Newspaper Memories

When I graduated from college, I knew two things:

  • I had a degree!
  • I had no idea what to do with it…

I’d spent the last three years devoting myself to reading and writing, and I’d earned my bachelor’s degree in English a year early and with honors.  In college, I was “the wunderkind.”  My professors respected my work and encouraged my curiosity.  Out of college, I was a twenty-year-old kid with a lot of debt and no real job experience.

I wasn’t scared for my future. I had an abundance of confidence, but not cash.  So I did what any slightly lost, mostly broke kid would do:  I applied to every job for which I was even marginally qualified.  Thankfully, a couple of employers took a chance on me.  One of those employers was the local newspaper – a freelance gig, sure, but a chance to get my name out there and make money doing something I loved.

Growing up in the theater had cured me of shyness, and college had taught me to write well and concisely (and quickly, if I had to).  Writing for a newspaper – interviews, deadlines, etc. – was a natural fit and I loved it immediately.  Talking to people and writing about it didn’t feel like work.  Having the opportunity to meet people in my community and share their accomplishments was a privilege.

My first article was about a sweet elderly lady who made prayer bears and prayer flowers for grieving families and families whose loved ones were in the hospital.  In the fall of 2007, I sat with her for a couple of hours in her living room.  I’d prepared questions, but the conversation was so easy and so honest, I didn’t need them.  As I was packing to leave, she made me a set of my own prayer flowers, and prayed for my health and success.

From there, I met with a 97-year-old ham radio operator and we talked about the days when radio was new and exciting.  To her, it still was.  I interviewed two little boys who decided to grow out their hair and donate it.  They wanted to honor their grandmother, and they didn’t care at all that people said they looked like girls.  I walked around a hospital and spoke to volunteers who often came home utterly exhausted and still wondered if they could do more.  I spent an afternoon with a church youth group as they were preparing for a mission trip.  For many of them, it would be their first airplane ride, and not one of them was afraid.  They were just excited and eager to help.

I handled quick deadlines.  I worked late.  I wrote on my lunch break.  I skipped dinner.  I learned to take decent photographs for the first time in my life (much more difficult than I thought it would be…).  More than anything, I realized that people have good things to say, and it’s important to hear them.

In 2009, Graham and I moved from Abingdon for what we thought would be a temporary stay in Northern Virginia.  The prayer flowers from my very first story came with us.  All these years later, they still sit on a shelf in my study.

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I look at them often, and they remind me that the people we meet are never just a means to an end, and that kindness and compassion are real, tangible, and enduring.

Beowulf, Epics, and Why Curiosity Matters

I can’t remember what first sparked my interest in Beowulf.  I was in high school.  I was hungry for stories and itching to immerse myself in subjects that challenged me.  It could have been that the Lord of the Rings trilogy was going strong in theaters, stoking the collective imagination of a generation ready for magic and epic battles between good and evil (having been primed by Harry Potter and his many adventures).  It could have been a new phase in my lifelong interest in historical esoterica.  I’m not really sure, and it doesn’t really matter, because I’ve loved Beowulf ever since, and I’m not about to stop now.

My first encounter with Beowulf was shepherded by Seamus Heaney, and I’ve often called his work the “gateway translation.”  This is the iteration that gets you into the story.  Heaney’s meticulous attention to the cadence of the verse; his talent for turning arcane sensibilities into relatable one-liners; and his easy dedication to presenting Beowulf – the original man, myth, and legend – as not only an adventurous, brave soul in search of a noble calling higher than himself (and seeking a little glory along the way, because why not?), but a flawed human being just like all the rest of us, all serve to draw new readers into this old story.

I’ve read Heaney’s translation now more than any other, and I’m about to do it again.

Over breakfast last week, I read a magazine article called “Beowulf is Back” by James Parker.  The crux of the article – that this ancient epic just won’t go away – got me thinking, not only about Beowulf and why I love it, but about why people love epics.  Why do we obsess over heroes?  Why do we frame our world in terms of good and evil?  Why do we love a battle scene?  Why do we still look to a text older than our language to find answers about ourselves today?  And what does all of that say about us?

I don’t know.

Really, I’m not sure.  I could fill pages with my assumptions, but I don’t really want to do that, and I don’t think anyone really wants to read it.  Instead, I’m going to look at Beowulf with fresh eyes, and see what I learn.

Here’s the plan:

Over the next four weeks, I’m going to reread Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and then I’m going to read, for the first time, three graphic novelizations of the story that James Parker mentioned in his article.

I’m looking at this challenge in two ways.  First, it’ll be fun – I love Beowulf, and I’ll have four weeks’ worth of Beowulf, and that is exciting.  Second, it’ll satisfy my curiosity.  What can these different interpretations of the same story tell me about why we just won’t let Beowulf fade into obscurity?

If I haven’t yet convinced you that Beowulf is worth your time, or if you’re not into old stuff, or if, for reasons I will never understand, you don’t like to read, I’m sure you’re asking yourself why I want to do this.  The simple answer is, because I am curious.  I want answers.  I want answers to lots of questions, actually, but I’ll settle for the Beowulf-related ones for now.  I believe that we should always be thinking, we should always be asking questions, and we should always, always, always be curious.  A curious mind is a powerful one.  People who ask questions make discoveries, and sometimes those discoveries change the world.  Sometimes, they just scratch the intellectual itch that people like me can never quite shake.  But, and at any rate, no one ever amounted to anything who didn’t first ask questions.

And so, off I go, into Heorot once more, to see what I can learn with thirty-year-old eyes and a brain that often forgets where I left my car keys.

And it all begins with “Hwæt…”

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The Blank Page

When I decided to pursue writing as a career, I anticipated a lot of different reactions.  I expected people to tell me that I was crazy and irresponsible, or that I was spoiled, or that I was naïve.  What I didn’t expect to hear, and what most people told me, was that I was brave.  Brave.  People still tell me that I’m brave.  They tell me I made a bold choice, and that it takes courage to pursue this dream of mine.  The truth, I think, is more relatable, more grounded in real life, and so very human.

I’m scared.

The day I decided to leave my full-time job, I didn’t do it because I was brave.  I did it because I was afraid that I’d be stuck doing something I didn’t love until I either retired or died.  Then, when I handed in my resignation and started saying my goodbyes, I was afraid that I’d made a terrible mistake.  The first Monday I ever spent just writing, I was afraid that I’d never make any money again, and Graham and I would end up destitute and it would be all my fault.

And I’m still scared, because the thing that frightens me most in this world, the one thing that gives me nightmares, the one fear I can’t conquer, is just this:

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The blank page.  The beginning.  The start of the marathon.  The mountain to climb, and my own personal Everest.  I’m scared of a lot of things – heights, elevators, airplanes, snakes, ladybugs – but nothing scares me as much as the blank page.  It’s a world of possibilities, and the responsibility to explore it and fill it up with words that sing is exhilarating and paralyzing all at the same time.

I’m scared of the blank page because words are powerful, and stories are important, and storytellers are the guardians of our history and our humanity, and I’m just a girl from a small town in Virginia sitting at my desk in my pajamas trying to write words that matter.

I’m not brave, but I don’t have to be.  I just have to write.  I have to get the words out of me and into the world, whether anyone reads them or not.  I have to, because if I don’t, they’ll just build up in my head and the weight of them, the pressure of all of them floating around in there, jammed together in a Times New Roman mosh pit, will drive me crazy.  I have to, because I love stringing words together to make something that didn’t exist before.  It’s the closest to magic that I’ll ever get.

Bravery is overrated, and sometimes you just have to embrace the fear and let it motivate you to take the actions you need to take.  I’m not brave, but I am writing, and that’s enough.

National Wine Day!

It’s National Wine Day!  First of all, I didn’t know such a holiday existed.  Second, I’m not generally a fan of novelty holidays (though I have been known to carry a towel on May 25th, because it’s also Towel Day, and Douglas Adams is one of my favorite writers).  This one, though, I feel pretty good about celebrating.  Because I like wine.

It’s also only the second day in several that the sun is actually visible, it’s warm outside, and there’s not been a drop of rain.  So, out with the red wine, and in with something chilled!  I do love red wine, but now that it’s warm again, I’m ready for a change.

I’ve already featured The Vineyards and Winery at Lost Creek (here’s the post: Lost Creek Wine Selection).  We’re members at Lost Creek, so we’re there at least every other month to pick up our member wines.  Because it’s sunny and pretty and National Wine Day, I wanted to open a bottle I knew we’d enjoy tonight, so we selected Lost Creek’s 2014 Reserve Chardonnay.

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I’ll write more about white wine in the future, I’m sure, since summer is on its way, but for now, I’ll just proclaim, loud and proud, that I love Chardonnay.  I love Chardonnay like I love Red Velvet Cake.  I could eat a whole cake…I could drink a whole bottle (but I won’t…).  I’m pretty sure both are a lifelong love affair.

There are those who don’t enjoy a big, heavily-oaked Chardonnay.  To be fair, it is a robust, flavorful, heavier white wine.  Well, this particular Chardonnay is a big, heavily-oaked Chardonnay.  It’s got a nose of oak, butter, and honey, and a hint of burned toast (I promise this is a good thing).  It tastes of oak and butter, as well, but it’s not gimmicky.  It’s just real and unpretentious – a traditional Chardonnay that will absolutely appeal to those who, like me, believe that Chardonnay should be aged in oak, just like rain is wet and sugar is sweet and cake is good.

Now that I’ve spent a long time going on about wine on National Wine Day, I feel, as a writer and a reader, I ought to give a moment to Douglas Adams for Towel Day.  What kind of writer/reader would I be otherwise?  So here you go, a little something courtesy of the great Mr. Adams to get you thinking while you’re drinking this evening:

“Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”

Kurt Vonnegut and a Cup of Coffee

Or, how I started my morning…

I’ve been a fan of Kurt Vonnegut since high school.  I cried the night he passed away.  I think he wrote about the world in a way that was true enough to be illuminating, but gentle (and funny) enough to be palatable.  I’d call him a modern Mark Twain.  So I was excited when I heard that a book of his personal letters would be published, and I’ve been reading it, and taking my time with it, this week.

Titled just Letters, the collection is vivid Vonnegut.  Witty, self-deprecating, and sarcastic, but also kind and insightful.  There are introductions and notes by Dan Wakefield, who knew Vonnegut personally, throughout the book that provide context, and it’s so interesting to read Vonnegut’s thoughts on his own books while they were in progress.  He spends time on other topics, as well (politics and world events, his family and friends, his career), though I’ve enjoyed his thoughts on writing the most.  He was as sharp in his personal letters as he was in his published works.

Reading Letters this week, I now firmly believe people don’t write enough anymore.  Not that I didn’t before.  The truth is, I was appalled when I learned that “tl;dr” was a thing.  What do you mean, “too long; didn’t read?”  If you took the time to write something for me to read, then I’d read it, because that’s what respectful people do.  And if I wrote something for you to read, I would be careful to say only what I needed to say, because that’s what good writers do.  William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White told me so.

What I’m getting at here is that writing is important.  Writing, even just letters to family and friends, helps you find your voice.  Once you’ve found it, you’ll feel comfortable and confident expressing what you have to say.  It’s true that everyone has an opinion, but if you can express yours coherently, persuasively, and ultimately in a voice that is true to who you are, you’ll rise above the noise and you’ll be heard.  Finding your voice gives you power.  So do it!  Write notes on napkins.  Write a few quick lines about your day before you crawl into bed.  Write a letter to your mom – I’m serious, Mother’s Day is coming up.

Or, if you’re crazy like me, write a novel that keeps you awake at night like a screaming newborn.