Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Deanna Marks 25th Annual Lakeland Fest
With Touching Salute to Her Writing Roots

For many years, my friend Deanna Adams has organized a twice-annual writers conference at Lakeland Community College, picking up the torch from its founder, and her mentor, the late Lea Leaver Oldham. At this year's 25th annual event, held last month, Deanna marked the occasion with a touching tribute to all the things that helped make her the writer she is today. We thought it was a particularly moving evocation of the many sources of support, inspiration and encouragement that go into the formation of a writer, and so we bring you her entire presentation. If you enjoy this half as much as we did, we hope you'll consider stopping by her site and sending her some love.

In September of 1983, I was a newly married 29-year-old (my own 25th anniversary had been two months ago), just beginning to realize my dreams of being a “real” writer. Ever since I was a kid, I had visions of sitting at the typewriter cranking out fascinating prose, writing dramatic stories, and imparting wonderful bits of wisdom. I wrote little plays and children’s books in elementary school. And dreadful poetry in my teenage angst years. And then, in my early 20s, decided I need some real guidance. So I enrolled here at Lakeland and signed up for a Creative Writing class and met my first mentor, Mr. Gene Dent. He taught in an interesting manner, and boy, he knew his stuff. He then encouraged me to take the journalism classes he was also teaching. So I did.

Now, to back up a bit, I must confess - I was not a good student in high school. As a matter of fact, my mother often said I must really like my initials, DF, because she saw them so often on my report cards. That of course was partly due to my “rebel stage” but it was also because I never had a teacher who really encouraged me to do better. Most wrote me off as someone just getting by. Probably won’t amount to much. And I began to believe that.

But then I took Journalism 101 with Mr. Dent. And that’s when my writing life changed. When he handed back that first assignment, I was thrilled to see I got a B- on it! But then there was a note at the bottom where he wrote “See me after class.” Oh-oh. (I wasn’t unfamiliar with that phrase). And this is what he told me. “You really have a way with words,” he said. “And I know you can do better than this. So I want you to do it over. I want you to polish up the lead. Give me a little more detail about the subject. And watch your run-on sentences (which, incidentally, I am still known for – and interestingly, many of the great contemporary writers do it all the time now, so it appears I was simply ahead of my time). Mr. Dent then told me he’d re-grade it.

Wow. Here, I was really happy with the B-. But he thought I could do even better! And because of his faith and confidence in me, I wanted to prove him right. I did it over, paying attention to everything he’d told me. When he handed it back to me the second time, I saw a big red A. And in his class, and under his direction, I saw many A's after that. And while taking all the required courses for my Associates in Arts degree, I continued taking creative writing courses each and every semester. And of course, joined the staff on the Lakelander, the college newspaper. Soon Mr. Dent suggested I apply for an internship at the News-Herald. And that’s when I met my second mentor. Janet Podolak, who was then, and still is now, the best writer that paper has ever had. And I don’t care if someone tells that to Jim Collins . . . It’s true.

As my editor, she took me under her wing, and while I first had to write up a lot of dry pieces like “Tip of the Hat,” the events calendar, and I think an obit or two, Janet began assigning me real features. And just about a month later—after telling her I was going on vacation—she told me to take notes, and photos, and I could write about my experience in a feature for the Sunday edition. Are you kidding me? I’d never written a travel piece, and with all those details and description you need . . . I didn’t think I could pull it off. But again, she thought I could. Soon as I got back, she and I worked on the piece together. I learned so much. And I tell you, seeing your words in a big Sunday feature on the front page of the travel section - or any section - is absolutely thrilling - and addicting. It had been a lot of work. But I couldn’t wait to do it again. And again. I stayed at the News-Herald writing pieces for free, long after the other interns had left.

My first piece of advice to those of you just starting out: If someone gives you an opportunity to write for publication, even if it’s a church bulletin, do it! Don’t ask how much they’ll pay you. You’re getting paid in experience. And the more you do it, the more confident you’ll become, and the better writer you’ll be. And you’ll also, then, have writing clips to show future editors who will pay for your work. That internship was in 1981. In the winter of ’82, I met my third mentor, Lea Leever Oldham, the founder of this conference. Now she was a real pistol. I’d never met anyone like her before or since. She had the confidence, the wisdom, and the gumption (and dramatic flair) I could only dream of having. I took a couple of her classes, and one day, she came up to me at the end of one and said, “You’re coming to the writer’s conference I’m having, aren’t you?” Now anyone who knew Lea, knows that tone of voice she often used. It was not a question.
I was going to the conference.

I’m often told by aspiring writers how lucky I am to have had not one, but three mentors in my career. But this was no lucky accident of fate. I made myself be at the right place, at the right time, with the right people. You can’t meet mentors in any business without being where those mentors - those teachers – are. So go to where writers hang out. Be it in a classroom, an author reading, or coffee shop. I’ve also had aspiring writers say, “Well I love to write, but right now, I just can’t afford to take any writing courses, or go to a conference or workshop.” Believe me, I know where they’re coming from. As a young divorcee in my late 20s, I was working two jobs and still struggled to pay the rent, and all else that goes with making a living. But there are ways to get to where you want to be if you want it badly enough, you don’t have to have a lot of money to do it.

But you do have to have determination, and you must be willing to sacrifice for it. I wanted to be a writer badly enough.

So I decided I didn’t need a new blouse or earrings, and I could make do with those old shoes (just shine ’em up a bit), and bought a lot of generic products. And I saved up a couple dollars each week for the next class I wanted to take. And I practically lived at the library – after all, it’s FREE. I read all the kind of books that I wanted to write. And I studied them – paying attention to how they began, how the stories – Fiction or Nonfiction - connected, how they were organized chapter by chapter. And I read - and studied - tons of books on writing. I took out all the writing magazines available – like those out there on the conference table. (Which, today, is also Free). And I went to that conference – Lea Oldham’s First Western Reserve Writers Conference, 1983. And I went to nearly every one after that. Including the Spring ones, which she began later.

This leads to my second piece of advice. Invest in yourself. No one cares more about your future than you do. No one cares more about you becoming a writer than you do. No one will help you become a good writer more than those who have been there, right where you sit today. But you have to be Determined. You have to Sacrifice. And You have to Get A Little Help From Your Writer Friends . . . If you don’t have any writer friends, it’s because you haven’t yet been to a writing class, a writers’ conference, or a local book signing. You haven’t been to where writers - and their mentors - hang out.

But you are today. So I know every one of you has that determination. And probably more than a few of you had to sacrifice a bit to be here today. Be it by saving up a little money, or getting your husband, mother, sister or brother to watch your kids. (Been There!) But trust me on this: By the end of today - The First Day of the Rest of Your Writing Life as you rejoin me in this room for refreshments and the Q and A Panel, you will agree with me that it has been worth every penny, and a few sacrifices. And that this is still the best deal for writers in town – or probably anywhere. Because thanks to the founder of this conference, who knew what it’s really like to be a writer, you will gain concrete and useful information, insight, inspiration, and yes, a new writer friend or two.

Along the way to my writing life, I worked hard at developing my skills, and soaking up as much information as possible, so I could be a GOOD Writer (as opposed to Being a BAD writer, and believe me, just because you are published, doesn’t always mean you’re good), and so I made sure I learned from the best. I accumulated Literary Heroes. Great writers who, by merely reading their work, I learned so much from. Like William Zinseer. And Mary Karr. And David Sedaris. Frank McCourt. Anne Lamott. Susan Issaacs. And Elizabeth Berg. Even old guys like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. B. White, and Sherwood Anderson. And of course literary women of long ago: Willa Cather, and Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Mansfield. I know a few on that list, some of you may never have heard of. You see, not all the well known “great” writers have done it for me. Their work didn’t touch my soul, for whatever reason. You have to read a lot to acquire your own personal literary heroes, and they don’t have to always be the best sellers.

This is just MY list – You go get your own.

And there is also My Local Literary Heroes List - and that keeps getting longer and longer - which gives you an idea how lucky we are to be living in the Greater Cleveland area, where I swear there must be something in the water when it comes to the Arts – any of the Arts. To add to my Literary Heroes, I don’t have to go any further than my own hometown. There is Connie Schultz and Regina Brett, and Joanna Connors – all in one newspaper! There is Michael Ruhlman, and Sarah Willis, and Les Roberts. There is Michael Salinger, and Erin O’Brien, and Michael Heaton and Scott Lax. There is John Ettorre and Ray McNiece, and of course my old mentor, Janet Podolak.

I am so proud to call each and every one of these talented writers who produce such great work in Northeast Ohio, my friend. And whenever I happened to be mentioned in the same breath as them (ok, not all that often, but it has happened!) I feel so honored, and so humbled. And it makes me want to work hard enough to have actually earned that mention.

And that’s why we need a Little Help from Our Writer Friends. They help us aspire to be like them. To strive to write even better than them. So there’s a chance that someday, we can be mentioned in the same breath as them. And be as supportive of them as they are to us. Because they are actually willing to help us by teaching us. Or merely by taking the time to talk to us at their book signings, about how they do it. We need these writer friends. We need them when we, finally, get our work published. We need them when we receive that 100th rejection letter. We need them in the beginning of our career. And in the middle of our writing trenches. And certainly at the end, when we’ve completed that long project of writing a book and are, finally, the ones sitting at that book signing – praying someone will buy our book, or at least not ask us where the latest Stephen King novel is – Because they think we work there (oh, yeah, ask any author, it happens!).

I have indeed learned from the best. My writing mentors. My writing colleagues. My writing friends. This is what I’ve learned from them:
1) Don’t FIND time to write – because you never will. You have to MAKE the time to write.
2) Learn the art of writing by:
A) Taking Classes, workshops, and conferences such as these.
B) Learn by doing. Sit in that chair and write as if your life depends on it. You’ll be amazed what comes through if you just sit and write and write, and keep at it.
C) READ. READ. READ. Not just for pleasure, but to see how it’s done!
Stephen King said it best: If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Those are key words – TIME. TOOLS. The Tools are seeing how the writer makes sense of it all. How the prose comes together. How it all WORKS.
3) Support other writers – After all we’re in this together. Go to their book signings, attend their workshops. Go see them when they give a Presentation. Ask them questions. Tell others about them and their work. Read a Good Local Book Lately? – SPREAD THE WORD!
4) And finally, make writer friends. This is why, as of today, I’m reintroducing something that my mentor, Lea, always did at her conferences. These little stickers to put on your name tags – Yellow for Fiction, Pink for Nonfiction, Green for Poetry and Children’s Writing? This way you can see immediately what those next to you are writing. Seek out those whose writing interests are similar to yours. Talk to them, discuss your craft, commiserate over your rejection letters (and I believe you’re not a real writer until you’ve received your share of them b/c that means you’re at least sending your stuff out). Exchange emails with them, meet them at coffee houses. Form your own writers group.

Because we need each other. We are each other’s mentors, co-conspirators, and yes, friends. Because those other people out there? The NON-writers? They don’t have a clue what we writers have to endure. The Blood, Sweat, and Tears. And Fears – oh, most certainly that!

Those ones, the ones who aren’t writers? They think we do it because “We like to write” and “It’s such a nice “Hobby” and “You’re so lucky to be able to just sit at home and write in your pajamas . . .” They just don’t get it. We don’t do it because we like it or merely because we want to – though there is that. We real writers do it because we have to. We really have no choice. And only you, the real writers here, know just what I’m talking about.

So Folks, Here’s to another 25 years of Learning How to Do It.


At 6:02 PM, Blogger Erin O'Brien said...

That was a wonderful tribute. I love Deanna, she does so much for writing and writers in this town.

Thanks, John.

At 7:30 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You said it, Erin.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Diane Vogel Ferri said...

Thanks for sharing this, John. I've been to a few of Deanna's events and she is kind and generous as so many Cleveland writers are.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Diane, I'm SO glad that you know Deanna and her work. You two belong together. One of the best things that happens in this venue is helping stitch the NEOhio writing community together. But I'm always reminded, as you've done here, how well connected it already is. As always, thanks for reading, and double thanks for joining the conversation.


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