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 http://www.jamathews.com/blog-writers-women-adversity AND you can subscribe for updates.
It really has been a year
Suzy Barile with Pattie and Jesse Brooks

Although tomorrow, Jan. 15, is the first anniversary of my baby sister Pattie’s untimely death, that it was a Tuesday is what I always will remember. (Above, Pattie with her youngest, Jesse)

We had talked Monday night as I packed for my weekly trip to Raleigh, and she said she was excited about a field trip she was chaperoning the next day for Jack’s class. Crosscreek Charter, where all three boys were in school, was her sanctuary, a place where she felt needed and wanted, where she’d been volunteering since the summer of 2006 when Jack went to kindergarten. Jesse, who will turn 8 next week on Jan. 24, practically grew up there, as he was 6 months old when Jack started school; Joseph, who will be 12 on Jan. 22, went to kindergarten the following year. It was home away from home.

That night, she told me how the young men and women – the sixth graders – had to dress up for the event. Even Jack had agreed to wear a tie. With her excitement, I looked forward to hearing about it the next day. But that didn’t happen, for at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Joseph called to tell me Mommy had been taken to the hospital, and soon Warren, my friend Gail’s husband, was driving me to Louisburg. John was home in Harmony, but immediately found someone to take care of Cady the dog and was on his way.

It didn’t matter.

An embolism has a funny way of taking someone immediately. No time to say what needs to be said. No time to say goodbye. No time to hear about a field trip. Time simply stops as a life comes to an end.

Tuesdays -- the day I drive 2-1/5 hours to Raleigh to teach -- are my times to remember. I do my morning stretches and think about how a Tuesday was her last day on this earth. I head down the road and miss the morning chats we had while I was driving. If Crosscreek was tracked out and the boys were home, they could be heard in the background – often arguing, as boys tend to do -- but we’d keep on talking, discussing their plans for the day, her dreams for them, our next time together, anything and everything.

Because she was 5 when I went to college, we got to know one another and become friends as adults. It was a friendship I cherished.

. . .

The other morning I awoke about 5 o’clock from a dream: Jesse and I were walking back into the house from somewhere we had been, and as I glanced down the hallway, I saw a large brown, lumpy mound. Before I had a chance to investigate, the mound jumped up.

From under it emerged Jack, Joseph, and Pattie.

“Surprise,” yelled Pattie, a huge smile on her face.

It was my sign. I am so sad that she is gone, yet I know she is safe and happy and with us, always.