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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Insert Title Here

by Thomas Smith
No, that's not a note to the editor. The title of this month's missive is just that: Insert Title Here.


Because I'm hoping what you’re about to read will spark something different for each of you.
This is not a how-to article, although I’d be willing to bet it will show some of you how to improve some aspect of your writing. It is not a lesson on point-of-view, though I imagine something in here will flip the “a-ha” switch in your head and help you solidify your voice. And it is not a lesson in the use of effective description techniques, thug I won’t be a bit surprised when someone emails me and says, “…after I read your column, something just clicked, and I was able to see a scene and make it pop for the first time.”

So what is this miracle column you hold in your hands (or see on your computer screen)?

It’s a meandering walk through my head with a single, simple message.

So, lets meander.

I have two stones in my office. One sits on my desk and the other sits on a bookshelf against my copy of When the Water Smokes (by Bob Simpson). The one on my desk is about the size of a baseball. It is rough and jagged in places and it looks like it would cause some real damage if someone threw it at you. It came from a field in Zebulon, NC. It is, I think, much like the stones that a crowd of men held just after they brought a woman and threw her down in front of Jesus. They had caught her in the act of adultery and were ready to stone her. So Jesus said, “OK, you caught her fair and square, and the law says you can stone her. So the one of you who has never sinned, YOU go first. Then everybody else join in.  Soon, there was just Jesus, a grateful woman, and a field full of stones. Like the one on my desk.

I keep it there to remind me not to throw stones.

The other stone, the one on the bookshelf, is small, round, and well worn. I picked it up near a pond I Chapel Hill, NC. I picked it up n one of my father’s occasional outings. From the time I started elementary school until I finished high school, I could count on seeing my father standing in the doorway of my homeroom class waving for me to go with him. He would take me out of school for the day and we would just go off together. I never knew where we were going. Often he didn’t either. He’d just decide it was a good father and son day and he’d come get me and off we’d go. In fact, the first piece of pizza I ever had from a real restaurant (Shakey’s Pizza Parlor) was the byproduct of one of those trips. Cheese. Ad we lived dangerously and added mozzarella cheese and a few red pepper flakes from real glass shakers. But on one of those trips, we went to a pond near where my father grew up and spent the afternoon skipping rocks like he did when he was a little boy. And while we skipped rocks,
he told me what it had been like back then.

The stone on my bookcase? It reminds me to slow down and remember the good days.

I have a press pass that Charlie Daniels signed for me after I had spent the better part of an afternoon hanging out with him on his tour bus just before a show in Aiken, SC. Charlie Daniels is a gracious man who has a strong faith, a great view of life, and is loyal to his friends.

I have books signed by writers I am fond of, many of them are friends and acquaintances of mine, and the majority of them have spent time on the NY Times Bestsellers List. An each one of tem reminds me that it is a noble thing to do what you love. But it is also a hard thing. A lonely thing. And that’s OK.

Over the past year I have been involved in some interesting projects. A couple of my short stories have been made into audio dramas. I’ve written greeting cards, book chapters for various projects, had 2-3 short stories published, done some ghostwriting, have completed the first 3 parts of a 2 year curriculum project for a major Christian publisher, and have a novella under consideration by the 2014 Horror Publisher of the Year. I’ve written some magazine articles, been published in Writer’s Digest (twice), and Chicken Soup for the Soul. That’s just what I remember off the top of my head.

Oh yeah, and I developed a character for NY Times Bestselling writer, Jonathan Maberry to use in his award winning Joe Ledger series. Montana Parker is one tough girl, and from what he tells me, he is having a blast writing her into the series.

As I look around me, I see dozens of pictures taken on my various travels. There’s my wife smiling as we take an ATV trip across the island of St Maarten. And below that is a picture of Pedro and his “horse” (and I use the term loosely) Dynamite. We hired him to take us on a tour of Cozumel. But we didn’t want a tourist tour. We wanted to see the real Cozumel.

So he hitched up his cart and took us to the places the tourists don’t see. At one point he turned to us and said, Would you like to see my community?” we said yes, and fifteen minutes later we were moving through a poor section of the city. And in the midst of the community was a squat, cinderblock building. It was painted pearl gray and had a colorful painting of an eagle on the side of the building.  He stopped across the street and drew our attention to a group of children walking across the lawn. The girls ere dressed in khaki skirts and blue blazers. The boys wore khaki pants and blue blazers.
“See those uniforms?” he said as the children entered the building. “We bought those last year. We’re the only school in this area that has such beautiful uniforms.” And as I listened to him tell the story of the American church group that came and helped them build the school, and watched his face light up as he related the hard work and wonderful community suppers that had brought in the money for uniforms over a period of a year, I realized that there’s nothing in the city where I live that is as magnificent as their little school. They have such great pride in what has become the center of their community.
We have no edifices as grand as a little gray school building built with pride.
And not the kind that “goeth before a fall.” No, this is the kind that says even in the midst of poverty there is great treasure.

In my office there is a poster (America’s Team…Just the Beginning) signed by the artist: Apollo Astronaut Alan Bean. He
is one of only 12 people to ever walk on the moon. The caption says, “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

It reminds me that anything is possible.

So much so, that you can even go back in time.

I know, because I’ve done it. When I was a reporter for the Aiken Standard, I was a witness to an amazing event. I drove out to a little Anglican church outside the city limits, got out of the truck, and prayed that the church door was unlocked because it was cold outside.  Fortunately it was, and we went inside. The church was warm, but the only light came from candles in the windows. The photographer was trying to find enough ambient light to take a picture. As I watched him, a figure emerged from the darkness, planted his staff on the floor, and said, “I am Nicholas. Bishop of Myra. What you call modern day Turkey.”

For the next hour we were in the presence of Saint Nicholas. The predecessor of Santa Claus. And as he told us about his life and his subsequent desire to help others, the event was so powerful and so real that the photographer took only one picture, and all I could say at the end of the hour was, “Thank you.”

We returned to the newsroom in silence, and I still get goose bumps when I think about it.

I’ve watched people die, watched them being born, I’ve seen them at their best, and at their worst. I have sailed the Caribbean and walked country roads. Had my heart broken and broken the hearts of others. I remember seeing my new bride for the first time a half hour before the service when someone brought her into the room where I was waiting. She was stunning (still is) and I was so happy that we had decided to see each other before the service and not during. That moment was just for us and not meant to be shared.

As I look back over my life, I see that I have been blessed. Fortunate. And my guess is, if you take an honest look at your life, you have been too. Your life has been different, certainly. But it has also been one experience after another. Some memorable, some not so much.

So what is the great writing lesson buried in all this foolishness?

Some of you have already figured it out.  Some of you have always known it.

The best lesson guaranteed to make your writing sing is living. Draw on the deep well of your experience. Mine the feelings. Relish the giggles and the tears. Then bring them to the page.

Because the color in every good story is the color of life.


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