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Storytelling has brought friends, memories

Mon., Aug. 18, 2008

In the photograph, I am in bed. It is early morning and I have just been surprised with breakfast on a tray.

My hair is tangled, my face still looks sleepy. A child – the bearer of the tray – sits beside me.

It could have been any Mother’s Day breakfast-in-bed photo. In those days a white wicker tray, complete with fresh flowers and the Sunday paper, was delivered to me every year.

Someone, usually my middle daughter, would snap a photo while the youngest climbed in beside me and nibbled on my French toast and fruit.

But what makes this photo different is that I am holding up a newspaper and beaming.

When I moved to Spokane in 1999, a trailing spouse, I was determined to focus on the budding writing career I was building before I left.

I took a year or so to get my family settled and then got to work. And following the freelancer’s dictum, I wrote what I knew.

As the mother of four complicated, engaging and beloved children, mothering is what I knew best. But it wasn’t all I knew.

I’d been married a long time. And I had left my hometown and moved across the country without the safety net of friends or family in my new home. I’d had jobs, lost loved ones and had a few experiences.

I started by sending little essays to newspaper editors and public radio producers. I had a piece published in the Inlander. And then, on Mother’s Day in 2001, I opened the paper to find one of my essays on the cover of the features section of The Spokesman-Review. And my proud smile was captured by a child.

That was just the match that lit the fire. I spent hours at the computer trying to figure out what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. Another essay was published. And then another.

I got a phone call from an editor.

“I like your work,” she told me. “But I just don’t have the space or the money to run everything you send me. Can you do any reporting?”

As a matter of fact, I could.

So I started writing home and garden features and whatever else they needed. Eventually, I claimed the Friday features section and started a column on antiques and collectibles.

I wrote obituaries. I blogged. And I never stopped writing the essays. I bounced around different sections of the paper and eventually I was offered a regular – every other week – column in the community section. Home Planet was born.

Then, finally, after years of late-night writing and relentlessly cheerful queries to editors, I had a weekly column. I got a spot on public radio and occasionally my work is heard across the country.

Every week, for four or five years now (I lose count), I’ve turned in pieces about the subjects that got me started – my children – as well as essays on things I have seen or heard or imagined as I got to know Spokane.

Even when I joined the Spokesman-Review staff to produce the home and garden section, I still wrote Home Planet from home, late at night.

It sounds silly to say it out loud, but each week I imagined that I had a friend sitting across the table, and wanted to tell them a story. I tried to talk to readers the way I would talk to an old friend.

And, in the most unexpected benefit, every week calls and letters and e-mails poured in. My imaginary old friend brought me more new friends than I could ever have imagined. Everything I wrote about – the children, the divorce, the sometimes frightening and often sad world around us – brought a kind and compassionate response from readers.

The only time it ever went the other way was when I said the Rolling Stones were looking a little rough. I heard from a lot of middle-aged men who vehemently begged to differ. That was fun.

I may have started out alone in a home office in a city that was new and full of strangers, but I wrote myself a circle of friends and it’s been wonderful.

But nothing lasts forever, right?

These are hard times around the newroom. And cuts must be made.

Since I left the staff to become the editor of a new city magazine four months ago, I knew I was on borrowed time. And since the freelance budget was the first place they would cut, I was vulnerable.

So when the features editor called to tell me he was dropping the column, I wasn’t surprised.

“It’s a financial thing,” he said. “I’ve got to make cuts.”

I was sad. But not surprised.

And it’s not the end of the world. I’ve got my own magazine now and I can write as much as I want in that. And my book will be out in the fall.

I can’t complain. I’ve been in an enviable position for a long time. No one told me what I could or could not write.

It wasn’t my job to investigate or expose anyone. I wasn’t expected to be glib or mock or humiliate anyone. I wasn’t under pressure to be funny, or even relevant.

All I had to do was sit down to the computer and tell a story. And for someone like me, that’s good work.

But, now, after today’s column, I’ve only got one more chance. Next week will be my final column. One more story and then I’m out. No photo this time.

It’s been a wonderful job. I wish it could go on, but I do understand.

It is essentially the subject of every column I’ve ever written:

Things change. Cuts must be made. Life goes on.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is the editor of Spokane Metro Magazine and writes a monthly column. Her book, “Home Planet: A life in four seasons,” will be published in September by New Media Ventures. She can be reached at (509) 868-0813 or


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