Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for February, 2014

Inspiration to Write

Last week, I re-read The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. It’s something I do occasionally when I’m slacking off with writing and need to get back on track. Prize Winner is about Evelyn Ryan whose success with contests helped to keep her family financially afloat. It was during the 1950s and 1960s when companies ran contests to advertise their products. Participants were given challenges such as writing the last line of a jingle or telling why they liked a sponsor’s product in 25 words or less. With her wit and ability to write under any circumstances, Evelyn was very successful in contesting. She won small prizes as well as larger ones including $5,000 and a Triumph TR3 sports car, which she sold using the money to pay bills. She also wrote short humorous poems and essays that she sold to newspapers and magazines.

Prize Winner, written by Evelyn’s daughter Terry Ryan, is a great read for anyone who enjoys stories about people overcoming obstacles. For writers, it is also a guide to success. It’s just a matter of following Evelyn’s example. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned from her story.

No Time to Write Is Not an Excuse

I’ve whined about not having time to write more often than I care to admit. But it’s hard to do that after reading about Evelyn. Did I mention she had ten kids? “Sometimes it feels like I live in a circus, and all the animals are loose,” she once said. But in the middle of chaos, she wrote.

Read to Get Better

Humor and brevity were tools of Evelyn’s trade, and she honed her skills by reading works of the masters. Some of her favorites were Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Ogden Nash.

Know the Market

Evelyn made it her business to know what advertising agency was hired by the sponsor to judge a contest. Some judges liked humor; others wanted serious entries. Some appreciated a play on words; others preferred straight forward prose. Evelyn knew what the judges wanted and tailored her entries to meet their preferences.

Don’t Let the Doubters Get You Down

Contesting was competitive. In one Dr. Pepper contest, there were 250,000 entries. With such great odds, some people could not understand why anyone would bother. So they offered their advice. “Wouldn’t taking in laundry be less risky than entering those contests?” a nun said to Evelyn after Sunday Mass. But Evelyn believed the real risk was in not trying.

Perhaps the cruelest comments came from her husband, an alcoholic who could not handle the taunts he got from his co-workers at the garage where he worked. “We know who the real breadwinner in the Ryan family is,” they said. Such criticism was hard to take in the 1950s when men were expected to be the breadwinners. It was Evelyn who suffered the brunt of her husband’s anger with his co-workers, but she did not quit writing.

Keep an Eye on the Prize

It was a competitive business, but Evelyn improved her chances by entering each contest many times. It was simple logistics – having more entries “out there” improved her chances of winning. She said she didn’t win contests because she was lucky. She won because she was determined.

Even so, she did not win every contest, but rejection was also part of the business. She once told her daughter that writing was like working in her garden. She could be proud of what she had done even if others didn’t like it. She had no time to dwell on rejections because she was already moving forward with the next contest.

None of this is new advice. These ideas are covered in almost any book about writing. What’s inspiring about The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is seeing how Evelyn put it all into action and was rewarded with success. Whenever I’m in a writing slump, I know that reading even a few sections of the book will get me back on track.

Shaun White: High Flying Snowboarder

With the Winter Olympics set to open this week, I decided to post about one of my favorite Olympians – Shaun White. Most of us know him as a gold medalist in snowboarding and as a champion skateboarder. In 2003, he became the first athlete to win a medal in both the Summer and Winter X Games in two different sports.

But did you know that his dreams of being an athlete were almost derailed after a serious skateboarding accident when he was eleven years old? Or that he had two major heart surgeries before he was a year old?

Shaun who grew up in Carlsbad, California, was born with a heart defect that required those early surgeries. But he was never a frail kid. His family, including his parents and a brother and sister, enjoyed taking weekend trips to the mountains to ski.

Shaun learned to ski when he was four. By the time he turned six, he was swishing down slopes at a speed that worried his mother. She decided he should learn to snowboard. She thought that would slow him down, but Shaun was just as fast on a snowboard.

The family began making more trips to the mountains so Shaun could take part in snowboarding competitions. They traveled and slept in an old camper van with a heater that sometimes gave out in the middle of cold nights.

Shaun had a lot of energy and trips to the mountains were not always possible. So he learned to skateboard and soon began competing in that sport too. When Shaun was eleven, he collided with an older, much bigger boy during a skateboarding exhibition, and was knocked unconscious. He ended up with a fractured skull and broken bones, and told his mom he was done with skateboarding. She understood his fear, but she also knew how much he loved the sport. So she continued to take him to the YMCA for skateboarding lessons. Shaun was upset with her at the time, but later he was happy she made him stick with it.

Shaun turned pro as a snowboarder in 2000 when he was thirteen years old. Two years later, he tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. He missed the cut by 0.3 points, but he did not give up.

In 2006, Shaun tried again. That time he made the Olympic team and traveled to Torino, Italy where the games were held. Shaun got off to a shaky start after a bad landing in his qualifying run for the men’s halfpipe. But he came back and captured the gold. Four years later, he struck gold again at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada.

Fans are amazed with Shaun’s daring twists and flips on a snowboard, but he is impressed with the bravery of kids who are fighting life threatening illnesses. In partnership with Target, one of his sponsors, he and his brother designed the “Shaun White Great Room.” That recreation room is in the Target House where families can stay while their kids are getting treatment at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Shaun hangs out with the kids as often as he can.

In writing biographies for children and young adults, I’m always looking for good role models. Unfortunately, when you’re writing about the current stars and athletes that kids want to read about, you take a chance. You never know when those celebrities will disappoint. I would have felt bad if I had written a biography about Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber. I know because I did write about Lance Armstrong. So as Shaun White takes the international stage again, I’m hoping he’ll make us proud at the Olympics and long after the games are done.

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