VERNON COUNTY - This week marks the beginning of my sixth year of sitting at my desk with my two index fingers flying across the computer keyboard to type a story. Often, when asked about being a columnist, I remark, “You can’t hit a home run every week.” I doubt there are any professional ball players, who hit the ball out of the park every time they bat. But when they do, I bet it makes them more motivated to keep playing!
Having completed around 260 essays, I’ve learned that some readers will rave about a particular column while others boo it. I have readers who love it when my animals pipe in and tell a story and others who cringe when they do. One column might leave some people feeling uplifted and others disappointed.
A column Dane disliked from the get-go, titled ‘One Day at a Time,’ about the panic I feel regarding flooding and ticks, moved a reader to write me a thoughtful note, thanking me for putting into words how she, too, feels. My favorite part was when Cathy said that after her husband read the column he was better able to understand her worries and concerns. To me, this was a one-person home run!
Topics usually come to me while I’m walking in the woods. Taking the pups out on a trail, walking slowly along the creek in my backyard, or enjoying a backpacking trip—it frees me from the everyday stress of trying to make a living. Then ideas for essays float easily into my mind. The trick is capturing them! I’ve successfully used a hand-held recorder, a tiny notebook and pencil, and my camera. Snapping a quick picture of a situation, critter, or place reminds me of a story idea later.
My desk is a solid oak library table, a great find at Crazy Frank’s. It sits in the corner of my office, with two matching windows like bookends on either side. Out the window to the right stands an enormous crabapple tree that sees a lot of activity. My cats like to climb in it; Louisa, my pet pig, loves to have me shake it so she can devour the fallen apples; and last year it held a bee swarm that Dane was able to capture. Through the window to my left, I can watch my donkeys, Diego and Carlos. If I stretch, I can see my flock of ducks and geese dipping into one of their pools, sleeping under a lounge chair or wandering the yard looking for anything edible.
Ninety percent of my columns are written in the morning, when everything seems possible. I wake with the words, “This is the day the Lord has given me. I’ll rejoice and be happy in it.” I turn on my salt lamp, except when the summer heat has caused it to sweat. And I start typing, always hopeful that I’ll come up with a home run.
Writing weekly demands discipline and commitment, along with the exhausting work of trying to improve. How can I tell my story with fewer words? How can I show my readers what I’m seeing? How can I make a difference by sharing a personal story? I wasn’t given a word limit but I aim for 800 to 900 words. Over the years, trimming a too-long essay down has become a creative challenge and not the drudgery it once was.
I start to write without a beginning or end in mind and keep going until I finish. Then, I put myself in reverse and go back to the beginning. I check my spelling and punctuation, then move on to content. None of these are my favorite things!
My writing coach, Tamara, who is well-published, talented, and has the patience of a saint, will have me focus one week on showing and not telling, another on varying sentence structure and length, all the while reminding me of the importance of reading each story out loud a zillion times. She taught me early on that nothing should go to print without an editor looking it over first. For years, I was blessed to have my good friends Pat and Roger reading every column to catch errors. Now I have Loma, who’s a stickler for punctuation, fact checking and flow. She has learned my voice and style and I have learned from her edits. Together we make a great team!
Yesterday, at an event I attended, Sharon and Louise told me they subscribe to the ‘Crawford County Independent.’ Both live in Vernon County, and said it’s the best paper around. They read it from cover to cover. And this is far from the first time I’ve heard that comment!
At the same event, I was delighted to meet Olga, who told me she reads my column. Of course, her excitement about it made my day. But more importantly, it was a reminder to keep writing, to put my words down, and not let myself be defeated, discouraged, or too tired to write. If an essay makes it even to first base, there’s a chance it’ll help someone else steal home.
On July 18, 2013, I was fortunate to have my first column appear in this paper. Thank you, Charley and company, for reporting real news, for keeping it fresh and interesting, and for years of dedication and hard work. And thank you to anyone who reads my column weekly. I'll see you here next week—and maybe I’ll hit one out of the park!