On Writing

Faithful readers may have noticed that it's been a while since I added a link from the local paper to my sidebar. For about three years, I had a column in the paper every 6 to 8 weeks. Last summer the editing of the Religion and Values page changed hands, and coincidentally I took the summer off from writing columns, and since then I just haven't been able to get back into the rotation, though I've sent in several pieces. The previous editor gave me a date for which to aim, and I worked well with a deadline. The current editor claims to use things in the order they were submitted and warns against writing anything too "seasonal." Thus my Election Day piece, written that week, was set aside, and I was among many who sent Advent-themed materials (an essay about Sam waiting to lick my oatmeal bowl, expanded from a post here).

I take a casual glance at the Religion page each week, either in hard copy or online. The titles of the Reflections column mean nothing, since they are, as is typical in newspapers, headlines of the paper's desire and not the titles I have given my writing. I am looking for my name.

Today I received a dismaying email from the new editor:

Hi, (Songbird).
I’m trying to track down the author of a Reflections that ran on Jan. 17 while I
was out sick and was attributed to the wrong author. Rev. Protestant Chaplain thought it
might be you. It begins, “When I was a little girl growing up in Portsmouth,
Va., I thought I knew my world well. It consisted of the route from home to the
Court Street Baptist Church, which happened to pass my father's law office and
my godmother's apartment.”

Can you let me know if you are the author? I’d
like to give credit where it’s due!

Oh, man. Not only did they print my piece under someone else's name, they did it with a piece I loved especially, using a signature opening phrase. (AND it only got in because he was away.) The date of publication was appropriate enough, I guess, because it came on the weekend before the inauguration and was written in response to the election.

But, oh! Those are my words, and that is my life, and I feel violated now.

Being asked to write for the paper helped me learn to see writing as part of my calling, as a form of ministry. It gave me feedback from a different audience. I took for granted that my words would be known as MINE.

Sometimes I read a discussion of what makes a person a writer. Is it the writing itself? Is it being published? Is it being paid for it?

Today I think you're a writer when your words feel like your children.

The pieces the newspapers print are usually theirs for a certain length of time, but because I am so disappointed, I give it to you here, in full, as written and very much as preached to a gathering of the Maine Council of Churches on the Friday after election day. (A shorter version appeared here.)


When I was a little girl growing up in Portsmouth, Va., I thought I
knew my world well. It consisted of the route from home to the Court
Street Baptist Church, which happened to pass my father's law office
and my godmother's apartment.

On special occasions it expanded to Monumental Methodist Church,
where my grandmother went, or to the Governor Dinwiddie Hotel, where I
had lunch with my grandmother and godmother in the coffee shop, where
the hard, cold ice cream came in a chilled metal dish.

I thought I knew Portsmouth well. But in my first year of seminary,
I met a classmate who also grew up in Portsmouth and realized I quite
literally did not know half of my hometown. While I skipped around
historic Olde Towne, enjoying the slapping sound my black patent
leather shoes made on the brick sidewalks, Gordon grew up in the
neighborhood of Effingham Street, where the concrete sidewalks ran in
front of much smaller houses.

I knew Effingham Street because our maid, Catherine, lived there.

Gordon's dad pastored a church, and when he told me the name, I
realized there must be a whole world of churches in Portsmouth that I
never knew. In a class titled "Hymns and Worship," we compared our
backgrounds while singing music from lots of traditions and working on
a group project together.

One day the instructor had us turn to a hymn I did not know, and as
was our practice, we stood to sing it together. Gordon said to me,
"This is the Black National Anthem." The beautiful words written by the
poet James Weldon Johnson – how did I not know them? I lived, still, in
a cocoon of comfort and privilege, without realizing.

Lift every voice and sing,

'Til earth and heaven ring,

Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march on 'til victory is won.

Gordon and I knew the world, even our hometown, differently, and yet
we shared another part of our heritage in common: words of Scripture
and lessons learned in Sunday school.

"More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter
also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb./Moreover by them is
your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward." (Psalm

Although I began my life in a place where water fountains still bore
labels of "White" and "Colored," I heard something in the word of God
that transcended the facts of life in the early 1960s. I heard that
Jesus loved not just me, but all the little children. I went out into
the world sheltered from differences but open to understanding them.

I thought of Gordon after the election, as we began a new era in our
nation, one in which limited images for who can be president or who
might live in the White House will be changed forever.

I hope I will continue to have my eyes opened about the differences
between my reality and the way other people live, the challenges they
may face and the commonalities we share. As the president-elect said in
his speech on election night, "Our stories are singular, but our
destiny is shared." To that great truth, may we lift every voice and
say, "Amen!"


If they change the credit for it on the paper's website, I'll add a link in the sidebar.

14 thoughts on “On Writing”

  1. Songbird wrote: “If they change the credit for it on the paper’s website, I’ll add a link in the sidebar.”
    No, no, not “if.” The newspaper should change the author’s credit immediately and run a correction in the next edition of the paper. If you need me, I speak lawyer, and would be glad to provide a gentle reminder of their obligations regarding your intellectual property.

  2. What Ruby said…really, that’s the LEAST they could do.
    And how frustrating…seems like giving people a specific date to write for would make much more sense.

  3. Oh Wow! That is fantastic. The editor should be tarred and feathered and hauled out of town on a rail. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  4. Interesting….I didn’t know that about “Lift Every Voice and Sing”….I didn’t even know it was a hymn. I grew up in a small town about 45 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pa. Lift Every Voice and Sing was the name of our music book in 4th and 5th grades. And that song (hymn?) was a mainstay in music class.
    Funny….that was in 1962-63. A year before the 1964 Civil Right Act. 5th grade was the year we stopped saying the Lord’s prayer after the pledge of allegiance every morning in school.
    There were only a hand full of African American families in the whole district of that small, agrarian, and light manufacturing district.

  5. I agree with your readers who say that your name must be added. A Correction/ Apology is also in order. There’s really no excuse for that kind of sloppiness.
    And the piece is lovely.

  6. They’ve got my name on it now, but it still is followed by the other columnist’s bio.

  7. SB, there is no end to the misery + fear
    + incompetence at the PPH building these days. I’m not — by any means! — trying to excuse that inane mistake, just passing along what I know. The vast majority of good reporters + editors I know abandoned that sinking ship long ago. I’m sorry you got caught in the crosshairs, and unfortunately I think it’s indicative of the sorry state of journalism in our fair region.
    Not sure why I took my name off this, btw, except Teh Google…

  8. I totally understand, Writer Pal from South City By the Sea (although haven’t I made City By the Sea famous?). I think all local journalism is in severe decline. How will we ever know what’s really going on?

  9. I’m so sorry this happened Songbird. It is a violation – a very real one, and I wish it had not happened to you. You deserve better. It’s good that they corrected the website, but they also need to print a correction in the next hard copy.

  10. That was such a lovely piece. I’m so sorry you had this painful thing happen. As a writer, I can imagine how that must sting.

  11. Hi Songbird,
    I agree that an apology/correction is in order, plus the fixing of the bio. In fact, I think they should re-run the whole thing in entirety with the RIGHT by-line and RIGHT bio (plus automatically take anything else you care to submit and print that too!!!). We’re a little biased here on your blog, but the first part of my comment is seriously the least they should do!!!!
    –Neighbor Lady

  12. Sad but true, editors occasionally drop the ball (some more often than others). By now they should have printed a correction notice – and apology! – and updated the online version with your name and bio. But few if any newspapers would re-print any article in full just to correct the credits. They can’t spare the space in an era where newspapers are folding every day.
    So as long as the online version is now correct, accept their apology but use it as an opportunity to coerce the editor into getting you back into regular rotation.
    La Reina

  13. I still think they should reprint the whole article and an apology.
    It’s a glorious article.
    After you first wrote this, I asked our choir director if we could sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” (It’s in the Episcopal Hymnal, but I have NEVER heard it sung in my church!)
    He said it would really be difficult without the sort of accompanist who could “groove” on it. Well, we have a new organist, and I’ll be asking again! I think it’s darned important. I bet very few there will know it (though we do have some African and African American members) and it will be good for them. HAH!

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