Archived Opinion

When it’s all about the writing, I’m all in

Even after laboring for some two decades at various news publications I can’t say that I ever particularly considered myself “a writer.” A reporter, an investigative reporter, an editor, a newspaper administrator: those were some of the labels that fit comfortably, but not writer.

It seemed, I don’t know, too literary, sensitive and highbrow for the sort of work I was doing. Covering car wrecks one day, county meetings the next, the latest political scandal the day after that.

Frankly, many of the people I worked for at those newspapers didn’t particularly value good writing, anyway. They valued fast, accurate and clean reporting, preferably delivered on deadline without any lip. I became fairly adept at that style of journalism, and often revert to straight-up and stripped-down news writing when pressured or tired. Traditional news writing is a nice method of delivering information. But that’s all it does — deliver information.

There is much more that can be done than that. Writers tell stories. Writers, including those at newspapers, can use literary devices such as foreshadowing, scene setting and character development. Writers place facts into context. Writers give readers pleasure or enrage them, but they always keep them feeling and thinking.

Fortunately, The Smoky Mountain News allows, even encourages and demands, experimentation. And since experiments generally fail more than they succeed, that can be a risky proposition for those on high. It’s much easier and safer to squelch any little writerly tendencies reporters might show. Before long, and I speak from experience, reporters simply quit trying to make their news copy interesting. The result is a boring publication that delivers information and nothing else, certainly not reader enjoyment.

The Smoky Mountain News is truly unique in being a publication that so emphatically values writers and writing. In addition to letting on-staff writers such as myself experiment, the newspaper places a strong emphasis on highlighting “literary” writers and their works. Some of the region’s best write columns and book reviews for The Smoky Mountain News, bringing their writing directly into these pages for the benefit of us all.

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Because of this emphasis on good writing, one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job is getting to talk to and interview some of these writers. This isn’t exactly The Paris Review’s Writers at Work interview series, but within this publication’s format regional authors are encouraged to discuss their life and art at length.

There is simply no other publication I know in Western North Carolina providing this level of writer and reader service. A great example is this week’s cover story on writer, storyteller and all-around regional personality Gary Carden.

I’ve known Gary since I was 5 or 6 years old. When I was a few years older than that, say 9 or 10, I clearly remember him setting up for plays in the old school located at Mark Watson Park in Sylva. I don’t know why we were there; my parents didn’t act in plays. But my Dad wrote and Gary wrote and that made for commonalities.

What impressed me most while at that old school-turned-playhouse was stumbling across a box full of classical music cassettes. I assume they were Gary’s.

I was crazy for classical music. It was, as you might imagine, in short supply in my hometown of Bryson City. A box containing classical music recordings was, to me, better than a box full of chocolates, gold, or whatever delights you personally care to conjure up. Here I tell on myself: I stole one of Gary’s cassettes, Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” and listened to it rapturously for years.

I was thinking about that tape, and what it meant to me, while interviewing him for this week’s article. He’s 77 now, I’m 45 — a bit of water has passed under the bridge for both of us.

For most writers, the opportunity to talk about writing is a delight. The shared love of writing and literature transcends everything and can bring two otherwise unlike people together more quickly than almost anything else I’ve ever experienced. Although it felt a little odd at first to interview a giant of my childhood, the time spent with Gary quickly evolved into a lovely conversation between two writers.

I enjoyed quizzing Gary on how he works, why he works and where his work emanates from. I always ask writers who has influenced their writing style the most profoundly. Gary talked about Thomas Wolfe. His eyes lit up and he had the look and sound of a true convert — I knew exactly how he felt.

Debussy had that kind of influence on me musically. And what trains the ear trains the eye, too — thanks, Gary, for that lovely tape of music, and I’m only sorry it was theft on my part and not a gift on yours.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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