Tuesday, November 15, 2016

THE ACCIDENTAL COLUMNIST

guest post by Carey Denman

Today's post is a gift from a woman I met at the Storycatcher Writing Workshop last June. Just a few words I would use to describe Carey include... bright, enthusiastic, empathetic, spirited. I tapped her to write a post for our blog and I'm patting myself on the back today for that impulse.  Read on. 
-- Lynn


I am what you might call an “accidental columnist.” Ten years ago, I worked as a writer and editor for a small publishing company specializing in financial literacy education. As part of my work, I wrote a weekly “money tip” that gave readers technical information on everything from private mortgage insurance to buying appliances warranties.

Learning of my weekly money tip, my local newspaper asked me if I would consider expanding them into a full-blown article for publication in their business section. As a thirty-something English major, I hardly qualified as a financial expert, but my company wanted the free press, so I got the job. A few months in, however, the writing felt like a slog. I was quickly running out ideas, and I was running even shorter on enthusiasm.

So one week, I decided to shake things up and turn my usual informative essay into a personal narrative. Instead of extolling the virtues of budgets, I wrote about how I threw an affordable, yet memorable, party for my three kids who share a birthday month. And instead of writing about the dangers of over using credit, I shared how my family used our credit card rewards program to fund a family vacation.

The editorship at the newspaper didn’t seem to mind the change. And my readership grew—as did my once-flagging enthusiasm. I began to see how my weekly column helped me define what mattered most to me. And a deadline became a way of keeping my senses alive; if I had to come up with a new topic every week, then I would need to stay fully awake to my own life.

I wrote what would become “A Money-Smart Life” for several years, until the economic downturn forced company lay-offs at my publishing company. I’d assumed that this would be the end of my career as a columnist, but to my surprise, one of the paper’s editors asked me if I would be interested in writing a personal column in the Life and Style section. I said yes to the invitation and have been writing “Blissful Chaos,” a column celebrating the inherent beauty and mess in family life, ever since.

As a writer, it’s easy to question one’s own validity. We want to know that what we say matters to someone, somewhere. Schlepping through the work is sometimes lonely, too. But with hundreds of columns under my belt, I’ve found some pearls of wisdom about the writing life.

First, I believe that my writing both shapes and reflects my life. To write about interesting things, I must choose to live an interesting life. So I seek adventure and scrounge up wonder, which is good for both the soul and the writing mind.

Second, being a columnist has transformed me into a consummate amateur. The self-professed amateur in any field often gets a bad rap. In most circles, the word amateur connotes a light-hearted dabbler, the opposite of a professional. In truth, however, an amateur is much more than this.

The word amateur comes from Latin, amator, which means “for the love.” An as amateur writer, I get to do this work for the love of the craft, not because I depend on it for a paycheck. And as I practice my craft, I get to play with words, fiddling with cadence and rhythms and experimenting with lively syntax and diction. And I get to do all of this while creating a written record of my family’s history—the sparkling moments and the mundane ones, too.

A wordsmith by nature, I might otherwise be inclined to niggle and procrastinate with my writing, but a weekly deadline ensures I don’t hold onto my work too tightly. I get the writing done with us much grace and authenticity as I can muster each week, and then I let it go. I send it out into the world without worrying about unfavorable reviews. I consider my audience, yes, but I see writing each week as a gift I get to give myself.

Finally, my weekly column is my writing practice, a way to compost my experiences, and shake out the beautiful moments, like a gardener sifting through the soil. I do it because it makes my life better and because like Mary Flannery O’Connor, “I do not know what I think until I read what I say.”

So here’s to happy accidents that open writing doors and to embracing my work as an amateur. Here’s to tamping down perfectionism and putting my butt in the chair, to working hard, but refusing to let fear paralyze me.

Meet Carey...

A naturalist at heart, Carey Denman grew up in South Dakota’s Black Hills, where she learned to nock an arrow, hook a fish, and forage for wood sorrel. Living just miles from the secret and wild places of her childhood, she now shares her passion for the outdoors with her own children.


She’s been candidly writing about her parenting adventures since 2012 as a weekly columnist for the Rapid City Journal. When she isn’t celebrating—or lamenting—the rites of parenthood, she’s writing for the Herbal Academy, an online and in-person school for burgeoning herbalists.

Carey holds an M.A. in Rhetoric and has taught writing and literature courses at a number of universities. In her spare time, she leads wild crafting workshops and tends her sprawling garden. She and her husband live on a small acreage near Hill City, South Dakota with their four children.

7 comments:

  1. Lynn, I don't know how you and Susan do it, but Carey's column, as do so many you share, comes along just when I needed her experience to put mine in context. Just finished teaching an 8-week class in poetry and decided I'd do the writing homework assignments along with the students. That gave me a deadline each week and I did get fairly decent poems written each week. I'm thinking of blogging again, and that weekly deadline might be just what I need to keep the words flowing. Thanks to you, Lynn, and to Carey for this inspiration.

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    1. Art - I always thoroughly enjoyed your blog and learned a lot from it, so I would welcome your return to the blogosphere.

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  2. Wonderful post, Carey. I used to write a humor column, first for the newspaper I owned (Tongue River News) and then for The Sheridan Press when I gave up my own paper and went to work for them. Mine was accidental, too. It was late on a Wednesday night, going to press 1st thing Thursday a.m., and I had about 10 column inches to fill. At the end of my rope, I wrote about my cat, and it took off from there. Occasionally, we got the nastygram about my words being a waste of space, but I also had total strangers ask me how my cat was (my photo ran with it), and once, a woman called me up to tell me there was an easier way to put up my tomatoes. I knew my words reached some, and it was extremely gratifying. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  3. I loved Carey's post!
    Her definition of amateur brought to mind all the backyard naturalists who have contributed so much to our knowledge of birds and other wildlife over the past 200 or so years all over the world. And as an amateur photographer, I study the craft of photography to hone my skills and my eye so I can take more interesting pictures.
    I attended the same workshop with Lynn and Carey and thoroughly enjoyed Carey's presentation. Thanks, Lynn, for having her do a post for Writing Wyoming.
    By the way, the dates for the 2017 StoryCatcher Workshop have been posted; they are June 14 - 17, 2017. The workshop will once again be held at Fort Robinson State Park and the campus of Chadron State College. Info is available at https://outsideyourself.wordpress.com/

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    1. Thanks for the update on Storycatcher, Deborah! Yeah, I hit Carey up for a post--no way she was getting away from that :-)

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    2. Thanks for the update on Storycatcher, Deborah! Yeah, I hit Carey up for a post--no way she was getting away from that :-)

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  4. So good to connect here with new and old friends. Thanks all, for taking the time to write and share your kind words. I love how words weave us all together!

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