By Mims Cushing
One day, 35 years ago, I received a flyer inviting me to attend Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the granddaddy of all writing conferences. It is a 10-day nest for fledging as well as for more established writers. Started in 1926, it takes place every summer at Middlebury College in the green hills of Vermont.
I’d been writing a weekly lifestyle column for a supplement to a local newspaper in my hometown, Stamford, Conn. I wanted to branch out and write for more publications, so I signed up. Getting a plethora of rejections from magazines coast to coast disappointed me. I wanted a coach. Breadloaf would assign a mentor to me, and mine was Ron Powers. It was a thrilling thought, though intimidating. Powers is an Emmy winner and also won a Pulitzer prize for criticism. He has written 10 books.
Classes taught by established authors run all day. In the evening writers read from their as yet unpublished works. John Irving read from his draft of one of his unpublished books. We were spellbound. We were riveted. And exhausted.
Eventually Powers and I met in the cafeteria. I’d sent a writing sample to him in advance as requested.
“You’re a good wordsmith,” he said. “You string words together well. But…” (ah, that scary word) “you are just writing essays. You need to interview people and do profiles.”
Now, this is where I blew it.
I replied, “Oh, I can’t do that. I am way too shy.”
And then he said in a thunderous voice the seven words that bounced into my very core. “There is no such thing as shy!” Was the entire cafeteria staring at us?
I can’t remember anything else after that. Shyness had held me back in all phases of my life. I was tired of being shy. So I decided not to be shy any more.
When I returned home I started interviewing people on my block, in my town and beyond. Some articles turned into cover stories for B-list magazines. I interviewed more than 50 people including a Buchenwald survivor, biographer Anne Edwards, business moguls, and Bobby Rosengarden, the drummer. I shook Hulk Hogan’s mammoth hand at JFK, and wrote about WWF; Dizzy Gillespie on a jazz cruise; the artist Charles Wysocki; interviewed the father of the ATM, and wrote a cover story about Martha Stewart.
Four years later, by 1986, I had written more than 30 articles for local magazines. “Yankee Magazine,” “Cosmo,” and other national magazines still rejected me, though the New York Times Sunday edition published several opinion pieces of mine and paid me. It was the time of my life. It made me (and still makes me) happy to bring a little cheer into readers’ lives, or information, or entertainment.
Did I become overwhelmed at the thought of talking to big name celebrities? Well, Ron Howard lived one town over from me in Connecticut. The thought of even driving up his driveway made my shyness skyrocket.
The funny thing is what I enjoy doing most in 2018 is writing essays and book reviews. You know what? When you hit your 70s, you ought to write — and do — whatever you want. But If I’m asked to interview someone who intrigues me, I will do it. Unless you’re Ron Howard.
We think adults can’t change, but we can. Powers switched me from being a shy mousekin into someone who loves opening people up about themselves. “There is no such thing as shy!” Who knew how much seven little words could change my life? But they did, and I am grateful to Ron Powers. You can change if you want to. People can change you. Be on the lookout for them!