Saturday, September 15, 2007

Writing in the Danger Zone


(High School Sports Editor, Cris Warren)


Everyday I hear from some struggling writer--some published, some not. They tell me stuff about the struggle, but sometimes I think they forget just how much they have already overcome. Reminds me of my bootcamp class I took a few years back. We had an ex-Navy S.E.A.L.-trained instructor and he would actually turn red telling us what he wanted us to accomplish. He took it as a personal affront anytime we said, "I can't," or in his view, "I won't." So far, no one is holding a gun to our heads here to write something. Where did we get that feeling that someone is? But I understand better these days why Instructor Brown turned red a lot. I feel like him sometimes.

How did you come into writing? Who encouraged you? (I hope some of you feel that I have encouraged you.)I'll tell you about some of my story in writing. Maybe you can encourage me by telling me what seems to be my best path in this business? I still haven't quite figured it out. I think in encouraging others, we often figure it for ourselves, so maybe this is how. (That giving-out-comes-back-to-you.)One thing I've noticed since starting this blog is that I see how the writer came to be by examining their past. My turn. Maybe it'll help you, too.

I probably had the most negative experiences in writing before high school. In elementary school I was a fabulous actress(I was also voted best actress of my high school,) good in art, an "A" student. I was often picked to tutor other kids or to monitor/encourage other kids to "be good." Something about my presence evidently was a good influence on other kids. I will never forget Mr. Rosen making me sit in the nest of bad boys of our class. There was Gene Cohen, Gene (why were all the "bad boys" named Gene?) Black and Miles Kendall*.(I'm sure they grew up to be model citizens.) Well, maybe this is another story. The point was, teachers recognized many things in me and I had much encouragement for those traits/gifts, but writing didn't seem to be one of them.

I was a great(you might can see why I'm not a successful writer--if I were judging this piece, great would have to go! That, and exclamation points) English student, but I was rejected over and over for writing "jobs." In junior high, though my English teachers adored me, even inviting me to their homes, I wasn't picked for the school newspaper or told "You should be a writer." I got so-so comments for everything I wrote except my "journal." And I held back in my journal. You should've seen my personal journal I kept at home! (You can't; I burned it just before going off to college in case I died.)My biggest gift was being a reader, summing up and criticizing already written stuff. And I could explain it to other kids.

My freshman year I wrote a poem that was published in a book. I can't even remember it except what it was about--something about God and the sea and how God commands the sea to toss waves that kill. Sheesh. I was a dark kid.


But finally, my big break came.


Mrs. Bragg, my teacher in my junior year HS journalism class picked me to be the sports editor for the weekly school newspaper (also the art editor--my main interest was art, but I was interested in teaching P.E., too.)No girl had ever been the sports editor before and she said I could handle it, because I was tenacious,stubborn and good at English.(Ha.) Lots of tough under that transparent skin and long blonde hair. I don't think she chose me for my writing skills. I think it was because I still had a way of controlling behaviors of other kids--especially boys.(All that previous experience with the Genes.)

So, I interviewed and wrote under major criticism from the guys and the male coaches,"she can't write about sports--she's a girl!" (This was back in the day.I also played on the first girls basketball team as that was the year they started organized girls basketball in Indiana.)

The football coach, "Crazy Joe" Gallo (really, his name was Paul)
probably was the worst.I can't even remember what he taught. Maybe auto shop or something. I kept up his scrapbook for him, too, in the library where I also worked in HS, and he never once said thank you.He did growl at me--a lot! (I didn't have him for class, however.)He would squint those black eyes at me and something gutteral would come out. His wife was the business teacher and our sponsor in booster club--and I was president. I figured if she was married to him, I was somewhat safe because I figured she was the only one keeping him from running amuck on kids.

About half-way through my senior year Mrs. Bragg came in with guidelines for a journalism scholarship at the university in the next county over. I had to take all of my articles and compile them into a portfolio to try out for the scholarship. I won the scholarship and that determined where I went to college, being a kid with no money.

Though Mrs. Bragg was the one who encouraged me to write(and write "under fire,") it was really those harsh critics (the coaches and the guys of my high school) who taught me the most about writing.I not only wrote, but was the only one who wrote under extreme criticism. I was breaking new ground, and I probably deserved some of the criticism (though not for being a girl writing about sports.)Criticism,as anyone who has spent any time churning out words for public consumption, is the main thing in writing. You can be Hemingway and still get criticism. (Gene Hemingway was probably mean. Thus, Mean Gene being a common nickname and if Ernie was named Gene, he probably changed to his pseudonym.)


That time as sports editor, however, cemented in me a "no fear" attitude. I used to think, "Hey,what can you do--kill me?" (And if not, I wrote and tried to prove to them I could do ok at it.)As a kid, I was always concerned about getting killed since every weekend I somehow survived my dad's down days. Getting to Monday alive was a major accomplishment for me. Maybe that was how I got so good at keeping mean boys in line--I already had practice every weekend. Writing a stupid article in a newspaper was non-threatening to me as I had already had a whole weekend of being told how worthless I was, but still seeing the truth was, I was not as bad as I was told.

I did wonder if Crazy Joe might smash me like a grape, though, when
I'd ask him what happened after a game. That year they had a 2-8
season, so I was probably flirting with the edges of his patience.Mrs. Gallo always smiled at me and even gave me a silver I.D. bracelet with my name on it. How bad could Crazy Joe be if he was married to an angel?

Mrs. Bragg, however, made me feel as if I could do anything,
and her confidence gave me a healthy check for my college education,
too. Bless her. She was short, but mighty. I always thought I won that writing scholarship for my writing. Years later, (like now) I have come to conclude that maybe it wasn't for my writing, afterall. Writing is a tough job and you can be a wonderful writer, but still not get published. So, how do you get published? You have to get tough.

I will have some posts on this topic in the coming days. Stay tuned.

*names have been slightly alterred

5 comments:

Timothy Fish said...

Aside from the required asignments at school, the majority of my writing started because my Dad needed filler for a newsletter he was publishing for an association. I later became the editor of another newsletter, which once again required a great deal of writing. While I have put the newsletters aside, I still enjoy writing. Primarily, I hope that people will read what I write and either learn something from it or in the case of Searching for Mom, I hope that they will have a chance to escape the problems of everyday life for a while and relax while I entertain them. I write for the fun of it.

cathy s. said...

Crystal,

I enjoyed this post immensely. You have a gift for turning events into stories, and then figuring out some lessons for the rest of us.

Thanks for taking the time and making the effort to share.

BTW, approx. how long did you spend thinking about this and then writing about it? Just curious ...

Christine said...

I don't think you realize how much you inspire other writers by being the writer you are. The way you string humor into your encouraging stores always makes me feel nourished--not only as a fellow writer--but as a fellow human being. And not only that, your are such a gracious person always ready to reflect praise onto another.

Not to mention--man you and I could share the same highschool yearbook picture. Uncanny. :)

Teena Stewart said...

Writing has always been in me. As a teen I would write short stories and I even wrote a really bad romance novel. I even wrote poetry. It was my way of venting my creative juices in my own private island with my door closed. I identify with Crystal about the art strenghts too. Another strenght of mine.

I have never been good at grammar and punctuation. It has always been the story and characters that matter most. So I admire people like you Crystal, who can see what's wrong with someone's writing and give them great feedback. That is a rare gift. Believe me.

Crystal, you have been a great coach and mentor and that is one of your strongest gifts. I have read you creative writing and think that you are an incredible plotter and detail person and your sense of humor, another rare gift, makes your writing unique. Don't write youself off as a novelist. I think you have it in you.

As for affirmation with my own writing. I seemed to excel in creative writing class and even in college as an art major, I had teachers come to me and ask me to tutor other students because of my papers and notes. I felt like an imposter because I really wasn't good at grammar. So what was that all about?

I am not highly gifted as a writer like some. I have to work hard at getting to each level of my writing. Each step has been laborious. But I would tell others who have the writer in them, especially those who do no excel at the nuts and bolts and grammar, to surround themselves with people who can kick their butts and have strengths where they are weak.

Crystal is a great encourager and in some ways, a butt kicker. Ouch! She sees the diamond in the rough. Her greatest gifts are her ability to see potential in others and motivate them to work hard to keep on toward the goal. She needs someone in her life as a life coach to help her fix her own goals and target and work toward it. Crystal, your biggest challenge is finding your focus and moving toward the bulls-eye.

Crystal Warren Miller said...

Tim--I love it that you write for fun! Anyone writing should and thanks for sharing. We'll check it out.

Cathy--You are so kind and I take this as a huge compliment coming from you. Thanks. As to how long to write a post? I usually start with a "jogger"--a photo, a memory of something. This one started as a topic of the week on ACFW. It took less than 30 minutes, but then I had to correct stuff. My computer keyboard is especially frustrating.

Christine--I cherish your words. You have helped me a lot--thanks! I can't wait to read your fiction published!

Teena--You have known me a long time. And I am taking all of your words to heart. You are such a good fiction writer. The things you do are wonderful and I can't wait to see what is next for you.