At 17, I wanted to write, but knew intuitively that a writer needs life experience.
When friends pursued journalism or English degrees, I studied forestry — something I know nothing about, though I’d always wanted to.
Getting good grades was easy – it was the forestry jobs that proved elusive. So, since I’d earned tuition money working as a nurse’s aide and was interested in health, I next went to nursing school.
This career shift coincided with my marriage and near-instant family — two children in three years. My husband attended graduate school and I worked evenings as charge nurse of a 30-bed floor. I learned more about people and health, and our ships-passing-in-the-afternoon life insured that our children always had at least one parent around.
In my infrequent moments of solitude, I craved putting words on paper. A friend’s parenting newsletter provided a forum, and when she pulled my first story from the printer, she uttered a life-changing statement: “I think we have a real WRITER here.”
Determined to prove her right, I launched at least a half-dozen novels and as many stillborn short stories.
Then a blind artist’s story captivated my attention, a neighbor’s triumph in adversity prompted an essay and when both sold to regional magazines, both editors quickly offered more assignments. My husband was back among the employed once again, which allowed me to leave nursing to write full time — for about six months.
The shifting sands of the ’80s soon saw most of my markets fold. Then a friend introduced the more stable option of a local newspaper group. She shared an assignment she couldn’t take herself and, though I knew nothing about the soft-drink-bottling business, I was curious, and fortunately, the interview source was delightful.
The editor called the day after I filed the story to offer three more. Soon, my family’s struggling finances required me to return to the workplace and that’s when that editor called to tell me the paper had an opening for an assistant editor – especially one who could also write features.
My writer’s education began in earnest. Writer’s block? I was too busy cranking out stories, meeting tight deadlines, and trying to engage readers and tell a story well in under 800 words. (And mediating by phone the occasional spat between my two pre-teenagers.)
Eventually, I became features editor – my “graduate study” in what editors need (and don’t), how to time queries and submissions, and what makes editors appreciate writers. I gained a storehouse of ideas and access to interviews with those both nationally and locally known. Among the many resales I made were a couple of national markets.
A newsroom can be a gloomy place, though, so, when my favorite non-profit conference center needed a program coordinator, I was ready for change. It kept my writing muscles warm, brought contact with thousands of people from around the world, and deepened my knowledge about many social issues.
Five years later, I had that mid-life longing for “the life unlived” and finally held my breath and made the leap to full-time freelancing. My primary strategy? Find as many angles for a story as I could, plus plenty of prospective resale markets. Within six months, the same story theme had helped me nab clips in American Profile, Hope, and Ms. And the steady stream of queries and submissions I was generating faithfully each week brought other assignments, reprints, and two regular contributor gigs.
The way I figured it, the more I put out there into the world (albeit in the most market-informed and focused way), the greater the likelihood of positive responses, or at least a larger percentage of them.
One thing that my checkered career trail had taught me is that I can learn anything I decide to. Writing is less about what you know than what you’re excited to find out on the reader’s behalf, and share as readably and accurately as you can. Of course, this includes learning more about good writing.
Yes, life experience is a writer’s necessity, and my publication credits now flow directly from it – family life, health, environment, spirituality, and the variety of social issues that increasingly interest me.
What I didn’t know at 17 was that the way we use our God-given abilities to follow where that experience leads is the way that we find our truest writing voice – and our success.
New Hampshire writer Phyllis Edgerly Ring’s articles have appeared in such publications as Bay Area Parent, Christian Science Monitor, Ms., and Writer’s Digest. She serves as instructor for the Long Ridge Writers Group of the Institute of Children’s Literature and is a weekly columnist for United Press International at www.religionandspirituality.com. Contact her at info – at – phyllisring.com.