Conference and Conversation with Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Two of the intangibles I’ve gained since becoming a college student in my thirties are confidence and perspective; I’m not sure that would’ve happened had I continued with my original plan–get my degree in Health Information Technology and be done with it.

The semester I took a Creative Writing elective, I began to seek out more opportunities to enrich my college experience, which included participating in poetry readings, writing for the student newspaper, and work-studying in the English Department.  Attending events, such as plays, art shows, and Book Talks, broadened my experience even more.

The best Book Talk I’ve attended thus far was given by columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson (http://www.timesdaily.com/life/columnists/rheta_grimsley_johnson/rheta-grimsley-johnson-make-much-of-something-small/article_ab2398fa-af14-56c5-b20c-22eeeb51902b.html).

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

PENSACOLA, FL.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a lady one might mistake for a schoolteacher, with her pearl necklace and long dress, and pleasant voice with a Southern lilt. “You can make a living as a writer,” she told an audience at Pensacola State College.

As many lovers of words are wont to do, she quoted Robert Frost, who said that writers “write about the common things in an uncommon way.”

The column that propelled her career as a newspaper columnist was about her dad losing his job. This resonated because corporate America no longer valued loyalty, but was all about hiring younger and cheaper. “My dad was a company man,” she said, and it was like being “bitten by his own dog…this one piece took on a life of its own.” Her editor loved all the letters that came in, in response to the column.

Years ago, she was told by one of her editors not to write about children or dogs. “Don’t write like a girl….don’t write about emotional stuff,” Johnson said. “There was always a dog right there next to me, no matter what was going on in my life.”

Johnson lived in Pensacola as a young child. “I knew even at seven we were trading down,” she says, of when her family relocated from Pensacola to Montgomery, Alabama. She can still remember the first time she heard wind chimes—it was a “magical time”.

In 1989, Johnson wrote a biography of Charles Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. When Schulz complained about the popularity of “Doonesbury,” Johnson asked why he didn’t write a political cartoon. “I want to stick with the verities.” Like Johnson, Schulz sticks with “the human condition” which transcends time.

Being a seasoned writer, Johnson doled out some sage advice: She doesn’t like v-words, like “virtual” and “vis-à-vis”—“fancy pants little words you don’t really need.” “Very” is a common repeat offender and needs to be locked away, brevity is key.

According to Johnson, people have a nine-second attention span (while goldfish have 13), she works hard on her lead.

Like the old-school notion of the three R’s being reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, Johnson says good writing has three R’s:

The first one is rhythm. Reading it aloud is the “best way to self-edit…Good writing has rhythm, just like a song.”

“If you know how to write a short, declarative sentence, you will be sought out… Good nonfiction should read like fiction…good fiction should be as well researched as nonfiction.”

Keeping a journal to jot down things as they come to her is like “having money in the bank.” Having written four columns a week, she says, “Writers block is a luxury.”

The second R was restraint. “Just say what happened.”

The third R is routine. “Try to write in the same place…same time of day.”

Because newspaper circulation is on the decline, she said, “I’m going to completely outlive newspapers…I needed to reinvent myself a little bit.” Johnson has authored “Hank Hung the Moon:…and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts” and “The Dogs Buried over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years.”

“He sang me through a lot,” she says of Hank Williams, and dogs “teach us more than we teach them,” such as taking naps and hiding the best treats.

Johnson’s writing career hasn’t been one of a “front-porch thumb sucker,” but one of getting outside her head and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, 550 words at a time. “You meet the most interesting people at laundromats and bus stations.” Stories are everywhere. A good writer knows it when he or she hears (or sees) it.

Poem-a-Day 2017 Writer’s Digest Challenge #25. Theme: Love/Anti-Love

Because people are often contradictory.

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Love/Hate #7

She loved her faithful husband,
but hated the Christianity that had raised him to be.

She loved being pregnant,
but hated giving birth.

She loved environmentalism,
but hated the capitalism that helped her spread “the green word.”

She loved Mexican food,
but hated Mexicans.

She loved cheering for the football players,
but wouldn’t let them in her house.

She loved tolerance for all groups,
but hated it when someone thought she was a member of one.

She loved living in the Deep South,
but hated their genteel culture.

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2017-april-pad-challenge-day-25

Poem-a-Day 2017 Writer’s Digest Challenge #14. Theme: Pick a Popular Saying (and make that the title of your poem)

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That Was Just the Way Her Cookie Crumbled

When Blondie Brown—
a not-so smart cookie—
made her chocolatey chipper cookies,
they wouldn’t make it home
before dust, but
when she went down South,
through word of mouth,
she discovered butter
(and kicked margarine to the curves).

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2017-april-pad-challenge-day-14

Poem-a-Day 2017 Writer’s Digest Challenge #10. Theme: Travel

Considering I just returned from a journalism field trip yesterday (explaining my delay), “travel” was a timely theme.

Sunday and Monday, our Corsair group (The Corsair is the Pensacola State College newspaper: http://ecorsair.com/movie-review-like-water-for-chocolate/) went to Tallahassee to attend the “Word of South” festival and tour the old and new capital buildings. We also got to talk to a lobbyist about guns on campus and educational funding, and visit the Tallahassee Democrat, the last of which was the best part of the trip, as we got to talk to student reporters of the FSView (the Florida State University student paper) and the editor of the Democrat. We also got to see how newspapers were made, and though I love the look and feel of a print paper, I don’t believe print (books, perhaps, but not periodicals) will be around in 100 years.

I learned that degrees matter, but majors don’t have to lock you into a field. Just because I’m majoring in health information technology doesn’t mean I must work in the healthcare field. I would still love to work at Sacred Heart Hospital (I’ve always said I’d rather work in a cold hospital rather than a hot kitchen), but if I could work for a newspaper, writing about the healthcare field (perhaps with a human-interest slant/angle) I would like that even more. People who write don’t just write—they are doctors, lawyers, politicians, pilots, business people, etc. I’m a writer who happens to be majoring in something that is more medical coding than creative writing.

A question I asked on the trip was if this editor only hired journalism majors. He basically said he would hire any person with expertise, provided they could write well about it. (One of the ladies who worked there was a theatre major.) Everyone I know believes I am an English major, and I guess you could say I had gone after what I was supposed to want, not what I really wanted, because I was afraid what I really wanted wouldn’t pay the bills, but this was something I had to find out for myself. I live my life without regrets—pursuing this medical degree has brought me to where I am now, and I love where I am now.

I had this life plan all mapped out, and even though the map is constantly being redrawn, it isn’t frustrating—it’s liberating. Life is a process, always.

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Tallahassee, 10 Apr 2017

She thought she had come too far to change her mind,
but the choice she had made for the good of her family,
would not limit the choices she could make;
for majors did not determine the only thing she could do—
it simply paved the way to greater things.

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2017-april-pad-challenge-day-10

 

Summer in Spring: Love in the Afternoon

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Though I love the holiday season with all its glitz and glam, it is the warm season I long for, with its relaxing vibes.  I like to say eighty-two degrees with a breeze is my ideal.  I spend at least three hours a day outside during the summer.  If I could, I would live in a bikini, cover-up, and flip-flops year round, with my hair thrown up into a messy bun (the other kind makes me look bald).  I like not having to warm up the car, or bundle up before going outside, or having to worry about blow-drying my hair after a shower.  Summer is low-maintenance.

I guess you could say I have spring break fever.  I spent the late afternoon sunbathing on a sand-colored fleece blanket on our weedy grass, my neighbor playing “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack on the radio.  The late afternoon sun waned as I waxed philosophical, thinking about life’s unanswered questions (like “What exactly is a peanut-butter haircut?” and “If the whole world was naked, would we be skinnier?”), while my  three-year-old daughter fed sticks and leaves to the A/C fan unit.  It was the ultimate relaxation, saturated with sunshine that turned my creamy skin into brown butter.

So often, I’m doing, and I forget to just be.  I didn’t even bring a book to the blanket.  I don’t need constant stimulation.  I was letting myself have some quiet time and my daughter, some unstructured play.  I delight in the way she loves the outdoors, though she still turns into a glassy-eyed zombie with a hearing problem when she plays with our old cell phones.

I suppose that’s why I love the warm so much, because when it’s cold, I don’t spend any more time outside than I have to.  Even bundled up, it’s not comfortable to be wearing so many layers, and fun in the water is out of the question.  I love the season of chocolate bars melting before you get to the car, of ceiling fans cutting through our thick, humid air, and stroller walks at twilight, the smell of meat grilling on the back porch.  As I walk through our neighborhood and pass each house with a lighted window, I think of them as their own separate universes–our neighborhood a solar system.  It’s like walking in space.

While I walk (today, it was while I sprawled), I thought about a butterscotch milkshake I had once.  It was at Spencer’s Drive-In in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, but the place is just a memory now.

 

When my daughter and I went back inside, I take a cooler shower than usual.  When I dry off, the smell of bleach from my white towel makes my nostrils smart.  (Bleaching whites are part of my spring cleaning routine.) My face feels deliciously tight, and I am ready to make my kitchen cabinet casserole (what I call spring cleaning the fridge) while my daughter, freshly-bathed and smelling of lavender and innocence, jumps on my grandmother’s love seat with the cushions out.

All is calm, all is right, until she sneezes, and I am running from the next room, scrambling around to find a wipe while begging her not to touch “it.”

 

#Micropoetry Monday: Our Beautiful South

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Over sweet tea on the verandah,
two Southern belles
& two Southern gents,
decided to be Yankees for a day,
& butter was no longer a staple.

Growing up working class,
with collars as blue as the Bonnie Blue flag
& politics scarlet-red,
with a bloodline as white as Irish potatoes
that ran through their veins,
the O’Mara family was becoming gone with the wind,
their Confederate grey ashes blowing in the breeze.

Wilting on the front porch in blue rocking chairs
with sweet tea in Mason jars,
Miss Iris & Miss Lily spoke of the war no one felt anymore.

Ida Claire, a Southern belle
who identified as a Yankee—
suddenly found that her time was
cut by half & unable to roll her r’s,
for they had disappeared.

They ate grits sweet & savory,
in the sweet & low country,
elevating them with the spice of life,
& the herb that grew in Bubba’s hanging garden–
a potted plant or a planted pot–
they never knew what.

#Fiction Friday: #Micropoetry from the Book

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Their culture was foreign to me—
with their big families, their big love,
their absolutes over theories.
They were so damn sure of themselves.

I’d never know just when it was
Elder Roberts fell in love with me,
but I’d know the exact second,
like a knot on a chain,
when it was he fell out.

I saw in Elder Roberts a longing
that mirrored my own.
However, the love I had for David,
would lose me the love I had sown.

Over gumbo & greens,
we broke cornbread with the elders.
They were our friends—
one would become family,
the other, an enemy.

A Catholic nun was seen as the highest thing
a woman could achieve,
in Mormonism, a stay-at-home mom.
Both required submission under a man.