My uncle was a horse


I have one major rule I follow when I write:  Do no harm. It’s the first rule I teach my journalism students. As easy as it seems to keep, we all break it, though rarely intentionally. Words are powerful. Occasionally they get away from us.

So in keeping with my primary DO NO HARM rule, I hesitate to print this blog. But it’s a story that has stuck with me for decades. It deserves to be told, and I certainly mean no harm.

My earliest influence on me as a writer may have been my great uncle, Charlie Pat, a WW2 veteran. I was much too young to understand the complexities of my uncle’s condition. All I knew is that something happened to him in the war. I was told he was hit my shrapnel and suffered brain trauma. He was never the same.

Of course, I never knew him to be any other way.

My Uncle Charlie Pat thought he was Black Beauty.

Yes, I’m talking about the horse in Anna Sewell’s 1877 novel. I don’t remember how old I was at the time. I just remember I was horse crazy, and Black Beauty was my favorite book.

Back in the old days, we didn’t have Mindcraft or other computer programs to enhance our creativity. We had to rely on household ordinary stuff. My favorite “toy” was a black broom, the closest thing I had to a stick horse. And I rode it nonstop at my grandmother’s house, where, as you might guess, my Uncle Charlie Pat lived for a while.

I don’t think my parents or my aunts and uncles realized Charlie Pat thought he was a horse, but I did. I was too young to roll my eyes or criticize. I just sat down in the chair next to him in my grandparent’s itty bitty den, and I listened to all the stories he told of what it was like to be Black Beauty.

I never laughed. I had read the story at least a dozen times, and I knew every detail by heart. So did Charlie Pat. And when he told me the story, he told it in first person, just like the book. I sat enthralled. I knew my uncle wasn’t really a horse, but I bought into his reality, and I listened intently as he retold each chapter.

I always thanked him for sharing with me, and he smiled. There’s nothing more wonderful for an artist than to have an appreciative audience.

As odd as it may sound, Charlie Pat may have been the first person to inspire me to write. Although he didn’t write Black Beauty, his convincing personal narratives held me spellbound. He was able to quote every page verbatim.

As I grew older, I started to write. I became the characters in my stories. Today they’re bound in a three-prong folder, sitting on a bookshelf in my son’s room. He doesn’t even know they’re there. Maybe his children will find them someday and be inspired by their crazy grandmother who thought at age nine that she could be a writer, somewhat similar to my great uncle, thinking he was a horse.

If you think about it, all of us are quirky in our own way, and that’s what makes us so beautiful. We are works of art, but some of us are an acquired taste.

I was always perceived as that shy kid in class who never talked. I hated that stereotype. I’m not really shy. I just don’t talk much. In my decades here on earth I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve really opened up to.

But there’s a reason for that, I think. God gave me the gift of listening. God gave me acute hearing and sensitive (in)sight. I can see what others cannot. He also gave me the gift of storytelling.

I guess I am the only person in my family to interview a living, breathing Black Beauty proxy.

As I said, I was a major fan of Anna Sewell. Charlie Pat brought the book to life for me. And while his reality had been suspended long before I was born, I learned how to suspend my reality and to enjoy living in the moment whenever I took the time to be still and to listen to him. Charlie Pat pulled me into the story. For a short time in the den of my grandparents’ house, I talked to Black Beauty.

And I think that’s one reason I have been compelled to write ever since. Books let us live a thousand lives. Charlie Pat, for some reason, spent the last years of his life living as a horse.

Go ahead. Laugh. Life is funny. And frustrating. And tragic. But I’ll take funny over the other options any day.

What unusual occurrences in your life sparked your desire to write?

Listen to Little Debbie

When I was in high school, I was the shortest kid in my class, and I looked like a twelve year old. Oh yeah, it was great back then. I got to talk to all the guys. They confided in me. Told me all their problems. Whined about their love life. Never once asked anything about me. Yada yada yada. I was a convenient match maker, a relationship counselor, the mediator.

But what I really wanted was someone to listen to me.

Being the cordial, shy young thing I was, I never spoke up, and as time passed I forgot how to speak. When it was other people’s turn to listen, I didn’t have anything to say. Most people eventually wrote me off as shy and didn’t waste time prying information out of me.

I never grew up. I’m still around 5’ or 5’2” or somewhere in between. During the early years of my career, I substituted at a middle school in Murfreesboro and suffered horrendous embarrassment at the hands of the Lunch Ladies. All I did was return my tray, and they screamed. “You’ve been here all year long. You know your tray doesn’t go here.”

Yada yada yada. The Lunch Ladies thought I was just another middle schooler, not a teacher. I tried to explain, but they wouldn’t listen.

I found my first real teaching job at the high school where I went to school. I’m still there. During my first years I blended in with the students quite well. It was kind of cool because I felt like an undercover agent in the halls. I listened and picked up all sort of useful information from their conversations.

But my co-workers were ruthless. The assistant principal gave me the nickname Little Debbie, and it stuck. You know what I’m talking about, right? He said I reminded him of the little munchkin on the outside of oatmeal pie boxes. My fellow teachers put a framed photo of Little Debbie on my desk. How clever. I tried to tell them I was nothing like the cherub-faced little snack cake, but they wouldn’t listen.

I finally started writing, and eventually I was published. I couldn’t believe people were actually reading what I had written. Wow. Finally, someone was listening.

Even today if people read my blog and leave comments, I am so grateful that I just want to hunt them down and give them a big hug. If someone actually talks with me—and not at me, my heart melts. I think one of the greatest gifts you can give a person is your attention. Look me in the eye. Ask me what I think, what I like, what I know, what I want, what I see. Okay—I confess. I stole those lines from Toby Keith’s song, “I Wanna Talk about Me.” But don’t you get what I’m saying?

Published writers, whether you write novels or songs or magazine articles, never take for granted the wonderful gift your readers give you. Even if you have never received a hefty royalty check, just the fact that readers choose you to listen to is pretty special.

Wow. Imagine someone curling up with your words at night. Or how about someone singing the song you’ve written? Pretty special, huh?

I’ve had Keith Urban’s tune “Put You in a Song” rattling around in my head for days. I like it when he sings, “And when they see you on the street, they’ll say ‘Hey, ain’t you the girl in that song?’”

Now there’s a topic for another blog. Oh, wouldn’t l love to be the girl in that song. I’d love to be the girl in any song. How romantic. I get giddy just thinking about it. But with my luck if someone did write a song about me they’d call it “Little Debbie.”

We writers all want to be published. But we can still change people’s hearts, minds, and spirits with our words even we don’t see them in a magazine or in a book. Our writing doesn’t have to be about us. Have you ever received a card, a note, an email, a Facebook message, or an honest-to-goodness handwritten letter that turned your day around?

Words have power. They can bless, or they can curse.

This year the seniors on my newspaper staff made me a very special gift, a scrapbook with their articles and pictures and headlines. They asked every member of the staff to write me a personal letter.

Tonight I sat down and read the letters again. I listened to what each one of them had to say, and I learned something pretty special. Despite the deadline tensions, the red marks, the ad pressures, the computer crashes, the staff drama, etc., my students recalled something special they had gleaned from my class or from me, and they wrote about it in my letter.

Their letters were proof they actually listened to me. What a wonderful gift.