501 Life Magazine | Writing without a helmet
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Writing without a helmet

by Vivian Lawson Hogue

I am sometimes asked where I get ideas for my columns, and the answer is easy. They’re from the past and present, the things I know best. They can relate to family, friends, newspaper items or experiences. Any of them can lead me down the road to humor or history. 

One of my traits for which I am grateful is curiosity. If I don’t know something, I research it. If I don’t recall a detail, I can only go to those near my age or much older for clarification. Regrettably, my “much older” sources are becoming fewer, but I can rely on living contacts, old books and documents, and, yes, even the cemeteries. I am grateful for the Internet, but also waiting to see how that can be further ruined by ne’er-do-wells and evil-doers.

Sometimes I can see a person, thing or an old newspaper item that makes me want to develop a written piece. For six years I wrote more than 100 articles featuring Old Conway’s historic houses for our local newspaper. They are removed from its archives now, so I am glad I had the opportunity to cover the houses’ first or early owners, styles and a lot of Conway history. Adding to my own memories, I interviewed, researched and toured the homes, learning as I went.

At a weekly rate of 25¢, the local newspaper of my youth was the Log Cabin Democrat, owned and published by Frank Robins III. We also subscribed to the former Arkansas Gazette. In my youth, the open papers were impressive when spread out on the homemade braided rug in front of our old Dearborn heater.

Until the mid-1990s, open papers were 34 inches wide and 22 inches long. Today they are approximately 22 inches wide and 23 inches long. Unfortunately, in these times, front-page crimes and protests don’t go well with my morning coffee.

I began reading very early, choosing things I could read and that piqued my interests. If I didn’t know a word or concept, I struggled with our enormous unabridged dictionary. Of course, I read the comics, and I think I graduated to the crosswords by osmosis by way of my dad. I was fascinated by the classifieds, legal notices, advertisements and “correspondents’” reports from “out in the county.” I never got out in the county, so how they lived was significant to me as a “city girl.”

The contents of some old local papers that I possess indicated that our still-small town was close, yet in touch with the rest of the world. International and state news was lightly covered, with emphasis on the city and county. The correspondents from outlying communities informed me of new babies, family deaths, church attendance, socializing and farming successes and losses.

Advertisements told me there were people who could afford to buy ACME cowboy boots for $3.95 and sirloin steaks for 79¢ a pound. A very small legal notice of divorces matter-of-factly told the cause of the breakups. Amazingly, it could be published who was in the hospital or going out of town, and they didn’t worry about someone breaking in their homes while away. I thought people were rich who could sell their four-bedroom, two-bath brick home near downtown for $10,000.

It is stunning that on Dec. 31, 1956, a very small headline revealed that “city officers made two arrests yesterday.” One was for drunken driving, of course; the other for speeding on Markham Street. I recall times when passing the courthouse at night that I saw the jail windows on the top floor with one light on or none. Never a heavy occupancy. See? That headline prompted an old memory!

The best thing I ever did was listen. With parents born in 1900 and brothers growing up in Depression and war eras, there was a lot to hear and record mentally. Although we were not prominent, some of our neighbors were. People loudly speak of “diversity” today, but we had it long before there was a trendy, one-meaning term for it. Neighborhood differences of income, status and religions did not get in the way of close friendships.

So, to a child or adult, I recommend the development of a few traits for writing or journaling: reading, curiosity, probing for memories, observation, listening, conversing with older people and comparing cultural matters outside your own life. To do these, you must keep your cell phone in your pocket.

Sometimes I ask myself, “Why don’t businesses put black wreaths on their doors anymore when an owner passes away?” “What happened to patriotism and the nativity scene on the courthouse lawn?” I know the answers, but I can’t help but compare the changes in times. Hmm. Maybe I should write a column about that . . .