Blame it on my blood

I have always written, but I didn’t know how much I wanted to be a writer until I was already out of college and working as a teacher. There were signs.

My dad worked as a printer and brought home all sorts of scrap paper and cardstock, just what I needed to make my own paper dolls. I can still smell the ink of the permanent marker, and I remember winters, sitting in our kitchen floor in front of the wall heater cutting and coloring. But sometimes I cut my characters from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue and created a village on the braided rug in our living room. I guess my parents were glad there was just one of me. I’m sure I made quite a mess.

When I hit third, fourth, or fifth grade, I graduated to writing and illustrating my own stories. I still have them—in my own squiggly handwriting and crayon and Magic Markers. They’re held together in cardstock folders with prongs. I hope my boys will care enough to pass on these little books to children someday. I wish I could have had a peek into my grandparents’ lives as children. What a treasure that would be!

On a side note, I have hint where my interests came from. The family of my Great Grandmother Smoot came here from Ireland (which probably explains why I’m so crazy about anything Irish). But on my grandfather’s side, my Great Grandmother Bell came from Denmark. She was only sixteen when she arrived in New York City. She played the guitar just like me. And, if I have the story right, her brother, my Great Uncle Will Hansen played the accordion and wrote poetry. (I hear copies of these poem still exist. I wish I could make a photocopy of them.)

My father remembers him putting on a variety show with his singing and dancing. I think they lived on a big farm in the Fredonia area for much of their lives. He and his brother Chris were multi-talented, expert craftsmen who made their own furniture, even their own coffins.

When I used to babysit my younger cousins, I coerced them into creating a newspaper, The Bell Family Times. Despite my threats, I think all three of them turned out pretty normal, well, except for the younger one, James. He’s a songwriter now—and a pretty good one at that. If he ever writes a number one hit, he’ll have to give me a cut of his royalties. (I was his high school English teacher too. You can ask him how many times he failed my class. The number changes with his mood. So it is with the Bells’ and their storytelling. They tend to exaggerate.)

By the time I made it to high school, I had turned into the extremely shy hopeless romantic I am today. Like James I wrote songs too, but these were really bad songs. I played a horrible guitar so cheaply made that I could barely push the strings down to fret the chords. I don’t remember showing these songs to anyone except one friend. But when all members of our class prepared to go their separate ways before graduation, I remember sending one of these songs off with two of my best friends, hoping it might inspire them to find their dreams in the music industry.

During my first years of college, I was a recording industry management (RIM) major, and I worked for the head of the department. I actually got up enough nerve to show these songs to him, and he was the first person to tell me about hooks and choruses and bridges and syllable counts—all the things my songs were lacking. I wish I had listened, but life got in the way, and I couldn’t tell you whatever happened to those songs.

If it weren’t for my English professor Charles Wolfe, I doubt I would have ever taken my writing seriously. I turned in an assignment for his folklore class, and he liked it so much he asked if he could publish it in the Tennessee Folklore Bulletin. It even made the cover. I always admired Dr. Wolfe. Years later, after I had been several articles published in contemporary Christian music magazines, I contacted him and asked him how I might write about nonfiction about the Christian music industry. He was an expert in his field regarding country music and was the author of numerous books.

He sent me a letter with a long list of contacts and lots of encouragement. The next thing I knew Vanderbilt University was sending me info about how to have my not yet written book published through their school. I never followed up on that interest. Again, life got in the way. But ironically, years later my work was published through the University of Tennessee. I would have never know if I hadn’t done an Internet search of my name and found that my story had been chosen for A Tennessee Folklore Sampler (2009).

People often ask me how I began writing for magazines. The answer is fairly simple. I was too naïve to think I couldn’t, so I sent clips, and several magazines responded by giving me assignments.  But first I wrote without pay for anyone who was willing to publish me. I have endless gratitude for Rebekah Hurst, who published The Parent Paper. She gave me a spot for my column, and from there on the writing bug bit and wouldn’t let go. Today I’m a frequent contributor to The Living Light News in Alberta, Edmonton. I have made just enough money to pay for my gas and writing conferences, but it’s been well worth every penny.

Contemporary Christian music isn’t what it used to be, so when I write music articles today I write about people who make their living in the general entertainment market. I’ve been blessed to chat with Smokey Robinson, Tony Orlando, Charlie Daniels, Ricky Skaggs, Clay Walker, heavy weight boxing champion Chris Byrd, Sting (the wrestler), and many others. They tell me stories of how God has changed their lives. I don’t write for the New York Times or People magazine, but I am still so grateful that God chose me to pass on these stories. He could have chosen someone else.

Some people write for therapeutic reasons; some people write for money. I write because I want to make a difference in other people’s lives—and because it’s a form of safe adventure for me. Okay, I’ll admit it. I like the adrenaline rush. But could you imagine what I’d be like in a real mystery or adventure? I guess I’m more like Scooby and Shaggy than I’d like to admit. My children get this trait from me. They brag about venturing off someday to find adventure foreign lands, but then they freak out when we do donuts in the Walmart parking lot after a big snow. By the way, is that illegal?

Occasionally, I do write for myself. I keep a book of blessings hidden away where I work. I never ever write about anything bad. Sometimes I write about my students; sometimes I write about my friends or my family. Sometimes I write about strangers. No one ever sees this writing except for me and God. But on those days when everything seems to go wrong, I take out my book and literally count my blessings and name them one by one.

Friday is New Year’s Eve. Tomorrow after midnight we have a brand new year to follow our dreams. Who are you? What are your roots? Is writing in your blood? Then write. Put away the excuses. We may not write a bestseller, but we can write for local publications, our churches, our children, ourselves.

For 2011, I challenge you to take a leap of faith and to see where your writing takes you. What’s your dream?

But don’t keep it hidden. Tell somebody. You never know who might help you make it happen if only they knew. Let’s make 2011 a year of bold adventure.

Special note: Thanks to all of you who have taken time to read my blog, to offer a word of encouragement, to make me laugh, to inspire me. You can bet you’ve got a special place in my book of blessings. I wish you a Happy New Year.

Did someone say Bell Witch?

Famous drawing of Betsy Bell

October ushers in a whole season of “what if” for me. I always was the type of kid who could be found hunkered down around a campfire, listening to “ghost stories” and imagining “what if.”

But I don’t believe in ghosts. I believe in evil, and I believe in angels. I believe that if God were to remove the veil from our eyes, we’d all scream like little girls. We couldn’t handle the reality happening before our eyes.

I have no doubt there is much in the world that we can’t see, don’t want to see, and shouldn’t see.

But I also grew up a Bell. That’s my maiden name.

And if you’re from Tennessee, then you know what being a Bell means. The name Bell conjures up stories of spirits and haints and witches and murder. If you’re not from Tennessee, then you may be scratching your head, wondering what in the world I’m talking about.

I’m talking about the Bell Witch, the mysterious spirit that tormented John Bell and his daughter Betsy, who lived around the time of Andrew Jackson’s presidency in a small farming community on the Red River in Robertson County.

Research the legend if you enjoy a good tale, but be careful if you choose to watch one of the movies. Not all of them are based on authentic legend. As a sociology teacher, I’m a fan of folklore and folk culture. Legends mean something to me. Legends reveal who we are as a people and what we value.

When I was growing up, I looked up to my grandmother, Mom Bell. She was quite the character. My cousins and I could fill volumes with stories of her quirky behavior.

In fact, when she married my grandfather, who was nine years older than she, she didn’t tell her parents they were married. She went home to her house, and he went back to his.

The two sneaked off to get married. My grandmother drove the getaway car, but she must not have been that great of driver, and she must not have been too alert. Little did she know that  the town drunk had crawled up in the back seat of the car to sleep off a long night of boozing. My grandmother had both hands on the wheel with my grandfather in the passenger seat when she crossed a railroad track and suffered a bump so severe that it woke the man in the backseat. He sat straight up.

“Bea-dy, you can’t drive,” he said. “If feels like you done run over a horse.”

Sure enough, she had.

Apparently, a train had hit a horse earlier in the day, and my grandmother plowed right over it. Don’t ask me how she did it. I don’t know. That’s just the story she used to tell. She told a lot of stories.

And I like good stories, especially spooky ones. I guess that’s just the writer in me.

(But I know firsthand that too much imagination can lead people into places they should never be. Too much imagination can open doors that should remain closed.)

I don’t speak too much about the Bell Witch to my own children, but when I was growing up, the story was common amongst my people. After all, my grandmother convinced us all we were direct descendents of the notorious family haunted by the Bell Witch. I have yet to prove it although I’ve done extensive research.

As a little kid, I believed with all my heart that if I wasn’t careful, Old Kate (the Bell Witch) would haunt me too and pull the covers off my bed and slap my face without warning, just as she did John Bell’s daughter, Betsy. I was terrified.

As with every legend, our version of the Bell Witch story took on new meaning. According to my grandmother, my great aunt Bessie, who lived in a house in front of the oldest graveyard in Coffee County, had the power of the Bell Witch. She could “see” things. She received “signs.” She also supposedly had hidden away treasure and money, which today no one has been able to find. Perhaps only Kate knows. That’s okay. I don’t want to know.

My grandmother took me to visit Aunt Bessie once when I was just a little girl. Mom Bell went to the kitchen to help with the dishes and left me alone in the parlor with Aunt Bessie, who pretended to sleep on the couch. I knew better. She kept one eye open, watching my every move. I was terrified.

Today I can’t drive by that neighborhood without wondering what Aunt Bessie did with her treasure and why she watched me so closely that day. I can’t help but wonder what made our family believe she had powers and saw signs. What powers? What signs?

Alas, October is here.

Even as I write this, I can feel a chill in the air. It’s pitch black outside my sunroom, but I can hear the wind shuffle the fallen leaves. It feels “spooky” out there.

But I like it. I makes me think “what if,” and I’m always in the mood for a good story.

Note about the book:  When I was in college, I wrote a paper for my folklore class about modern versions of the Bell Witch. My professor, Charles Wolfe, asked to print it in the Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. Last year the editors chose it as one of the works that would appear in their printed collection. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for Charles Wolfe. He made me believe in myself. He inspired me to be a writer.