By Clay Coleman
VANDALIA—“You write like a reader,” she tells me as she scans the cigarette pack in her hand. It was closing time, and I was stocking up for one more story, my last before leaving the paper for good.
I ask her what she meant by that, and embarrassed, she quickly changes the subject.
“Why do you always say, ‘the color of my heart’ when I ask if you want the black and blue pack?”
“It has seen some tough times,” I decide to leave out hypoxia’s deadly irony.
“Haven’t we all,” she laughs as she hands me the bag.
I watch her lock the sliding doors in front of the store as I sit in my car, thinking about what she said. And as I pull away for another night of pacing the floors and starting over from scratch, I regret not telling her that the reason why I write the way I do is because I am here.
In October of last year, I decided to take a chance and moved back home to Missouri. I was running from a period of stagnation, of little to no drive in my life, and I was determined to follow a new path. For years, I had done nothing but go on deployments and have kids grow up fatherless, but after letting go of those ghosts still haunting me, rediscovering my family, and going back to school on the G.I. Bill, I followed a childhood dream and became a writer.
After arriving in Vandalia and landing the job as the reporter/editor for The Vandalia Leader, I decided to write to my strengths and concentrate on story-driven content, excluding the myriad of off-the-wall submissions and articles from other news sources. The paper was in the throes of bankruptcy, and after months of staff changes and years of declining ad revenue, my publisher was desperate for change and welcomed the shift away from a news-driven focus.
The small-town newspaper industry had been struck hard by online media and advances in technology over the years. Ad revenue dries up as small businesses close their doors to online retailers, and readers reach for a smartphone or look at a watch before buying a printed paper. Ask any student in high school if they’ve ever read the newspaper, and chances are they will tell you no. I ask them all the time.
At the beginning of November, after the parade downtown had come and gone, I started writing my stories. I wrote about stoic veterans who could make you laugh, a down-to-the-wire ambulance ride, a retiring bus driver whose humility outshined all in her presence, and a Christmas parade that was so overwhelming it brought me to my knees. Everything seemed to be working, and by the end of the holidays, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I’ve made mistakes along the way. When your writing style stays in the narrative, you use emotion to help drive the story. Most of the time, you can find a positive to emphasize, but when you have to go negative, those emotions can cut deep. In a news story, a reporter can tailor quotes to set the mood, but to a writer, you’re going to get the fire hose. Still, I’ve always believed in the Press’ objectivity, and I see how easy it can go the other way.
We go from a decision awarding licenses to a new industry (medical marijuana), to the coronavirus blanketing the country, and driving us indoors. Like everyone else, we brought home our computers, scoured the internet for signs of life, and flooded the paper with information and casualty figures. Every day, it seemed like I was posting on Facebook what to do if you feel sick or where to go if you are. The paper started to go back in the other direction, more news-oriented, as readers demanded updates on testing, which stores still had products, or whether school would be in secession the following week.
And as the pandemic went on from weeks to months, the economy plummeted, schools closed for the year, and people retreated to their homes, jobless. We at the paper were not immune to the virus’s effects, as we cut staff even further, went down to part-time, and tried to survive like everyone else. At our darkest hour, there were five of us working on three different papers. It seemed like the only thing going right for us was the weather and the incredible silence that permeated everything.
By the time it was only me at this paper’s office, the disillusionment had fully set in. The few news submissions that came in online, were matched by the amount of advertisement our one salesperson was generating. It was depressing, but to be honest, I knew I was done on Memorial Day. I went to the town’s cemetery to cover a ceremony put on by the local Women’s Auxilliary. The embarrassment I felt as I took pictures of the faces remembering the dead drove me to my car, where backing-up just as the ceremony was about to begin, I left. I realized then that I want to choose my stories, not have them chosen for me.
As we continue to search for the all-clear sign and wonder what this period of introspection has in store for us, a replacement for me has been found. I understand he has years of experiencing writing for newspapers and magazines and wanted to put his “hat in the ring” one last time. I’m excited about his arrival and look forward to introducing him to the people and organizations here. Look for his bio in an upcoming issue.
So, that’s it. My time at The Vandalia Leader is complete. The cigarette pack is empty, the sun is out (OK, a hurricane just came through), and the clock is creeping closer to deadline (I set them back an hour).
Everywhere I go, I take a piece of that experience, a portion of it, and I store it away, saving it for when I need it the most. It fills my writers’ toolbox; it gives me the fuel to draw upon as I search for the real meaning behind “Hineni” or “Here I am,” spoken by Abraham in awe, love, and pain when answering God. I always thought there should be a comma after here.