Monday, May 2, 2011

Beyond Writing Fiction

Last week's horror in the South really hits home and my heart goes out to the victims. I know personally that they have a lot of clean up and rebuilding work ahead of them. I can't even watch the news or YouTube videos about it because they bring back memories that make my stomach fall to my knees.

No, my home has never been destroyed by tornado, thank God Almighty, but it's come way too close for comfort. My husband's aunt's house of 50 years was taken by tornado in 2008. But it's come even closer than that. As in about 3/4 mile from our house, back in 2003.

I was editor at the community newspaper then. I remember a beautiful May morning with lots of sun and a few wispy clouds dotting the sky. You'd never believe the previous night had been filled with terrifying storms. I'd crammed my kids with lots of blankets and pillows under the pool table while my husband stood at the basement doors watching the sky. A twister picked up not too far from us, so we saw the swirling clouds but didn't get hit ourselves. The next morning, I stopped at the office just long enough to pick up a reporter and we were off to visit the sites of destruction.

The owners of the first house we stopped at were lucky. Their barn was blown away. Their tractor and other equipment that weighed tons were on the neighbors' fields a mile down the road. But their house was left with a broken window. The second place we stopped was an old cemetery where two-hundred-year-old oaks and headstones were dragged across the cemetery, leaving deep gashes bleeding brown dirt. Records for some of those stones were lost and I'm not sure now if anyone ever figured out exactly where they belonged.

The last stop nearly brought me to my knees, though. Two stone houses that stood side-by-side, built over 100 years before by the then-owners' grandfather were totally demolished. As in completely gone. Their belongings were scattered for miles. A horse had lain twitching in the ditch and a little girl was left crying when the sheriff had to shoot it. Cows were already dead farther down the road.

Amazingly, the people had survived. Out in the middle of nowhere, you don't hear the sirens in town. You don't always know you're right in the path. They didn't. One woman dropped to the floor between her couch and coffee table just in time to see the roof torn off. Her husband had been standing in the kitchen and ended up outside with a few scratches. They had survived.

We drove up and they and their family and friends were picking through what was left. Well, some were. Others were just staring at the wreckage, trying to make sense of it. Their faces were dazed and their shoulders slumped with a feeling of defeat. It wasn't my house. It wasn't my life that had been literally blown apart. But I felt their despair. Their loss. Their feeling of being completely overwhelmed and lost.

And it was my job to ask them... "How are you doing? How are you coping? Tell me what happened."

They're in the middle of just trying to make sense of the situation, salvage the little bit they can and figure out what to do with the rest and I have to go in there and ask a barrage of questions. Some people are good at this. I was not.

And this was why I didn't like journalism. I'd wanted to be a writer since I was 8 years old, but I knew from nearly as young that I didn't want to be a journalist. I just don't enjoy the part of having to break into people's personal lives and get nosy.

I did meet a lot of great people and covered some interesting and heart-warming stories. I also learned a ton about everything from writing thousands of words on deadline to page layout and graphic design. And I worked with some fabulous people.

But journalism itself made me be someone I was not. Luckily, I found the kind of writing I do enjoy most. There are many ways to use our writing skills and talents - journalism, copy-writing, ghost writing, speeches, non-fiction, fiction, etc. - and it's a good idea to test different waters until you find the one you're most comfortable in. It may surprise you...or, if you're like me, it may not.

What writing jobs have you ever done? Did you like it? Are there any you'd like to try?

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