Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ballad of the Not-So-Easy Writer

I think I'm going to have to start allowing myself to be called a writer. I know, right? You'd think it would be easy, if for no other reason, then because of the 126 “Find the Pony” columns I've written since I started.

I haven't done 126 of anything else, that I can think of during the same period of time, except, of course, functional things like eating (though not much) and going to the bathroom (though not too much of that either, a fact I hope doesn't qualify as too much information). Well, sure, I've watched over 126 television shows and read over 126 books, but those are pretty passive acts when all is said and done.

I don't know why I've bristled at being called a writer. After all, I walked into a newspaper office and got my first job there in the fall of 1972 and worked in newspapers off and on until my illness forced me to retire in 2013. But, especially in the days when I worked for newspapers in New York, I really considered myself more of an editor than a writer.

My main job was to get out, initially, my one newspaper a week, If I did NO writing, I still had to do the editor's job of getting the paper to readers. Yes, I wrote something every week, but that usually seemed like “something else” that had to be done. First and foremost was the editor's work. So how could I call myself a writer? I had a hard enough time referring to myself as a journalist, though that is surely what I was.

Now it occurs to me, that most people probably couldn't care less if I think of myself as a writer or not, and I think that is actually the appropriate view to take. But here's the thing... An increasing number of people are coming up to me and saying variations on the following: “I've always had an interest in writing. Do you think you could help me get started?” Or, “My relative/friend does a lot of writing and really wants to do it more and get better at it. Could you look at his work and offer him/her tips?”

And the answer is “No.” I can't help. I really can't offer tips. I HAVE NO IDEA what I am doing! I don't want to say “No.” So many people want to be writers, even if it's just because their life story would make excellent reading. But “No” is the only truthful answer I have. I sit down, I think a lot, put a bunch of words together in a row, and out comes a column. I don't think there's much in that process that could help anyone.

I think, too, on the face of it, writing probably doesn't seem like itcould be all that hard. We all use words, and we all have to write things out, mostly every day. Notes to friends, personal notes on greeting cards, keeping diaries or journals. How much harder could it be to write in some kind of professional capacity? Well, it seems, a lot harder.

Of course I would like to help, and I sometimes try, although most people, I think, quickly realize that I don't have much to offer them; no magic bullet that will make the work easier.

All I can tell anyone is what happened to me. When I was a child, I was sent to my room a lot. Not necessarily for misbehaving, but because, I think, my parents wanted peace and quiet. There was no television in Scotland through much of the early 1950s, and even when it did become more accessible, most of it wasn't very good. So, I didn't have that distraction to deal with. I went to my room and wrote. After a while I also listened to records, but that was it for distractions.

You'd think another source of my writing development would have been in school. My academic history should be littered with a plethora of “brilliant,” “well written,” “highly regarded” papers in virtually every subject. Hah. You'd be wrong. B's were a triumph, and A's were few and very far between... very far between.

The result was that I never thought much of my ability to write because I genuinely believed anyone could do it. When I became the executive editor of a group of 15 newspapers, responsible for hiring journalists and writers to staff them, I realized I was wrong. Not everyone can do it. Far from it.

I won awards from the New York Press Association and the Syracuse Press Club in the last couple of years I worked in New York. I was also given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the press club, all of which must have meant my writing was certainly OK.

But, in truth, it is only since I started writing about my illness and sharing it with you, that I have begun to feel like a writer. For one thing, I take every column seriously and work it and rework it until it's as good as I can get it. I didn't always do that before. That comes down to you as readers and the expectations you have told me you have.

As part of my journey through cancer, I have, and continue to, look closely at just about every aspect of my life. I've picked up a lot of rocks and turned them over. By looking at this whole writing thing at least partially through your eyes, I've come to be okay with being considered a writer, even if I still don't fully understand how it works.

On a completely different topic, I wanted to update you on my serious stomach issues. It looks like stopping the bone densifier may have been the solution we've been searching for for over a year! Since we canceled the last infusion, I've had quite a few nights (in a row!) where I have not succumbed to nausea during the course of the evening. We are cautiously optimistic about this and ask that you continue to pray for us as we thank you for what you've done already.

There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere