In interview after interview, I’ve been asked one variation or another on the question “When did you decide to become a writer?” The truth is, I don’t think I ever really decided to become a writer; I just remember writing one thing or another—poems, plays,
you-name-it—from the time I could spell C-A-T.
I’ll tell you one thing: I certainly never planned to write obituaries. And yet….
By my sophomore year of high school, I’d tried my hand at stories, articles, even two plays, and a prodigious
quantity of poems, all of which would now cause me to die of embarrassment should anyone unearth them at this late date. My grandmother, determined to see my writing flourish, almost forcibly escorted me into the office of one of the two weeklies that served our community. Nanny knew the editor of the Herald, and she made an appointment for us to go and sit down with her. I showed the editor my “portfolio,” such as it was. Mrs. Maher looked at my articles in the camp newspaper, the club
newspaper, and every other newspaper I had been able to get published in.
Next thing I knew, I was writing for the Herald. From typed reports of lodge meetings, submitted by officers of the club, and from press releases about forthcoming charity bazaars, I was supposed to fashion brief, tight, interesting articles. I also wrote up false-alarm calls to the volunteer fire department. (Interesting stories, such as actual fires, went to the seasoned writers.)
Mrs. Maher was pleased with my work and, at year’s end, offered me the teenage gossip column, replacing a writer who was going off to college. Not only wasn’t I interested in gossip, but not being on the grapevine, I knew I’d never even hear all the items I’d need for
the column. I went on reporting on the Bike Safety Program and the Memorial Day Parade.
Meanwhile, the rival weekly, the Record, had started a teenage column too. This one, however, dealt with good works by teens, charitable involvements and the like. No gossip. Feeling like a deserter and an ingrate, I took my Herald portfolio over to the Record and showed it to the editor there. I knew her teen columnist would be going away to college at the end of the summer.
I was conditionally promised the column. I’d have to start by writing the same old stories I was stuck with at the Herald, but if I lived up to the quality of the clippings I’d shown the editor, the teen column would be mine in the fall. So I jumped ship. My summer was full of Masons and Elks, meetings and raffles, and small fires that were put out by neighbors before the firemen had gotten there. (At least I had graduated from false alarms!)
Just as summer drew to a close, the editor fell down a flight of stairs and suffered a serious back injury. A new editor was brought in “temporarily.” I spoke to her about the column, but she wanted to see how I wrote, first. “I’ve been doing that all summer!” I
protested. “The editor promised me….”
“I am the editor for now,” she said.
I told her I wanted the column and didn’t want to just keep on writing about retiring librarians and brush fires. She assured me she didn’t intend to keep me confined to those. She was right; she didn’t.
And so, each week, it became my duty to sit down at a phone in the newspaper office and make five identical phone calls: “Hello, this is the Record calling. Can you tell me who died this week?” There were set questions to ask the five local funeral chapels about each of the deceased: Name, date at death, age of death, cause of death, next of kin, date and time of funeral, and who
officiated, and date and time and place of interment. Added to that when applicable were length of local residence, employment or business ownership, notable accomplishments, and family’s special requests (“In lieu of flowers…”).
Charting a week’s worth of death every seven days was doubly depressing: The topic itself wasn’t the cheeriest, and the opportunity for creativity was severely limited. There were only a few set leads permissible for an obituary: “John Doe, lifelong local resident, died this week at age 56….” “Fellow teachers mourned the loss this week of….” “Funeral services were held on November 29th for….”
There was no room to be clever or inventive: “Guess who died this week?” “How would you like to live to be 93? John Doe almost made it!” “The smartly-attired body in the golden oak casket last week at the Riverside Funeral Chapel belonged to….” “Who’s missing from our local banking scene? Yes, folks, John Doe, beloved bank teller, has gone on to that great cage in the sky….” Now, that might have been more creatively satisfying. It might have livened up (pardon the pun) the obit pages, too.
I didn’t mind working unpaid if the experience was worth it. Almost all I was getting to do now, though, was the obits, and I thought I had learned all there was to know about them and certainly more than I cared to. It had become obvious the injured editor wasn’t
coming back and the teen column wasn’t going to be revived that year. I had too much pride to go back to the Herald, as my grandmother kept pushing me to do, but I quit the Record. The last I heard, some twenty years later, the same “temporary” editor was still running the show.
I have, however, gone on to bigger and better things. My writing these days ranges from books to advertisements to books to press releases to books to catalog copy to books. I’ve written everything from a book for kids on how to pray to…well…descriptions of dildoes. The catalog copy I mentioned a moment ago happened to be for a sex toy company.
I’ve also ghostwritten more than a few books (and commercial blogs) that have been published with someone else’s name following the word “by.” When people ask me if I don’t mind seeing my work with someone else’s name on the byline, I answer, “My name followed ‘Pay to the order of’.”
I love writing—even when, sometimes, someone else gets the credit. And I love helping other writers. I’ve even made a few good friends that way. Off the top of my head, I think of Tricia and Shirl, each of whom I met when they each contacted a local newspaper columnist for help with their writing, and he, knowing my propensity for helping fellow writers, gave them my phone number and strongly urged each of them to call.
Along the lines of helping fellow writers, I’ve also taught writing classes, on and off, for years. Of course I got paid for teaching the courses, but not all of the payoff was financial; I truly derive a great satisfaction from encouraging promising writers of all ages, all backgrounds, all writing interests (fiction, memoirs, exposés, kidlit, how-tos…). I no longer have the time to read anyone’s whole book for free, but I still try to be as helpful as possible.
About a year and a half ago, I put one foot in the waters of e-publishing. While continuing to submit my work to conventional publishers, I also sent a good-sized quantity of unsold book manuscripts to an e-publisher. They accepted quite a few of them. They subsequently, alas, went out of business…without paying me any royalties. But I had gotten my feet wet. I was persuaded that
e-books were the future, and I began submitting my work to other e-publishers. At last count, some five e-publishers have my work available for sale.
I love writing. I’ll never stop. When I drop dead—and I hope that’s not for a long, long time yet—I plan to die at my keyboard. They’ll have to pry my cold, gnarled fingers from the keys when they take me away to the crematorium.
In the meanwhile, I’ll keep on writing. Books, ads, press releases, even more descriptions for sex toys, should another catalog approach me.
But no more obituaries, please. That’s one facet of my career that is buried (pardon the unintetiontal pun) in my past and I hope stays there.
I prefer to concentrate on the living.
• • •
Cynthia MacGregor’s book-writing credits include 54 conventionally published (print) books and over 50 e-books, many of which are listed on her website, www.cynthiamacgregor.com.
Her books written specifically for writers include:
50 Things You Need to
Know About Writing Believable Fictional Characters
50 Things You Need to
Know Before You Write Your Book
50 Things You Need to
Know About Self-Editing
50 Things You Need to
Know About Writing Children’s Books
50 Things You Need to
Know to Become a Ghostwriter
all the above available from Secret Cravings Publishing’s
Living & Learning imprint at:
The Writer’s Guide to Paying e-Markets
available from XoXo Publishing at
You Can’t Learn to
Write Just by Readiing
The Writer’s Answer
also available from XoXo Publishing by the time you read
this, but not at the time it’s being written, so go to: