Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Win One for the Gipper (Or Lessons on the Field of Writing Dreams)

Who is your most inspiring writing coach and what's the hardest lesson he/she's taught you on the field?

Ellie Kay once asked this question and it was tough question and memory-producer by the sheer act of posing a question. Most inspiring? Sigh. Many inspiring coaches. Hardest lesson?? Ack! Who wants to recall the “agony of defeat?” But that comes along with “the thrill of victory” (you have to be old to know where I got all of these quotes…)

I’ve played sports most of my life. Not very well, mind you, and I’ve also coached teams (and was paid.) I coached one team that won the girls' city track and field championships. One of my girls I worked with in physical education classes later went on be a state HS and college women’s standout in basketball. (But she was good, and all I did was encourage her, even though I teased it was all of those basketball scrimmages I played with her.)

I have my favorite teams and sports to watch and play, and get this, I wanted to be a sports newspaper writer when I graduated from college. In fact in high school I was the sports editor—the first female sports editor—of my high school newspaper, The Clan Courier. It was my sports writing that won me a journalism scholarship to Ball State University.

I also wrote the copy for a two page-sports spread in our high school yearbook. It was all about girls getting into organized sports, something that was new to our high school and the state, and about sweating. So, when you think of a coach, you might think I would say my best coach was some sports coach I had.

I can name one coach in sports who motivated and inspired me. But this question was about my best coaches in writing, and I have two standouts in this field who coached me and taught me the tough lessons. They taught me to pick my mouse up, get my fingers back on the keyboard, rewrite, and go on (wiping all that blood off the monitor.)The hardest fought and learned lessons for me seem to be echoed in the words from a golf coach: “Wipe the blood off--and continue.” Didn’t know golf could be bloody, huh? Well, yeah, even golf can leave a scar.

Dr. Dennis E. Hensley was my first official writing coach, when at age 40 I decided I wanted to try writing again and get back into the game professionally. He not only taught us about writing, but made us critique in the circle of doom with our classmates. (Ooooo. Scary. Ask Diann Hunt about it.) He also made us submit our work for publication as part of the class assignments (professional writing course.) It is one thing to turn in a paper for a grade, but it is quite an experience submitting your work to an editor. And critique is tough, but Doc taught me how to take critique. And from whom to take it, which is just as important.

Fiction is my first love and that was my first class with “Doc.” We experimented with all sorts of fiction assignments, and in one assignment, it wasn’t in the classroom where I got my first major critique, but on a break in the hallway early on in the semester course. On that now-burned-into-my-emotional-memory-banks evening, I chatted with classmates trying to get to know them in the 7th-inning stretch of the class. I got a drink of water from the fountain, and was strolling back to the classroom, when Doc stopped me in the hallway. He moved into my “personal space” and came within inches of my face.

Now, I had heard all kinds of stories about Doc Hensley. One was that he hated it if you were late, and would lock you out of the class. Another was that he had fought in and survived Vietnam. So, here he was within inches of my face, and all I had at that point were hearsays about him. It was a tense moment--wannabe writer eyeball-to-eyeball with the legendary Doc Hensley. I decided to stand my ground and not move. Good grief, I had survived worse, I reasoned in my mind. Being raised up with boys, having my own 4 boys and marrying into a family with mostly males, being the first female sports editor, first female on an all-male school, being a trapshooter, when it was still male-dominated, amongst other heinous acts of survival. I had learned to never give up an inch of ground when confronted.

“I haaaaate you," he said. Yeah. Right in my face. I'm sure I blinked.


Well, I couldn’t help it, even though I hesitated a second. I laughed. Right out loud.

“Ok, Dr. Hensley…why do you hate me--exactly?” I thought I saw a glint of humor in his eye.

“For what you did to me in that story. You tricked me.”

I was thrilled. He actually knew my story and that I wrote it! I didn’t even think he knew my name. But he sure knew my story.

“What do you think I should do differently?”

And so he coached me through what was wrong. He showed me how I could do it right, and he let me rewrite. And I did it again until he, as the reader/editor, was satisfied with it. I learned a lot about critique in that first personal reader confrontation.

A good coach not only makes you get up again, but makes you do it right. He finds a way to jolt you into reality and then, makes you do it again until you can do it. It’s not enough to just tell you something is wrong. It’s not enough to make you do it over and over, or punish you, because you could just be repeating the same wrong move again and again. A good coach MOTIVATES you to do it beyond of which you even think you are capable.

Since that early meeting on the playing field with Doc Hensley, I have learned so many things from him in writing and perseverence. But that first shock and awe of meeting face-to-face and toe-to-toe with one of the best coaches I’ve ever had was memorable—and we laugh about it even years later.

I really cannot leave this question without acknowledging another coach who has taught me many lessons in writing, and some really tough lessons, too. Terry Whalin was one of the first editors I ever "faced" at a writer's conference. I had written a few articles and had a nonfiction women's humor book I was hoping to sell. That manuscript met with a lot of rejections, but not so much because it was bad, as I didn't have the credentials or the platform from which to write it.

Essentially, Terry Whalin was the first to sit me down on the bench. Even though he rejected the manuscript,he's not the kind of editor, writer, teacher, coach who leaves writers without good, solid advice and plenty of encouragement to continue on.Get back in the game, Crystal!

Most importantly, he taught me that just because an editor rejects your work, (pretty hard lesson, even for the toughest among us,)this doesn't mean that's the end of the road for either the editor/writer relationship, or the manuscript.

Years later he encouraged me to break up that rejected manuscript into articles, other types of pieces, and send it out some more, and that was after I'd placed it into some long-ago-pushed-to-the-back file. Because I continued to listen to editors and their comments, and even an agent who rejected me (on that same manuscript,) I still have relationships with these people and have even done work for them. That is mostly due to Terry Whalin, who continues to ask about my writing and to encourage my work. (And I'm not the only one by a long shot.)

These people and so many more now, show me how to deal with rejection and losses and how important relationships are.

Never give up. Keep knocking on doors. Onward.

Writing is a very tough business. Even the best need help with their manuscripts, and even the most published continue to get rejections. I know this now.

These two coaches are effective in their coaching because they've been through almost every kind of playing situation that can be thrown at a writer. And what makes their coaching inspirational is that they care about the players (writers)and know how to motivate and teach.

While they aren't afraid to call a player out and deal with him, they also care about the player so much that they push him to the best that he can be. That's what your next editor, or if you're looking for an agent, the next agent who reads your proposal can be. Or maybe it will be that published author who takes interest in your work or a really good critique partner.

Tough lessons. Tough coaches. I count many now among my friends, and as well as count them as my mentors.

So, who is your most inspiring coach, and what hard lesson did he/she teach you?

Crystal Laine Miller


  1. Wow, what a great post. One of the recent meetings in Fort Wayne was my first exposure to Doc DH. I think having a mentor or "someone more in the know" than yourself in writing is crucial to one's success story.

  2. Thanks, Darren! Yes, we can find mentors all around us--people who encourage and refine our craft and help us on the road. All the Hoosier Ink people are mentoring us on this blog! I learn so much here.

    And thanks, Darren, for all of your work you've been doing here.

  3. I would have to say that Doc Hensley is on the top of my list of mentors and coaches. I am honored to be able to say I sat in his classes!