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Learning To Write

Michael Hillman

When I was in fourth grade, one of the nuns who taught me told my mother that she had better spank me more if I was ever to be good in English. My Mom ignored the advice and by the time I was in 9th grade, I was told to concentrate on my math skills. By the time I was twenty-four I understood the theoretical mathematics behind nuclear power but was unable to communicate them in writing.

I've always wanted to write but found my lack of knowledge about basic grammar rules and inability to spell, daunting obstacles to overcome. Then I discovered text editors and spell checkers and worlds of opportunity opened up. At the expense of the Dispatch's reputation, over the past six months I've had a unique opportunity to play writer. For those who have read my articles, you've probably convinced yourself by now that anyone, including yourself, can come up with better articles then I can. And youíre probably right. If youíre thinking about try your hand at writing for the Dispatch, but youíre not quite sure how to go about it, the following list of recommendations should help you get going.

Recommendation #1: Don't procrastinate. When you get an idea for a story, get it down on paper right away. For example, the idea for this current article came to me one night while reading unedited versions of past articles. Unfortunately, due to space considerations, some of the better story lines, such as the description of Mark Zurgable playing the Air guitar to 'Stair Way to Heaven' when no one is in his hardware store, never made it to print. It occurred to me that if I was to write an article on how to write an article, then I could use these edited outtakes as examples and, with it, my more embellished pieces would finally see the light of day.

I started gathering the outtakes around eight at night. By eleven I had fairly well scoped out rough draft. It doesn't take long if you 'Just Do It!' If I had procrastinated and waited a day or two, the idea and the numerous subplots would have been lost forever, and no number of gin and tonics would have brought them back. When an idea comes, I usually grab a piece of paper and jot down some key points. This can be rather hazardous, especially when I'm driving on 270. Getting started is always the hardest part but once you get going itís all down hill.

Recommendation #2: Ignore all editor imposed deadlines. How long it takes to finish an article is up to you. That's half the fun of writing. No one can say youíre behind because only you know were the story will end. It's also a great way to get out of work around the farm. Whenever Audrey wants me to do something, I plead a pending deadline and I'm off the hook.

In general, all stories get better with age. After completing a good rough draft, I put it away for a week or two and then reread it. If what you've written is still funny or interesting, go with it. If not, change it and repeat. Once you have a draft you like, ask as many people as you can to review it. Never take comments personally. Take them as an opportunity to learn.

I always read my rough drafts to Audrey, if she groans and tells me not to quit my day job, I know I have a winner. I get worried however when she says she likes it. That usually means she is up to something, like wanting a day off from the barn chores. Paul at Zurgables is always my last reviewer. I use him to insure that I offend everyone equally.

The key to a good story is taking as long as you want to refine it. Wait till it's just right, in the meantime, just keep telling the editors it's on its way.

Recommendation #3: Don't worry about your English. That's what God created spell checkers and text editors for. I constantly have to struggle with my English. I couldn't tell the difference between a prepositional phrase and a subjunctive clause if my life depended on it. Fortunately there are a lot of people who paid attention in English class. Though today they are unable to make the correct change for a newspaper, theyíre nevertheless glad to correct your English.

The way I look at it, correcting English is easy; itís coming up with the story line that's hard. So when the person who is checking your English, gives you a snotty comment about your use of 'past perfect tenses, remember, itís your idea, and you'll be the one collecting future book and TV royalties, not them.

Recommendation #4: Find a good place to write, preferably away from spouses. Writing comes most easily when you have the proper atmosphere to work in. For me, in the summer I do my best writing sitting out under a tree with a double gin and tonic in hand, PJ my trusty Jack Russell asleep at my side and Audrey sweating as she pushes the lawn mower around the yard. In the winter, I prefer to write in front of a roaring fire place with a double gin and tonic in hand, PJ asleep beside me and Audrey freezing out in the barn cleaning stalls.

Recommendation #5: Write about subjects you know. Everyone has a story to tell, but most figure their stories fall into two categories, stupid - e.g., no one will find it interesting - or personal - e.g.., your spouse will kill you if you tell anyone. As to the first, whoever figured that a story about a white board fence would be interesting? (Actually, come to think of it, no one really has said it was interesting.) That just goes to show that any topic, no matter how stupid, is fair game to write about. Think about it. I've written about painting a fence, learning how to hammer nails and coping with a satanically possessed tractor. Surely someone can come up with something better. There are a lot of good stories waiting to be written.

As to the stories that you consider too personal, start cranking them out. The more personal the better. Its a little know fact that the Dispatch recently signed a fairly lucrative contract with the Fox TV network, to develop story lines for a show to replace Melrose Place. Currently titled 'Emmitsburg 1965', the show focuses on the antics of Emmitsburg hippies and the fifteen or so beer establishments that Emmitsburg once sported. The Dispatch has lined up several residents who have volunteered to flashback for it.

Recommendation #6 : If you can't remember the facts, make them up!. Now while I know that sounds terrible, a vast majority of books sold today are fiction stories, based on reality. In grade school it was called lying and you were punished for it. As an adult, you get paid millions of dollars and cocktail parties are given in your honor. Go figure.

I've also discovered the factual accuracy of any story is inversely proportional to the time remaining to the dead line. For example, I'm really late for this article, so this is a good time to brief you on my upcoming exposes about Mark Zurgable's impending run for town mayor. While Mark continues to deny it, Paul has confirmed that Mark is having weekly strategy meetings with Gary Kubala, his campaign manager. Gary has reportedly chucked Marks campaign slogan of: 'A 2500 pound power washer in every garage', replacing it with: 'A family name for every street', in hopes of garnering the endorsement of the established families. Gary say's Mark has agreed to rename Main Street 'Wivell Avenue', South Seaton Ave to 'Kermit Glass Parkway' and North Seaton Ave. to 'Miller Family Boulevard'. Now isn't that more interesting to read about than the town's septic systems?

Recommendation #7: Include friends in every story. Since the purpose of writing a story is to get someone to read it, a easy way to accumulate a following is to name people in your story, which assures you a free beer from them when you run into them in the bar. Everyone likes to see his or her name in print; it's only human nature. All Dispatch writers get a percentage of the paper's profits, which is based upon the number of new readers they bring in. So the more you bring in, the bigger your profit share. So write about events in your neighborhood, and remember, if you can come up with some plot lines for the 'Emmitsburg 65' TV series, you also get a percentage of the TV royalties!

Another good idea is to have a reoccurring theme. The more you can string together your stories, the better your chances that people will begin to understand your unique sense of logic, or in my case, dry humor. Even more important, connected individual stories can form the basis for a future book, especially when you finally realize that the Dispatch never will pay you, no matter how hard you toil for it.

Recommendation #8: Ignore all suggested topics from the Editors. The Cadle's don't always have the best grasp of what the residents of Emmitsburg want to read. They'll give you suggestions to write on such topics. Whatever they ask you to do, just say yes, then write what you want but don't send it to them till just before the deadline. In general, I've found that the more off the assigned topic I am, the closer to deadline I need to submit it and be assured at least a majority will get into print.

Recommendation #9: Pick on Thurmont. This is my favorite, but the Cadle's hate it. The way I figure it, every great center of culture has its rivalry, Rome had Carthage, Washington has Dallas and we have Thurmont. As far as I can tell, everything in Emmitsburg is better. While Thurmont may have the local high school, we have a college. We win! Let's face it, if we really liked Thurmont, we'd be living there but we don't, so let's have some fun at their expense.

So if by you've already broken all your New Year resolutions, make a new one that will be fun to keep: pick up a pen and give writing for your community newspaper a whirl. It's the stories that are passed down generation to generation that make a community. New families moving into Emmitsburg need to have a way to connect with the old and the passing on of individual histories and stories will ensure the fellowship of Emmitsburg will continue to flourish for generations to come.

Michael Lives with his wife Audrey on their farm east of Emmitsburg where he spends his free time testing the limits of his wife's and the editor's sense of humor.

Read other Humor stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman