30 years after its inception. It was a thrill to find my name alongside his and the 550 volunteer writers who produced more than 2000 entries and provided 400-plus photographs and maps. Its online version is an ongoing project and today boasts 6,842 entries and 7,134 images.

As with Professor Powell’s writing projects, mine was in the works for nearly 20 years. But nine years away from publication, I had enough information for what I hoped was an interesting presentation on former NC Governor and UNC President David L. Swain and his daughter’s marriage to a Union general at the end of the Civil War.

That first program was scheduled for a cold Valentine’s Day in 2000 to members of the Chapel Hill Historical Society. As I was introduced and approached the microphone, who did I spot in the middle of the last row but my former teacher. I knew I’d soon be laughed off the podium, for my facts would be inaccurate and Professor Powell would jump up and cry, “No! No! She’s wrong! She’s wrong!”

It never happened. Instead, I watched as he nodded approvingly time and again. My facts were correct. At program’s end, he congratulated me, and I was elated, feeling finally like the successful student I’d wanted to be so long ago.

Oftentimes Professor Powell and his wife Virginia were in the audience for my programs, and when Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General was finally published in 2009, it was he who I thanked in the Acknowledgments for instilling in me “an abiding love for North Carolina history.”

His death last Friday, April 10, leaves a void of anyone with immediate recall of names, facts, places or events about North Carolina. Anyone needing information on the state should look to his North Carolina: A History (1997) for general readers, North Carolina Through Four Centuries (1989), a well-used undergraduate text, or The North Carolina Gazeteer (1968), listing the names and founding dates and a short essay of every noteworthy place in the state.

I want to believe his leaving this earth on the day after the 150th anniversary of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Virginia to Union Gen. William T. Sherman has some sort of significance, for Professor William Stevens Powell from Iredell County was a true lover of North Carolina and Southern history.

Baking a Cake: Why it Took Four Pans for a One-Layer Cake

Suzy Barile
For more years than I care to count, the joke in my family has been that cakes are always served in the pan – frosted, but on top only. One birthday, Jen asked me for brownies, as they’re always better straight from the oven, sliced and taken right out of the pan. I complied.

While on sabbatical this semester, I’ve done more cooking than in the past 20 years, so as John’s birthday approached, I decided to bake a cake from scratch – one that came from a cookbook that would have special meaning for him. As angel food is his favorite, I first looked for that recipe, but 12 egg whites seemed like a lot for a cake that only three people would eat. Then I came across a one-layer sponge cake recipe, handwritten and saved in an envelope addressed to his great-grandmother, Emma Lavinia Elliott Borneman, and placed under the “cakes and pies” tab in his grandmother’s recipe box. This seemed the cake to make, and with just five ingredients, how difficult could it be?

The receipt – as it was spelled in the 1800s – called for 1 cup of sifted cake flour, 1 cup of granulated sugar, ¼ teaspoon of cream of tartar, 6 eggs, either vanilla or lemon extract for flavor, and a lemon or orange drizzle topping made with confectioner’s sugar, butter and milk.

“Success in this cake depends on beating after each ingredient is put in,” the receipt-writer instructed.

“I can do this,” I thought and got out all the ingredients -- measuring spoons and cups, several bowls, and the sifter. Because I had all-purpose flour, not cake, I researched what to substitute, discovering that replacing 2 tablespoons of the flour with 2 tablespoons of cornstarch would provide the added protein that makes cake flour different.

The first task was separating the egg yolks from the whites, something I wished I’d had a separator to do for me. Luckily only two tiny pieces of eggshell wound up in the whites, which were to be “beat until stiff” before the tartar was added, then both ingredients “beat lightly.” Sugar “sifted until fine grain – about four or five times” followed and the mixture was “beat again.” Next came the egg yolks – “well beaten” – and lastly, the sifted flour. “Beat again and flavor with lemon or vanilla extract.”

I did as instructed, making a powdery mess sifting the cornstarch into the flour and the sugar until it was a “fine grain.” But I felt good, proud of my undertaking. John was going to love this, and surely if I lightly oiled and floured the pan bottom, the cake would come out.

The last step of pouring the batter into the pan seemed simple, until I looked at the receipt and realized it called for a funnel pan. We have square and round and heart-shaped and bundt pans, but I’d never baked in a funnel pan. Then I remembered that one of the “finds” John brought home as he and his brothers have sorted through their late mom’s belongings was an aluminum cake pan with a funnel insert. Though I’d pooh-poohed keeping it, he had washed, dried, and put it away, so out it came.

Now, I’d seen cakes baked in such a pan, but would the way the funnel fit into the base truly not leak? I poured the batter in, then thought I should check for leakage, and with that, I grabbed the funnel and lifted it before …. Duh! I’d broken the seal and batter was oozing out the bottom onto the counter and down the cabinet to the floor. Talk about a sticky mess.

Grabbing a round cake pan from the cabinet, I set the dripping funnel in it and poured the remainder of the batter into the pan, then set it on the counter. Now its bottom was sitting in batter. So I got another round pan, put it under the first, and carried everything to the stovetop. Carefully lifting the funnel and the first pan, I poured its contents into the second, and spilled yet more batter onto the stovetop and around the edges of the pan. Good grief. I reached for one more cake pan -- non-stick -- and again poured the batter. Done, but now my hands were sticky, too!

It’s lucky I was home alone, because my careful planning had quickly fallen apart, literally. If anyone had been there . . .

Finally I got the cake into the oven. I’d had to check the back of a prepared cake mix box for the proper temperature setting – 350 -- because the receipt called for an oven whose flame had been turned “comparatively low” immediately after lighting.

“Don’t open oven for 20 minutes,” admonished the receipt writer. “By this time cake should be well risen and turning brown. Lower flame and bake almost 15 min. longer.”

If you do any baking, you can probably imagine the rest. The 350 was too hot, the cake never rose, and at the end of 35 minutes, though it was golden brown, it was just a half-inch thick. The toothpick test revealed a done center, however, so out it came. I let it sit for 10 minutes, turned it upside down on a cake rack, and waited and waited and waited.

It did not fall.

With a knife, I carefully went around the edge of the cake until it was loosened enough from the side of the pan to -- finally -- pop out. Success!

That night, I served John his birthday cake, telling him the story of finding his great-grandmother’s recipe so it would be special. My nephew Jack rolled his eyes and John fought back laughter as I shared my baking adventure.

“It’s not much of a sponge cake,” I said, slicing into what was the consistency of a biscuit. “But it came out of the pan.”
"North Carolina coaching great Dean Smith dies at 83"

Dean Smith
While many Tar Heels have expected this news for quite awhile, it still gives one reason to pause when it comes.

I can't remember a time when I didn't know about Dean Smith. He arrived in Chapel Hill in 1958, when I was 5. My mom - a former sports writer turned society page reporter (deemed acceptable for female journalists in the 1950s) - never lost her zeal for her alma mater and UNC sports. My dad, who often was "at sea" with the Navy, was just as true blue to Carolina. And so, I learned to cry "go to hell Dook" long before I understood what it meant! (At this point, my Southern manners require me to apologize to my Duke pals, tho I swear no ABC-er has ever apologized to me! Alas, I digress.)

And so it was that I carried on the family tradition as the first Maynard child to head to college. While at St. Mary's in Raleigh, I made a collect call to Dean Smith each time I arrived back in my dorm room following a visit home. If course, he never was there to accept the call! One Sunday night upon making that call, the operator asked, "Who?" When I repeated the name, she said, "Yeah, sure." But she put through the call.

Next stop was Chapel Hill and I've long bragged I never missed a home football or basketball game my senior year. That explains my final GPA!

It was tough being a Carolina fan while living in Frederick, Md, in the heart of Terp country in the 1980s, but when a 3-1/2 month-old Jen and I watched the Heels beat Georgetown on that memorable night in 1982, it was worth all the ragging! We repeated in 1993 against Michigan, knowing my mom, who died 2 years earlier, was smiling down from heaven.

Jen, nephew Joey, and I headed to Chapel Hill in April 2009 for that glorious win against Michigan State, and while Smith was no longer coaching, his spirit was there.

RIP, Coach Dean Smith. Your life was not all about wins and losses, for your influence on your players and those who knew and loved and respected you was far greater.

"Hark the sound of Tar Heel voices, ringing clear and true. Singing Carolina praises. Shouting NCU."


(Photo from
Suzy Barile with Jesse and Pattie Brooks

Remembering Pattie Brooks

For months after my sister Pattie died two years ago Jan. 15, Tuesday mornings were the most difficult. I had talked with her on Monday night about her excitement in going with Jack the next day on his class field trip. "Call and tell me all about it," I said. Instead it was Joseph who called to say something bad had happened to Mommy and they were at the hospital. Gail and Warren comforted me and Warren drive me to Louisburg.

Why, then, did Tuesday mornings get me? Because it was her last on this earth. We often chatted those mornings as I drove to Raleigh and now my rides were made in silence. She had no idea that Tuesday would be her last, her death so quick and unexpected as it was, yet I have had a future of Tuesday mornings.

I shared at her memorial service how we were 15 years apart, so we didn't become friends, and not just sisters, until we were adults.While I want to stay sad forever, I cannot. She left three smart, good-looking boys who need to know her always and that is the role I have as Aunt Suzy. So what do I share today when they are 14 and almost 9 and 13? Here goes:

~ We called her Precious Pretty Pattie and Bebopper Marshmallow
~ She was so tough as the last girl with 4 older brothers that she played soccer on a boys' team
~ She had a smile that could light up the world and she used it often. Everyone felt special when she smiled at them
~ She drove a red Ferraro and taught Jen to sing "Born in the USA" as they cruised Cary with the top down
~ She loved pink sweetheart roses and triple chocolate cheesecake and General Foods hazelnut coffee
~ Her manicures and pedicures were out of this world
~ She loved a bargain, especially when the store paid her
~ She loved her family with all her heart, and most of all, she loved her boys - her license plate read "PB & the J's"

There is so much more, yet so little space here.

However, my favorite Pattie picture of all time is from when she was about 4. As I recall, I was going somewhere with my high school boyfriend and she wanted to go, but couldn't. I don't know who captured her displeasure on camera, but it came in the form of a crying temper tantrum, right there in the front yard of our home in Vienna, VA. Her head is thrown back, her long blonde hair flying all around, and her arms flung out in disgust. In the photo's background is my boyfriend, leaning against his car, arms crossed and a grin on his face. Guess he knew no one could resist our Precious Pretty Pattie, and she soon be going wherever it was we were headed!

Love and miss you, PM.

Women and Writing and Adversity

My friend and colleague Jo Ann Mathews works hard at sharing information for and among and between writers. She recently featured me on that blog "Woman and Adversity." Here's what I shared:

I was 10 years old and in fifth grade when the class English assignment was to write a short story. They were to be judged by our teacher’s mother — award-winning children’s author Natalie Savage Carlson — and the winning stories read to younger children in other grades. Though in retrospect I see I took a fairy tale and retold/rewrote it, my story was selected. I still have the copy of it on which Mrs. Carlson wrote how much she’d enjoyed reading it.

That entire school year was spent in learning from our teacher, Julie Carlson, the different stylistic devices used in writing and incorporating them into our compositions. After I used personification and onomatopoeia in describing my dad’s old car named “Junior” and the many sounds it made when he started and drove it, Miss Carlson encouraged me to continue writing.

From that point on, I knew some form of writing was what I wanted to do, and I began in earnest in high school when I joined the newspaper staff. By my senior year, I was co-editor and writing a column for our local weekly newspaper. As a college freshman, I again volunteered for the school newspaper. But I quickly found I had a lot to learn — and couldn’t always write in my own “style” — when I was put in my place by my freshman composition teacher. She insisted we begin all our essays with “In the beginning, I shall attempt to prove……” Well, I wasn’t going to write like that because I was a journalist. I earned D’s on all my essays until I followed her formula. Once it was mastered, she allowed us to write in styles that suited us!

Majoring in journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill meant I also wrote for the college newspaper, and I loved it. But my classroom writing didn’t go as well, as once again, I was up against instructors who first wanted us to learn “their” way. Until I acquiesced, my rebellion only resulted in lower grades. But I finally earned decent grades in news, feature, and editorial writing — and was published during my semester-long internship at a daily newspaper — then graduated and found a reporting job on a small community newspaper. Once again, however, I had more to learn. Because our competition was a daily, the editor wanted our writing and headlines to entice the reader. When he asked me to begin a story about the discovery of a murder victim with these words — “The bloody, battered and bludgeoned body of Junior Metcalf was dragged from the bottom of the Dan River on Saturday…” — I drew the line. He wrote the lead, I wrote the story, and he put my name on it!

Every new reporting job had its challenges — both with editors and with my dad, who also had been a journalism major. Often he’d send me back my stories with red marks all over them, saying he was only trying to help me become a better writer. It didn’t matter that the stories had been published. He thought I could learn from his comments. Even in my miffed state of mind, I probably did.

Fast-forward 35 years when I had the manuscript for my first — and only — book rejected three times by the only publisher I sent it to. But the third time’s the charm, the old saying goes, and this rejection notice came with the suggestion of another publisher, who had already been contacted. Weeks later, I had a contract and a new editor. We sparred over wording and story order and what should stay and what should go. She won some of the battles; I won others. We made it through more writing and researching, lots of editing, and seemingly endless proofreading at breakneck speed — 6-months — and in July 2009, Undaunted Heart: The True Story of a Southern Belle & a Yankee General was published.

It’s amazing how suddenly I was “a writer,” though I’d made a living as a writer for my entire professional career. My dad had to remind me of that once when I wondered if I’d ever amount to anything! I was bemoaning that I’d never reached my goal of writing for The Washington Post — although I did write two obits that were published — so maybe, I told him, I hadn’t been successful. “Look what you’ve done,” he replied. “You’ve been paid to write ever since you graduated from college.”

Today, most of my writing is done on a part-time basis, for I am a full-time assistant professor of English at a local community college. And guess what? I require my students to write their introductions and essays in a certain format! And I also can finally see the forest for the trees. I feel extremely comfortable providing encouragement to current and former students that ANY writing is writing! Just do it and put it out there. It helps that there are so many places to publish — this blog, for instance — but wherever they do, others are certain to read and enjoy.

My biggest obstacle? Taking my own advice that ANY writing is writing and I need to simply do it, to take what’s in my head and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. The result is the same: I am a writer.

You can read more at AND you can subscribe for updates.