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.

From Literature to Journalism: Writing for Two

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Last week, I got to read my poem, “When the World Went Deaf” (https://sarahleastories.com/2019/12/08/when-the-world-went-deaf/), to a group of student artists and faculty at the unveiling of The Kilgore Review, Pensacola State College’s annual student journal. Ironically, I was asked to read the piece that didn’t win last year’s collegiate writing contest and not the piece that won, which was a short story I had originally written for myslexia magazine (a UK publication).

Figuring it was a quintessential American story, I submitted it to the writing contest, because what college student wouldn’t want to read about what happens when a girl sneaks in pot brownies and spikes the punch at a Mormon potluck?

It was a humor story, of course, which has become my favorite to write (as well as read). I’ve found that during my time in college, I am not only evolving as a person but also as a writer and speaker/storyteller.

Creative writing will always be my first love, because I don’t have to depend upon anyone else to give me the story; if I do need to conduct research, I can find it with a few clicks or hang out in the archives at the local university.

I will always be a writer first and a reporter second, but more on that later.

Last time I read my poetry, I opened with a joke. This time, I ended the reading with an explanation of what inspired the poem, which adds context and a more personal touch.

I have unilateral hearing loss, and I know I’ve missed out on things (which is why I am a shameless eavesdropper). I probably look quite apt when someone is speaking, because I have to make a conscious effort to listen. That’s why I don’t notice people snoring behind me—I am too focused on what’s in front of me.

On “When the World Went Deaf,” I wondered what life would be like, how humans would adapt, if everyone was like me, more than I was like me (i.e. completely deaf). The film Perfect Sense, which epitomizes the cliché, “poetry in motion,” also inspired me.
I made sure to plug my story; when you use the words Mormons and pot (and mention that it was a first-place winner), you just might get people to read it.

I invited my mom because there was free food, and it was nice to have someone there who loved me. When my husband tells me he’s proud of me, it means a lot, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as when my parents say it; it’s not because I love them more, it’s just that way (I think) because we all have an inner child that never grows up.
We grow up, innately wanting to please our parents.

~

The next day was our journalism workshop.

So this Michael Koretzky (http://www.koretzky.com/) was the VIP, wearing a Che Guevera shirt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Che_Guevara) with a monocle hanging from his neck. As soon as I saw him, I thought, this guy looks a bit intimidating (I usually only see other women as intimidating).

Within the first ten minutes, I could tell he was the type of person to psychoanalyze you, and that puts me on my guard. He didn’t care about our names—he just wanted to know what we did for the paper (some people didn’t know!), where we saw ourselves in 5-10 years (some were still figuring that out), and our favorite genetic/communicable disease (I chose Huntington’s chorea, because I’ve written two poems on it). https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/02/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-2-theme-secret/.

Some he referred to by our “favorite” diseases (glad I chose one most non-medical students have never heard of), but never by our name. I’m the type of person who feels humanized when people use my name, so I wasn’t crazy about this tactic, but it was creative. It did spark some interesting conversation, so perhaps that was the intent.

He said the people who had quick answers are those who are always reassessing what others think about them. I’m not sure that’s true, but I will say I don’t always ask certain questions because of the Mark Twain quote about opening your mouth and looking like a fool, so maybe there was a little bit of truth to that. I don’t even like it when my husband reads me, but that’s the poker player in him. I don’t like to be studied (just admired).

Ten years ago, I would’ve burst into tears when he pulled up my story on green living and said it was good writing, but shitty reporting (which I still don’t understand, as I had three good student quotes on things they did to be more environmentally-conscious). However, I didn’t have any pictures, and that is something I’ve learned—take your own or arrange for a photographer. Instead, a bunch of lame graphics/clipart were used, and I think that’s something we need to get away from.

But on the shitty reporting. I will be the first to admit, I am much more a writer than I am a reporter. I am still learning, but reporting includes stills and video now I still think the reporting was good, but what I gathered was that I was supposed to find someone on campus who did something outlandish to be green; I would then profile that one person, and I say, I much prefer to prearrange to interview one person than go out and get quotes from strangers. I like in-depth profiles, but where to find these people? My eyes and ears are wide open—maybe I should hang around the biology department. I don’t know. I think what I need to do is find the story, rather than write the story, and build the narrative around it.

Koretzky went into detail about all the different ways you could write for companies without being a journalism major. That would be something I would do freelance, but my primary career will be working in a hospital or clinic in an administrative capacity until my creative writing pays off (i.e. I become a best-selling novelist or win the lottery and buy a million copies of my book).

I like writing “the verities” that Pulitzer Prize-nominated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson who visited our Corsair class, talked about. I write the kind of writing that transcends time.

That said, I believe all kinds of writing are important, and so I want to become better. Reporting has helped me become more comfortable with others, and learn how to ask good questions. I’ve had experiences writing for the paper I would never have gotten just writing my own thing. I am not a news junkie, which I believe you must be if you want to be a journalist.

However, I wouldn’t mind writing for a newspaper as a correspondent on a freelance basis, or what I call citizen journalism.

I never have a problem with finding ideas for my writing, but for my reporting—that is a challenge.

So even though I don’t want to become a journalist, I want to become the best reporter I can become while doing it for the paper.

Koretzky helped us discover that our largest problem was communication. We don’t always make the meetings or collaborate; most of us work independently. I prefer to just write the story and let them do with it what they may. I don’t hang out in the Corsair office; I already work in an office all day during work-study. I prefer to work remotely, but I do show up for the meetings. However, I do need face-time once in awhile. The only thing that drives me crazy is when the meeting doesn’t start on time and its just dead time, wasted time.

The workshop was a good (if lengthy) experience; I learned a great deal and got more motivated. Did you know that group photos suck because they’re boring? Journalism doesn’t have to be fair. There was a great shot of a girl in the geology club climbing a rock, and it wasn’t used, but rather a posed group shot was. I am also a fan of including negative space in a photo and overlaying text in that space, because I do that with my poetry sometimes. (I call it “phoetry,” which is just a little too precious.)

One of his best lines was about talking about your own media—not someone else’s. We all discuss our favorite shows on Netflix, books we’re reading, etc. Let’s give that same attention to the content we create.