The Encourager

I have an unpaid debt.  It is long overdue, and I am going to try and pay it now.

I started writing when I was a child.  Mostly scraps of poetry.  Truthfully, I was a little embarrassed by it.  I spent most of my youth trying to prove I was a “tough guy.”  Just hit home runs, strike batters out, and bust somebody’s head every now and then for good measure.  Writing didn’t fit the persona I was trying so hard to create, so I kept it to myself.  To paraphrase the late William Gay, “you don’t spend two hours at football practice trying to crack open someone’s skull, then come back into the locker room and say ‘Any of you guys want to hear the sonnet I wrote this weekend?’”

Being a writer wouldn’t put the fear in the boys and more importantly, it wouldn’t impress the girls.

Then one day I was exposed.

I was in a ninth grade English class when I first met a “real” writer.  He was our “Poet in Residence” for a few months.  I still don’t know how he got a gig like that.  Probably some sort of Federal Endowment to Enlighten the poor art-deprived kids in a little central Alabama town.

Now he was the image I had of a writer.  A kind of funny-looking little man dressed in jeans, flannel shirt, and one of those coats with the elbow patches.  He didn’t look like he’d ever been in a fight, unless of course someone had beaten him up.

He talked to our class about poetry, then asked us to write one.  In the next few minutes, I scratched one off.  I looked around.  Almost everyone else just sat staring at their blank piece of paper.

“Now who’s got something for me to read?”

One thing for certain, it wasn’t me.  Not only due to my secret, but also because my first line was “A short, funny-looking man in a flannel shirt asked me to write a poem about writing a poem.”

What I didn’t know was that the girl sitting behind me had been peeking over my shoulder.  She reached around me, snatched the paper off my desk and said ‘’Here’s one!”

I was mortified, but it was too late to stop it.

The poet came over.  He took it from her, read it to himself, and smiled.

“Listen.  This is just what I’ve been talking about.”

He read it.  I looked around.  The teacher was smiling.  A few of my classmates were smiling.  I think I might have even heard a “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

Now everybody knew my secret.  I felt like a circus freak.

But the thing was, I kind of liked it.  I had written something that somebody thought was pretty good.  That made me feel good.

Now I won’t say that girl completely changed the entire course of my life.  I didn’t go on to become the next Great American Writer.  You won’t find me in the bookstore, unless I’m browsing.  I wrote off and on over the years, but I still kept most of it to myself.

Then about ten years ago, I started writing this little blog.  It isn’t easy, because I am my own harshest critic.  I spend hours at it, but I am never completely satisfied with the result.  It could always be better.  It should be better.  A word more here – a word less there.  Why am I doing this?

But now and then I get a little note from that girl who sat behind me all those years ago.  It’s always something like “Hey, that was good.  I really enjoyed it.  Keep it up.”  Then that feeling I had in the ninth grade returns, and I sit down and try to do it again.  To do it better this time.

I’ve never repaid that debt to her, but I am now.

Thank you, Leslie. You are the one who gave me the courage to be a writer.  If it wasn’t for you way back then, no one would be reading this now.

You didn’t know?  Well now you do, and so does everyone else.

22 thoughts on “The Encourager

  1. I loved this post. I’ve always been a frustrated poet and writer. My daddy was my inspiration. I laughed at what you wrote in class for the poem. One time in 6th grade I was supposed to find a poem about a tree. We had lots of books around and looked and looked to no avail. Then daddy helped me write a poem that began “I believe that I will never see a poem ABOUT a lovely tree…” I don’t remember the rest of it. And it didn’t count for credit.

    Writing is rewarding and I enjoy it. In the last month I have written four stories for my church which are biographies of couples who have been married 50 years. It’s interesting to take their info and weave it into an 800 word story. And your mother is a good writer too.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you Patty. Mom is a good writer, and she too gets a lot of encouragement from the readers of the Sylacauga News.

      I never knew you liked to write. That’s a good project you are working on. To paraphrase a lady in a Rick Bragg article “Nobody knows it if it ain’t written down.”

  2. Loved this, loved this , loved this!
    I hope Leslie sees this ‘revealment’ and shares her side of your story from that long ago day.

    I have a very favorite author who’s made the best seller list with darn near every book he’s written. And many probably have never heard of him. I look forward to every new book release which I wish was more than once a year. And like his books, I look forward to your blog releases as well. And wish they too were more frequent. Keep writing for us Ray.

    1. Thank you. She didn’t know or even remember. She married another of my high school friends, had a couple of great kids and became a nurse. She has her hands full at the moment, so I hope this brightened her day a little.

  3. Another treasure for the archives. Thinking about you and your mom, I wonder if the gift of being able to write is in a person’s DNA. And speaking about good writing, have you read ‘The Overstory?’ Did I already ask you that? If so, pretend you didn’t notice – I’m recommending it to all my book-loving friends and haven’t kept a list. (That’s why we elders are accused of repeating ourselves, right? It’s just that we have so much wisdom to impart to so many.)

    1. Thank you.

      I think there may be something in the DNA. My mom’s a great writer and newspaper columnist, and my eldest son is a poet and song-writer. Maybe we just inspire each other?

      I haven’t read “the Overstory.” I’ll put it in the queue.

  4. Ray, your writings are amazing! I never knew you as a child (I was busy raising my own family) nor did I realize how talented your mom is until I became a “Senior Citizen”
    When I went to work at Jackson Hospital my co -workers would tease me about having a story about everything! …My life was changing so fast and I knew my memory would someday fade so I started to write down the funny little things my kids did. I always dreamed of writing a children’s book. I even showed some of my efforts to my supervisor. He laughed, saying there was nothing to my stories. I was disappointed but kept writing….

    When I retired the first thing I did was make each grandchild a memory book filled with family names, pictures, stories …things I thought they should know. That Christmas, I handed them out, wishing each one a Merry Christmas; this is something you never knew you wanted!

    I am eighty years old and I still can’t spell and my high school English teachers would turn over in their grades to know I was still fracturing the English language!
    We are living through times that I NEVER imagined! …so of course, I am keeping a scrapbook of my thoughts, how this is affecting others… When their children ask about what was it like I’m the year 2020 I want them to know what not only I felt but what everyone else felt! ….not just the facts on Goggle!

    Gee! I only wanted you to know how important I think your WORDS NOT ON PAPER is!!
    I know your mama is proud!

  5. Thank you Ms. Martha, your comments are always so thoughtful.

    I love that you took the time to put together those memory books. They may not seem like much to your grandchildren now, but some day they’ll realize what a treasure you created. That’s just the sort of thing mom would do (and does).

    I also love the idea of writing about all the things that are happening now. A first-hand account will be priceless.

    You take care and stay safe.

  6. Loved this story about Leslie and have to ask if you wrote it before or after I happened to bring up that poet yesterday, the short funny looking one. You are a writer, and he knew it, too. I still have the framed certificate he gave you when his time at SHS was finished. You were a writer long before that; and since I am first and foremost a mom and then a teacher, I have to say you were always a reader. As a little boy who liked long narrative poems more than Mother Goose, I say again to anyone who is listening READ to your children, Read aloud to your little ones above their levels, and they will rise to your expectations. In addition, I remember your first song, “Poor Old Girl,” pronounced Pore Ol’ Girl. Another good one–keep ’em coming.

    1. No, I started this piece a long time ago and finally just decided to try and finish it Saturday morning. I thought you understood that when we talked yesterday. You mentioned finding the poem in your organizing, and I said “well that’s odd, I’m working on a story about that right now.”
      I’m glad you liked the story, and you are correct that your influence on reading is what lead to both my reading and writing.

  7. I want to say “thank you” to Leslie also, because I love to read your writings !!
    You may never be completely satisfied with your writings, but we are !!
    Another great one in the books.
    Keep them coming please.
    Lucky to be your Cuz, Cherri

  8. That sweet Leslie is so special to me….and she knows why. Glad she looked over your shoulder that day. And glad you do what you do!

  9. Thank you Ray for sharing this wonderful story, Leslie is a wonderful person, friend and fellow nurse. I have respected her since during those high school years.
    I wish we all had been closer and found out that we could have share a lot more together and there would be no telling what gifts we could have all shared with one another.
    Thank you for sharing this story and looking forward to reading many more!

    Michael Taylor

    1. Thank you Michael. She is and I’m glad you enjoyed the story.
      I don’t think we know much of anything in high school. Then some of us leave our little home towns and never see each other again. Years later we wish we could go back and try it again.
      Good to hear from you. Hopefully we’ll all be able to get together at our reunion soon and visit.

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