I am often asked how I got started writing a weekly column. Many folks assume that I have a degree in journalism, and that this gig is something I picked up on the way to a more serious newspaper career.
The truth is, I intended to become an English teacher, but dropped out of college after one semester. It was expensive, and oh so far away from my future husband, so I opted to go into the workforce instead.
But I’ve always wanted to write. As a fourth grader, I looked forward to summer because it meant I could devote entire days to sitting at the typewriter, pecking out the stories that were swirling in my head. I used notebook paper and yarn to create a book of writing ideas, and hung it on my bedpost so that I could jot down thoughts that came to me during the night.
As a young mother, I was accepted into the Children’s Institute of Literature. It was a mail-in writing course, and to be honest, I’m not sure anyone with a credit card has ever been denied admission. But before the days of internet possibilities, this was the only step I knew to further my writing.
And then, twelve years ago, somebody took a chance on me. I was at a local festival, taking pictures with my state of the art digital camera…remember the ones with the floppy disks? A man came up to me and explained that he was starting a weekly newspaper, but his camera had died. He wondered if I would be kind enough to email my pictures to him.
In the course of the conversation, it was revealed that before this new endeavor, he had been a high school English teacher. I agreed to send him my pictures, and requested only one thing in return. I wanted his professional opinion on a couple of stories I had written.
A few days later, I received an email that still makes me giddy when I recall the moment I first read these words, “Decide on a name for your newspaper column.”
Tony Cotten was the first person with which I had been brave enough to share my writing, and he believed in my ability. I had no clue how to go about being a newspaper columnist, but he helped me cut my stories from 2500 words to a more reasonable 750. He gave me solid advice like, “Don’t fill in every detail. It’s okay to leave some things to the readers’ imagination.”
Initially, I called my column “The Honeycomb.” It was based on a Proverb that states, “Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” I told Tony that my desire was for my articles to be pleasant, and give people a break from politics, editorials, and negative news. He caught my vision, and whenever he saw me veering from that path, he would caution, “Are you sure you want to publish this? Is this really what you want to say?”
And the times when there was negative backlash that neither of us had anticipated, he encouraged me, “The entire world doesn’t hate you. It’s more like a few hundred. You can pull it back around next week.”
Because of Tony, the dreams of my fourth grade story teller’s heart came true. Most of the papers that run my column are because he touted me to his colleagues. He took the initiative to enter my articles in contests, so that I can label my work as “award-winning.” And it was he who introduced my work to a publisher, who subsequently offered me a book contract.
Tony passed away last week, at the young age of 47. My heart hasn’t stopped hurting, and my little 750 word article cannot be a big enough tribute. He was not only my mentor, but a friend to my entire family. A few weeks ago, I got my last email from him. “I wish I could see Nathan and you just to chat- familiar faces mean a lot.”
Someday, we will have that chat. In the meantime, those of us he left behind will press onward, buoyed by the memory of his enthusiastic encouragement, and willingness to take risks, not only on his own dreams, but on the dreams of those who were privileged to call him friend.