Redemption of a Hack

Redemption of a Hack

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reader's Choice 20th Anniversary Edition

Redemption of a Hack

Ideals are like stars: you will not succeed in touching them with your hands, but like the seafaring man on the desert of waters, you choose them as your guides, and following them you reach your destiny.

~Carl Schurz

Somewhere during journalism school many years ago, it was drilled into my mind that journalists were the moral watch-dogs of society. They wrote the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, regardless of social or political pressure. The world had the right to know the truth and journalists were the only trustworthy professionals who would deliver it. With ideals such as these, we aspiring journalists yearned for those big headlines and bylines that would change the world.

I once dreamed of being a foreign correspondent. I would be multilingual, travel the world and write about gripping human stories that inspired global change. My work would appear in Time magazine and National Geographic. But that was many years ago, and sometime during my life, the line between journalistic integrity and commercialism blurred. It was probably during the same time that I got married and had children with chronic medical conditions. There was a fork in my road, and I chose my children — with no regrets.

The effect on my writing was clear. With less time or energy for research, reading and practice, my writing never improved and was marginal at best. Hard news stories were replaced by easy-to-spit-out features, essays, one-shots, fillers and whatever would sell to the local newspapers. Nothing newsworthy. Fluff, it was called in newspaper lingo, and I wrote it. I even wrote those dreaded advertorials which are advertising pieces masked as real news content. I had become the most disrespected type of writer: a hack. Webster’s Dictionary defines a hack as “one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts.”

So there I was, feeling demoralized and ashamed of what I had become: a dishonorable, talentless writer with the irrepressible desire to keep writing. Maybe I should, as Stephen King wrote in his On Writing book, do us all a favor and pick up another hobby. But suppressing the urge to communicate is like trying to stop the flow of a mountain spring, or in my case, an old hose with an irreparable leak.

And then I read Ava Pennington’s “Writing My Story” in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for the Young at Heart. Her second life ambition to write made me realize that it wasn’t too late for me to realize my own writing dreams. In her words, rejection felt “as if I had shown my baby to people who said, ‘Boy, is she ugly!’ ” and that was exactly how I felt, too. I knew then that all writers are kindred souls, afraid to present their babies for society’s approval. My pieces were my babies. I loved them regardless of how anyone might pass judgment. Like Ava, I had written short stories, a novel, and children’s stories that were precious to me; but unlike Ava, I was a negligent mother who failed to nurture her work and let it go forth into the world.

Ava’s efforts humbled me. For years, she braved those rejection letters while I, after getting one, would stuff my manuscript into a drawer and sulk. I was a whining writing wimp (with a deplorable penchant for alliteration, I might add). I felt ashamed again, not because I had “sold out” to commercialism, but because I missed the point of written expression entirely.

Yes, there is an art to expressing yourself on paper. It doesn’t have to win a Pulitzer or Nobel Peace Prize to have merit. The joy and reward is in the writing, and if there is just one reader who might give his time to reading your work, count yourself worthy of writing. If you can help one reader learn something or better yet, feel something, you have done no small thing.

Ava’s publishing success was the natural outcome of her unbridled persistence and passion. That is what I had left behind a long time ago. Persistence and passion. There were still truths to be revealed through my writing. Ava’s piece reminded me that everyone is a story. There are lives and stories to be told, and I need not be a foreign correspondent to write a story that can change the world.

Ava’s story changed mine. She gave me the courage to resurrect my babies, dust them off and send them out with pride and positive expectations. It might not be a story about war and famine that touches my readers, but the simple, everyday stories about my own life. That is all I have to offer, and people seem to like those best.

I credit Ava’s story for returning me to the writing world a bit braver and nobler. For persistence and passion turned a hack into a writer once again.

~Lori Phillips

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