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Two days at Graham High School – My Writing Journey

This past week, I had the wonderful opportunity of visiting with the students at Graham High School, my alma mater, in Bluefield, Virginia.

My former classmate and current GHS teacher and coach, Debra Brewster, invited me to speak to the English classes about my writing journey.  I was both honored and thrilled by the opportunity.  And a little scared.  Though I don’t claim to be a public speaker, I’ve stood behind the podium and talked to hundreds of adults on a few occasions, but facing a library full of high schoolers was still a bit intimidating (nine presentations in two days). 

With Debra Brewster

We got through it, though, and the students at GHS are simply wonderful.  They were engaging, asked great questions, and offered insights that I did not expect.  It was two wonderful and rewarding days.  

Special thanks to the awesome GHS librarian Laura Blevins (also a former classmate) for all her assistance too! 

With Laura Blevins

My presentation was about the passion of writing, rather than the mechanics of writing.  The English department does a wonderful job teaching the tools of writing, so I wanted to focus on the feeling behind the words.  Relating writing to other forms of art, I reminded them that we all have the ability to write, and to create art, because we all have our own unique story, our own perspective, and the ability to feel.  

“Don’t be afraid to share your story!” I said. 

My first example was the story my first ever blog post (link below) titled “The Game.”  Although the story was about my recollections of a game way back in 1985, it was relatable, because The Game (the Graham Bluefield rivalry game) is still a big deal, and almost every student attended this year’s edition in August.  

I shared this story because “The Game” remains my most viewed, and most read blog post to date.  Not because it is so well written, or because of the outcome of the story.  Rather, it is because all of the history, hype, and fanfare around the game still evokes great emotion.  It’s an annual tradition that rings close to anyone that has experienced the event.   My simple recollections of that long-ago event, tapped those emotions and captured a feeling.

https://joecundiff.com/the-game/

Another example of using our own real-life stories came from my poem, “Huckleberry Dreams.”  This a narrative poem that maps the confluence of my childhood growing up on the banks of the Bluestone River, and the journey that lead me to the banks of the Mighty Mississippi River.  Sharing the backstory with the students about how a friend and I discovered a raft floating down the river that flowed next to our homes, and how that discovery unleashed a world of dreams and endless possibilities in the mind of a young boy.  

After reading this poem to each class, I asked for any comments or observations.  Without fail, someone in each class commented on the imagery, and the flow of the story.  I was impressed with some of the comments on pacing. Further, I shared that the challenge that enticed me to write, was this idea of capturing the way a place feels with words.  My rewards are the responses, “I felt like I was there…”  

https://joecundiff.com/huckleberry-dreams/

Some stories are painful, but worth sharing too.  I didn’t read “The Trophy” to the class, for lack of time and more to cover, but shared the idea that was a story that I did not want to write.  

It’s a true story of my bow hunting journey in the Sawtooth Wilderness of Idaho, for a trophy elk.  Not wanting to spoil the ending for any potential readers, I left out the details (you can read at the link below) but shared that the outcome of the story was not what I had planned.  Upon returning home, I had shared this outcome with a friend, and said if it had worked out differently, it would have been a wonderful story to write.  He quickly corrected me and said, “that is the story Joe, write it!”  

I relented and wrote the story.  Two things happened.  The first is that many readers shared how they related to the story, though most had never been on a Rocky Mountain elk hunting trip, or anything like it.  But, many said, they could see, hear, and smell every piece of action.  And feel the pain of a bitter end.  

https://joecundiff.com/the-trophy/

My journey to capture the way a story feels called upon personal experiences, and led to the second big thing: my journey with an editor.  “The Trophy” was the first story that I had professionally edited, and I told the students of GHS, that may have been more painful than the actual outcome of the story.  After writing the first draft of the story, I thought it was a masterfully written piece of classic literature.  The editor’s review told me otherwise.  I had a lot of work to do.  

My point is that we seldom, maybe never, capture it perfectly the first time. Whether writing, painting, sculpting, creating music – anytime we do something worth doing, it’s worth doing it over and over again, until we get it right.  

“The craft of writing is never perfected, only pursued with great passion, and an endless desire to perfectly capture the feeling.”  

My professional editor has been with me for twenty years now, and I’ve added another to the mix.  I’m either that good, or that bad, that I need two. Regardless, I’m still learning and I’ll always need that second or third set of eyes (and ears) to pursue this passion.  

“We never stop learning our craft.”

This journey lead to a brief discussion about my new novel, Broken Chain – The Echo of Lone Howls. (available now on Amazon.com)  After sharing a little background about the inspiration for the book, and how it evolved with me, I read the first chapter.  This brought me near the end of my time with each session, but always had a little time for comments and questions.

https://www.amazon.com/Broken-Chain-Echo-Lone-Howls-ebook/dp/B07Q7YY36H/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

The students loved the imagery and the action.  They liked the protagonist Biggs, already, after just one chapter.  And they wanted to know more.  Capturing the attention of library full of high school students, with my words, was the culmination of this writing journey.  An idea that begin with a simple desire to tell a story, and capture the feeling with words, went beyond my expectations.  

Cover of Broken Chain

As a reward for inviting me to visit my alma mater, the students were able to download the ebook edition of Broken Chain – The Echo of Lone Howls for free.  My ask was that they read it, and invite me back to discuss in more detail.  

My challenge to the students, and to you:  We all have a unique story, don’t be afraid to share that story.  Create, then share.