Just like John (Cougar) Mellencamp, I was born in a small town. And I lived in a small town. Not exactly the same small Indiana town as John, but close. He was singing about Seymour. I was born 50 miles away, in Bloomington.
I was educated in that same small town. I attended Child’s Elementary School, where I spent many-a-recess period running away from Russell, a peaked-too-early, die-hard romantic third-grader, who desperately wanted to kiss me on the cheek and give me jewelry.
During these formative years, when I wasn’t eluding Russell, I did a lot of writing. I penned short stories, comic books, novels, even song lyrics. Some of my earliest hand-written tales were truly gripping. I believe my first real page-turner was titled The Skunk Who Did Not Smell. I later followed that with a periodical called Christy’s Cuddly Cats Magazine—a “one-woman show,” as it were, because I did all of the researching, writing, editing, proofreading, artwork, marketing, and distribution for the magazine. I then sold each individually-typed manuscript to neighbors for 50 cents a piece, ultimately netting a whopping $8.50.
At age 13, I moved on to Batchelor Middle School. It was there that my social studies teacher, Mr. Daugherty, scribbled on the top of one of my papers, “You do an excellent job of using transitions.” That compliment was the single best thing that happened to me in middle school. It sure beat the month-long hospitalization I endured when anorexia was kicking my scrawny butt; then again, that trying ordeal served as inspiration for the first article I ever sold to a national magazine (more on that later). Honestly, though, the thing that most sticks with me from my time at Batchelor was how the unique spelling of the school’s name has caused me, ever since, to have to pause and really think about the correct way to spell the word “bachelor.”
I enrolled at Bloomington High School South with a horrible bob haircut and legs as skinny as Mr. Grue from Despicable Me. The bright spot was when I landed a spot on the Pompette dance squad. I rocked the half-time shows to old-school jams like Kool & the Gang’s “Victory,” Elvis’ “Jail House Rock,” and Tina Turner’s “Shake a Tail Feather.” Now, when I review video footage of me shaking my bony tail feather in my ultra-short uniform—the one that showed off those frightfully skinny bird legs—I tear up a bit, and not because I’m waxing nostalgic.
Thankfully, by junior year, I had grown out my hair and put on some weight. I even took up cross-country in an effort to please my dad, who was a high school and college track and cross-country star. As a teen, my athletic father scored the nickname “Flash.” Mine was more along the lines of “Slug.” Mercifully, I came down with mono toward the end of the season, putting myself—and all meet spectators—out of our collective misery.
When it came time to choose a college, I didn’t have to fret about where to go because my parents had this planned out while I was still in utero. Since my dad was an Indiana University professor, his children would receive a tuition waiver. Therefore, I never bothered touring other campuses as I knew it would be tough to convince my parents that another institution was better than the free one.
I didn’t mind, though. I’d been an Indiana Hoosier since birth and had grown up watching IU basketball. I celebrated as Steve Alford and his teammates—all donning their short-shorts that rivaled my Pompette uniform—brought home the 1987 NCAA title. Through the years, Coach Bobby Knight taught me a number of things, none of which directly related to the game of basketball. For instance, at one infamous game I attended, he demonstrated the quickest way to get a folding chair from one side of the court to the other. During press conferences, he made it abundantly clear that there is, indeed, such a thing as a stupid question. Also, Bobby regularly demonstrated how a single expletive could be used as a noun, adjective, verb, and adverb all in the context of the same sentence. This skill fascinated a wordsmith like me.
I graduated from IU in 1995 with a double degree in English and Secondary Education. I had every intention of pursuing a full-time writing career. I was nervous, though, because deep down, I questioned whether I had what it took to make it as a writer. My confidence had been bruised during college each time one of my English professors passed back a term paper, red-inked within an inch of its life. To add insult to injury, a journalism prof knocked the wind out of my sails when she warned me that the average journalism graduate earned a starting salary of $12,000 a year. Talk about harshing on my writing mellow. My mind flashed to the third movie in the Indiana Jones trilogy—the one in which several poor souls drink from the wrong chalice. Maybe, I thought, I had chosen poorly.
I didn’t have a Plan B alternate career path. Writing was my only passion. Besides, I wasn’t very good at anything else. I failed college math the first time I took it (numbers are my kryptonite). I barely scraped by in Biology as that course involved equations and dissection, both of which were icky to me. History was interesting, but memorizing all of those dates (more numbers)—did not come easy to me. Also, Spanish was muy difficult-ando. Come to think of it, besides my writing courses, the only other class I truly enjoyed and excelled in was a criminal justice course titled “The Theories of Crime and Deviance.” What that says about my character, I do not know.
Upon graduation, I couldn’t find a job—any job. Depressed not only that I may not be writing for a living, but also that I may not even be able to earn a living, I once again took up running to burn off some stress. I found that I enjoyed running much more this time around, when I wasn’t being chased and heckled.
As for my job search, I was beginning to lose hope. I was literally in the middle of filling out teller applications at every bank in Tallahassee, Florida, when I was offered a position as a receptionist at SERVE, a Regional Educational Laboratory. It wasn’t exactly my dream job, but that was okay. I needed to put a little distance between myself and those four years of red ink-soaked term papers. Doing so would help me figure out if writing was in my soul, in my blood, and in my future. In the meantime, my daytime gig paid the rent. Plus, now that I lived in the sunshine state, for the first time in my life, I got to sunbathe on my winter birthday. Score!
Over time, I worked my way up the ladder at SERVE—moving from receptionist to Distribution Specialist to Information Communications Specialist to Assistant Program Specialist (oddly, during my tenure at SERVE, I never once specialized in anything). If I learned nothing else from time spent working at this organization, it’s that job titles are meaningless. Okay, so I also learned a great deal about the publishing industry during my eight years at SERVE, having written and edited a number of books, reports, policy briefs, newsletters, guidebooks, and trainer’s guides. I enjoyed the people, the process, and the pride I took in producing high-quality publications for schools with low-performing students. Still, while I enjoyed my 9-to-5 job, I ached for something more.
So I began jotting down story ideas in my free time. I bought the Writer’s Market and taught myself how to compose a query letter. I created a file labeled “Acceptance Letters” and another labeled “Rejections.” The second file ultimately grew so large that I had to move it to an accordion file, then later to a banker’s box, then later to a five-gallon plastic tote. My family thought I was nuts for hanging on to all those negative reminders of people who said “no,” but I saw those letters as part of my journey. Thankfully, that journey has included some successes, as well. My first big break came from a Christianity Today publication called Campus Life. The editor liked my story titled Diary of an Anorexic and wanted to publish it. I was so excited, I nearly peed my pants.
A number of other Christian publications—Encounter, Young Salvationist, Insight, Now What?, Today’s Christian Teen, Breakaway, and Brio—also published my articles. I also placed work in Cat Fancy, Cats USA, Kittens USA, and Pet Services Journal. (I like to think Christy’s Cuddly Cats Magazine laid the groundwork here.)
In 2002, my parents, who had been long-time cabin owners, turned me on to a magazine called Cabin Life (now Cabin Living).
“You’ve gotta write for this publication!” Dad said. I agreed. The following year, the magazine published Bursting at the Seams, a piece about how various families reacted when their broods had grown so large that they could no longer all fit in their cabins. I continued pitching ideas to the editor, and after awhile, he began giving me assignments. To date, I have written over 200 articles for Cabin Life/Cabin Living and have loved researching and writing each one. I have never once turned down an assignment—and I never will. I am happy as a clam to write about anything and everything—from luxurious featured cabins to innovative composting toilets. I am nothing if not informed.
In 2012, my Cabin Living editor offered me my own column titled Now & Then. Check it out! Each essay focuses on fun times and great memories. You can also read my book Cabin Glory: Amusing Tales of Time Spent at the Family Retreat, a compilation of personal stories divided into four sections (Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer). Buy a copy today!
I also continue to write for a number of other magazines and university newsletters. I have contributed to several anthologies, including five in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, the most recent being printed in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Angels and Miracles, which was released in November 2016.
I once read that women and men function differently (well, duh). But think in terms of a computer. Where a man prefers focusing on one computer screen at a time, women tend to have five, six, seven windows running at once, and they bop back and forth between them. That’s what I like to do when it comes to juggling various projects. That way, I never get bored. Not that I’ve experienced a moment of boredom since becoming a mom, but you get my point.
The bottom line is, as long as I’m writing, I’m happy. Happy, just like small-town John Mellencamp, who broke away, but never really strayed from his roots. I’m the same way. After eight years in sunny Florida, I moved back to Indiana. Why? Well, on 2-degree days—when I can see my breath but can’t feel my hands—I ask myself that very question. I guess it’s because, like John, I can breathe in a small town and be myself in a small town. Also, I hate traffic.
Oh, and as a side note: Russell, if you’re out there, I will gladly accept that lovely heart-shaped locket now. I’ve learned a lot since my time at Child’s Elementary—namely, that life is too short to run from jewelry.
— Christy Heitger-Ewing