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Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Caution to Young Writers

I have no clue how many columns I have written over the years but it's in the thousands. I wrote two columns a week for King Features Syndicate for over ten years. I wrote two columns a week for my local paper for over 20 years. (I still write one newspaper column a week). In addition, I have written many freelance essays for publications like McCalls, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and USA Today. 

I have never lived an organized life. I was married and divorced, I moved a lot, I changed jobs, I raised a child, I became a widow. I was happy and unhappy, semi-prosperous and poor, confident and dejected at being rejected.

Through it all, I pitched all those columns in a box....if I remembered.  Not cut out neatly, not arranged chronologically, not all facing the same direction. In that carton, are also letters from fans, notifications of awards (like having a column chosen to be included in a college textbook), reviews (favorable and unfavorable). In a way, that box mirrors my life - everything simply dumped in haphazardly.

The other day, I pulled the box out of the closet, looking for three columns in particular. The newspaper cut-outs are yellowed and curling around the edges, some of them are bent or torn.

I never found the columns I was looking for. Maybe life was stressful when I wrote them so I never took the time to cut them out and save them. At the time, I guess, they didn't seem so important in the scheme of things.

But, in all the millions of words I've written, those 3,000 are some of which I'm the proudest. I had received a call from a local family who'd found a box of old letters in the attic. They were letters home from two sons (step-sons, actually) who were fighting in the Civil War. The current day members had no awareness of the boys' existence until they read the letters. They'd both died during the war.

They allowed me to keep the letters for a while (they asked me not to make copies and I honored that request) in order to write a series of three columns. I remember the awe I felt as I actually held a letter written by a boy telling his mother about sitting beside a campfire in Tennessee, wondering what the following day would bring.  It was cold and rations were short but he told her not to worry, he was doing fine.

I fell madly in love with those two boys. They were such sweet and optimistic and loving kids. They began each letter with "My Dearest Mother". I marveled at how educated they appeared to be for only having attended local small-town Indiana schools. Their cursive handwriting was beautiful with swirling capital letters, especially considering the rough conditions under which they were writing. Every word was spelled correctly, one of them had taken Greek. They often spoke of happy memories of Somerset and Roann - fishing and sledding and attending church functions with their friends.

Through the letters, they mentioned some place names. One was the Niconza Church which is beyond the Stockdale Mill in Miami County. I visited the church and the pastor allowed me to read their old church records. I found that the boys were buried there. Over time, they'd disappeared from the family memory, from anyone's memory.

Later, the Historical Society located their gravesites and erected a monument to them.

All these years later, I don't even remember their names but I felt that I played a part in resurrecting them back into existence and they were so worthy of being acknowledged again. It is one of my proudest accomplishments as a writer. Oh, if only I could find those columns. I would love to read them again.

So, here's my caution to young writers - sometimes it is easy to let the Now go when every day life gets hectic but although it may not seem that important at the time, later you'll wish you'd appreciated it more. Everything you write is part of you and your history. Guard it for how precious it will become.

1 comment:

Liz Flaherty said...

I hope they show up, Vic. I used to save everything, but life got in the way--you know how that goes. Thank goodness for the internet, because almost everything is findable now.

I love the story of the two boys. I used two Miami Co. boys' names in a book, ones who had died in Gettysburg, and ended up feeling a curious kinship with them just because I used their names and mourned them.