Remembering a writing mentor who probably never knew it

A mentor every writer should've been lucky enough to have.
A mentor every writer should’ve been lucky enough to have.
Anyone who follows my weekly Nickel’s Worth on Writing knows Publisher’s Digest and The Master of Horror® Stephen King are frequently among those offering accolades touting the value and importance of this weekly writing feature.

JK Rowling, E.L. James and many other famous writers with initials for first names have also offered their condolences kudos for writing tips that have been called “…Hemmingway-like, at least in terms of questionable sobriety.”

But long before literary giants and their lawyers began using court-appointed messengers to send accolades requiring my signature, there was someone whose kudos and opinion meant more than any other — and still would if she were alive today. I’m talking, of course, about Barbara Walters.

Ha! Of course I’m not actually talking about Barbara Walters who, as we all know, once called my writing tips “Kwap.” Plus, I’m pretty sure she’s still alive.

No, the person whose opinion and laughter always meant the most was my grandmother, who would’ve celebrated her 102nd birthday today. That photo of her was taken on Mother’s Day in 2008, one day after turning 96, and three days before she passed away. As I sat down to write this week’s NWOW, I thought of how I’ve written about finding your muse, the importance of establishing your voice as a writer, and how being a writer really comes down to believing in and accepting yourself as one. And while the examples I offered in those posts were purposely general enough to be accessible and relatable to everyone, in my own life it was my grandmother’s encouragement and example that set me on an early path to finding those things as a writer.

And there’s no denying the influence her sense of humor had on the direction I took with my writing. When I was a child, she fostered my budding attempts at writing and humor by creating an environment of acceptance and honesty. She laughed at the good stuff, chuckled at the lame stuff and was the first to tell me when an occasional joke attempt was in the wrong spirit.

“Don’t make anyone the butt of a joke unless you’re willing to show your own cheeks first,” she once told me. It’s a rule I still try to follow whenever I write. Keep in mind she never knew of Justin Bieber, in which case I’m sure she would have agreed he’s the exception to that rule.

When I was in seventh-grade, I came home one day complaining about all the reading I had to do. Being a voracious reader, my grandmother appeared disappointed by my remarks as she laid her book in her lap and lowered her glasses, then asked what I was reading.

“Dumb stuff about a guy hunting a whale,” I said.

“Moby Dick?”

“Yeah,” I said, then giggled at the title, which sounded extra funny coming from my grandmother.

“Oh right, that word’s pretty funny.”

“What word?” I asked, still giggling and wondering if she’d say it.

“You don’t think I’ll say it, do you?” she asked. “Fine, but don’t dare tell your mother.”

As I stood wide-eyed in disbelief at what was about to happen, my grandmother cleared her throat and then repeated: “Moby, Moby, Moby!”

We both laughed, then as I walked I heard her say, “It could be worse, you know.”

I turned to see her her face obscured by the book she was reading.

“You could be stuck with ‘The Open Kimono by Seymour Hair’ or ‘The Frantic Tiger by Claude Balls,'” she said, then turned a page for emphasis.

By noon the next day, EVERY seventh grader at Jane Addams Middle School was apparently “reading” one of those two books — and I have to credit my grandmother with the closest I’ve come to experiencing celebrity status. I also have to credit her with a trip to the principal’s office by 12:30 that day. I never gave her up until now, but I’m pretty sure there’s a statute of limitations on that sort of thing.

I think each of us has that reader we write for, imagined or otherwise, who plays a different kind of mentor role in our lives as writers. They inspire us in some way to strive for our best with each word, paragraph and finished piece. They’re the ones whose example and encouragement — intended or otherwise — we turn to when we need reminding of why we do what we do, and where our writing first takes root while simultaneously taking flight.

As important as it is for writers to explore the tools and creative processes that enable us to do what we do, and hopefully continue to climb higher, it’s just as important to remember those who first gave us wings.

Thank you, Nonnie, for being my unspoken mentor.

And thank you, Dear Reader, for allowing me a few minutes tell you about her.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

54 thoughts on “Remembering a writing mentor who probably never knew it”

    1. Thanks so much, Michelle. She was very special. I was hesitant to write it because it felt like it was mostly for me, but I couldn’t ignore how I was feeling — and hopefully the message will resonate with others 😉

      1. Dear Ned,
        You are always so humble and, from a fellow worrier in that space, you never ever make it sound like it’s all about you. You’ve taught me/us that words written from the heart n the context of life experience reach the masses and are relevant to us, too. If it incites emotion in you, then it incites emotion in us. This article is a prime example and another wonderful addition to the NWOW gifts you give us every Friday.

        1. You know Michelle, I’ve been accused of writing out of somewhere else sometimes, but in this situation I’m very glad to know the ramblings of my heart were not only heard but understood 😉

  1. Nicely done. You must have made her very proud.
    When my first collection came out, I sent a copy to my high school English teacher, Mrs. Mutimer, who had retired to her native England. She inspired a love of language and encouraged my writing. It was the least I could do to thank her.

    1. Thanks, Ross. Coming from someone who was thoughtful enough to make the kind of gesture you did to Mrs. Mutimer means a lot; there’s no better compliment than to receive one from a good person.

    1. I’m so thankful for the many years, and the many memories I still enjoy and am inspired by. Thank you for for the kind words and for recognizing those things in her 🙂

  2. Okay, Young Ned…you made me laugh, and you made me cry. Simultaneously. (Not a pretty sight, btw).

    How lovely that you had someone like your grandmother in your corner. I can tell you from my own experience, that is a gift beyond compare. I know this, because those in my family who should have known better hammered into my head that wanting to write for a living was, to coin a phrase I just heard somewhere, KWAP! And stupidly, I listened. I thought they knew better. Hence, my late start on pursuing my dream of so many years. And I’ll tell you this as well, kwap or not, I’ve never enjoyed anything (in the way of career choices) more in my whole life. Moral of the story: don’t take any kwap from anyone, well-meaning or not. Follow your own dream.

    Your Nonnie is beaming down on you right this minute, I’m absolutely sure. And she couldn’t be more proud. It’s a rare gift to bring laughter into this world. You are blessed.

    1. It meeake me happy to know you stopped listening to others’ ideas of what’s KWAP and, instead, began listening to your heart — and let them deal with their own kwap. I make a point ever day to take a moment to think of how endowed I am with my bless… wait, I mean how blessed my endowment… nope, that’s not it either… I just know I am very blessed and we’ll just leave it at that.

      And I’m pretty sure my grandmother is laughing at that 😉

      1. And going Moby, Moby, Moby! 🙂 You are no doubt blessed, and endowed with a great sense of humor, for sure. As for any other endowments…I have no idea to which or what you might be referring. I’m a sweet little ol’ gray-haired lady, enjoying my twilight years in a rocking chair on my porch. (And if you buy THAT, I’ll have a good idea about something you may NOT have been endowed with!) 😀

        Keep making us laugh, Ned. We NEED it. More and more every day.

  3. What a lovely way to remember her and a great outlook she obviously gave you on life, writing, etc. You were both very lucky people.

    1. Thanks so much 😉 Yes, she was a classy dame who played piano like a maestro but couldn’t read sheet music; loved football; read science fiction and murder mysteries; was a bridge card master; and who had what you’d call a very “colorful” past during WWII playing piano in bars and modeling with cars.

      And she never stopped making me laugh — the best kind of class in my book.

      Thank you for letting me share her with you.

    1. I’m thinking that your “Nonnie” would be delighted to read this. I’m sure she was very proud of you. Frankly. Given her profound influence on you, I’m shocked that you don’t write under a pseudonym, you know, something like Gerhardt Dinkledangler 🙂

  4. My favorite and mentor was O’Henry. I loved the twist at the end. I liked the build up and then the end change. The bum is my favorite.

  5. Grandmas are the best. Mine used to keep chocolate sprinkles in a dish on the kitchen counter. Going to Grandma’s house always meant as much chocolate sprinkle eating as we could handle.

    There is nothing a parent (or a parent’s parent) can do that is more important than encouraging a young mind to do what it does best and loves most. Your young mind seems to love what you do. And our minds love that you do it so well.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Your grandma sounds pretty great, and another example of the indelible place special people continue to have in our hearts.

      Thanks for the kind words, Chris, and for letting me share her with you.

  6. Thank you for introducing your Grandma, Ned. Her picture sure doesn’t look like she’s 96, maybe 65 or 70. She sounds like she was a wonderful woman and a caring grandmother. It’s odd how some personal characteristics skip generations. I like the fact that your Grandma encouraged you and that you give her credit for being one of the factors that helped you to be successful. It implies that it is possible, in life, to help others through encouragement. It’s good to know. I’m with MamaMickTerry on this one – speak from your heart and it will be meaningful and valuable to all who listen. Thank You.

  7. “Don’t make anyone the butt of a joke unless you’re willing to show your own cheeks first,”

    Your grandmother sounded like a lady I would have loved to have an afternoon with 🙂 Thank you for sharing some truly lovely wisdom from a lovely lady (which by the way, it looks like you have her smile!)

    1. Yep, she was pretty special. Thank you for letting me share her with you, and having her smile is one of the nicest compliments I could be give; thank you for that as well 😉

  8. Simply lovely! And what a wicked sense of humor she had. My Dad was the one who taught me the most about writing. He’d always tell me to use fewer words. I keep forgetting that he was an English major in college (but had a career as a doctor). Heart warming post, Ned!

    1. Thanks so much, Susan. She was the coolest grandmother, and my Mom is walking those same footsteps with my own children. Your Dad sounds like a wise man in many respects, and his love of writing points to a thoughtful soul. And clearly you are following closely in those footsteps as well 😉

  9. Her advice about humor was spot on. So many people go for the cheap laugh at someone else’s expense instead of realizing that exposing your own faults through humility makes people laugh because they connect with you – and see themselves in a mirror. Thanks for always providing the type of humor we can appreciate, Ned.

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