By Lois Vidaver
I’m a “declutterer” and that means I am driven to toss out unused waffle irons and undated pictures of unknown persons. On the other hand, as a writer, the things I produce the most — words — I hoard. They are like newborns, bursting forth with Lamaze-like heavy breathing and great spasms of pushing. And in my world, great rejoicing occurs.
Unless, of course, it doesn’t.
Rejection slips underscore the futility of such difficult birth stories. Most are simply form letters with the usual, “Your manuscript does not meet the needs of our publication.” Some have a softer edge like the one I received from a writer’s magazine emanating from somewhere in Iowa. “I like this piece,” the editor wrote, “but I don’t love it.” Velvety or not, it was still a “no.”
Interviewing is a big part of the kind of nonfiction writing I am into. What I am looking for from the interviewee, are quotes that pop off the page and catch the reader’s attention. Sometimes I get so caught up in them myself, I lose my footing. One day, while reporting for The Chautauquan Daily, I conducted a phone interview with sex therapist and author “Dr. Ruth” Westheimer. My article would preview a lecture she was scheduled to make to the adults of Chautauqua Institution. As I scrambled to write down the exact sexual terminology she was planning to use, she hesitated midsentence.
“Is this a family newspaper?” she asked. “Will these words be OK? Can you print them?” She stopped me in my tracks. “Perhaps not,” I replied slowly. “No — yes, this is a family newspaper. Yes, of course, it is,” I finally blurted. Why hadn’t I thought of that? How unseemly if one of our Chautauquan children spied the article and asked, “Mom, what does this word mean?” Dr. Ruth changed course immediately — and words — bless her.
Sometimes a reader gets confused as to who said what in an article and then the writer is really in trouble. While reporting at the Telegraph, a daily in Ohio, I wrote an article headlined: “Sex in Mid-Life,” after interviewing a marriage counselor about how to have a satisfying, long-lasting relationship. The next day, a colleague at the paper met me in the hallway. “Like I was telling my wife after reading your article,” he said, ”you said we should still be having sex, even at our age.” He paused. “We had a fight about it. She said you’re wrong.”
Oh, no, I screamed in my head. “They were not my words,” I explained calmly. “They were the counselor’s.” It was hopeless. He wanted to have a discussion about his sex life there and then ... He needed his very own Dr. Ruth.
You know, I don’t only write about sex. Other issues do cross my mind.
For instance, in one My View, I penned an essay critical of restaurants not providing coat racks. One friend, reading my words to her breakfast club, reported back that they really related to the subject once they realized they were each uncomfortably damp. Dodging a rainstorm as they ran into the restaurant, with nowhere to hang their jackets, they were sitting in wet clothing. They eased their frustration by creating a chant designed to attract attention: “We need a coat rack! We need a coat rack!”
Words — I love them, what can I say? They can fly back in my face and cause me grief, but they also render me joy when they inspire others. And though some of them will eventually end up in the trash, I am keeping the rest. They are my favorite hoard.