Just like John (Cougar) Mellencamp, I was born in a small town. And I lived in a small town. Not the same small Indiana town, but close. I grew up in Bloomington.
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, and novels. Some of my earliest hand-written tales were truly gripping. My first real page-turner was titled The Skunk Who Did Not Smell. I 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 apiece, ultimately netting a whopping $8.50.
At age 13, I enrolled at Batchelor Middle School where my social studies teacher scribbled on 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 my battle with anorexia; then again, that ordeal served to inspire 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 spelling of the word “bachelor.”
In high school, I was the weirdo whose heart fluttered any time a teacher assigned a research paper. I pecked away at my dad’s IBM typewriter, making copious notes, then scattered the pages like puzzle pieces across my bedroom floor to determine how best to construct my masterpiece.
When it came time to choose a college, I didn’t have to. Since my dad was an Indiana University professor, his children received a tuition waiver. Therefore, I never bothered touring other campuses as I knew I would never 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 where infamous Coach Bobby Knight 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. Though I wanted to pursue a full-time writing career, my confidence was shaken by my English professors who red-inked my papers within an inch of their life. Plus, a journalism prof warned me that the average annual salary for a journalism graduate was $12,000. Talk about harshing my writing mellow. My mind flashed to the Indiana Jones movie in which several poor souls drink from the wrong chalice. Maybe, I thought, I had chosen poorly.
I didn’t have a Plan B. Writing was my only passion. Only I couldn’t find a job–any job. I was filling out bank teller applications in Tallahassee, Florida, when I was offered a position as a receptionist at SERVE, a Regional Educational Laboratory that published books and materials for low-performing schools. The position enabled me to put some distance between myself and those four years of re ink-soaked term papers to help me figure out if writing was for me.
Over time, I worked my way up the organizational ladder—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. But seriously, I did learn a great deal about the publishing industry during my eight years at SERVE. Still, while I enjoyed my 9-to-5 job, I ached for something more.
I began jotting down story ideas. 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 to a banker’s box, then to a five-gallon plastic tote. I considered pitching them, but I was proud of those rejections; they represented the dogged persistence that led to success. My first big break came when the editor of Campus Life magazine published my story titled Diary of an Anorexic. Others followed as I published features in Cat Fancy, Cats USA, and Kittens USA. (I like to think Christy’s Cuddly Cats Magazine laid the groundwork here.)
Through the years, I’ve written for more than 60 magazines, always eager to write about anything and everything–from luxurious featured cabins to innovative composting toilets. I’m nothing if not well informed.
I’ve now been a freelance writer for 18+ years and have more than 1,000 publications to my credit, plus contributions to 24 anthologies, including 12 in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
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. After eight years living 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