Lisa Flowers Gary-40 years in the making

I’ve been working on my first novel for several months, and I’ve found that because it’s based on a true story, looking at photographs and laying them around me tends to help me think.

Something about it makes me write better.

I was up in the attic (I absolutely hate going up there because it’s scary), and came

across something I hadn’t thought about in a long time. I haven’t written anything that rocked my world in a really long time. In fact, it’s been nearly 40 years since that has happened. 

I’ve always written something. But making something happen with your words can really blow you away.

What I found in the attic was a framed picture of me sitting at my desk in front of an old

typewriter at Middle Tennessee University, circa 1984.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was one of the few women in the entire United

States who had finally made it to the position and it read Lisa Flowers Editor-in-Chief. Mama had put that picture of me, along with the masthead of the newspaper, at the top, and an article on how I won a journalism award of excellence for female editors. 

There’s also a picture of me sitting with the parents of a daughter who had died. This award was in her memory.

I was so honored.

At the very bottom, mama had cut out the part at the end of the paper listing all the names of those who had worked on it, including their positions at the time.

I hadn’t thought about those people in a while. In fact, I thought about trying to contact some of them. But then, I remembered that my boyfriend, who just happened to be the paper’s news editor (and the most brilliant mind I’d ever been challenged by), had died just a few years after the final issue.

I decided not to try to find anyone that had worked there. Instead, I just thought about each of them – their faces, their laughs, and whichever section they wrote for. I laughed my butt off when I started thinking about our photographer. We only had one, and his name was Bill. He was

the best photographer I’ve ever seen.

Back then, we used real cameras with real film. At one time, I thought I might want to be a photojournalist. I’ve always been able to do whatever I wanted to do and be good at it. I could just see myself out there, following some wartime pro like Christiane Amanpour.

“Why not,” I told myself.

So I got a cheap camera at a pawnshop. Somebody told me it was a good one, so I took

Photojournalism 101. Yet, no matter what the subject matter was, my picture stunk. I mean, they were awful.

Another thing about it is that you had to deal with math. And to me, math takes entirely too long,

so I just don’t deal with it. I only learned it for a class and made straight As. Otherwise, I just

didn’t have time to fool with it. That’s not a very good thing in the days when we didn’t have calculators (and when you only have ten fingers and ten toes).

This camera had these things called F stops and all kinds of different ways to figure out light (and this, and that, and the other), and I could not get that thing to work. There was no

automatic button on it.

And then there was developing the film. You go in there with your film. You put it in this black bag because you can’t expose it to light, and you put your hand in the bag to take the film out of the camera.

And then, you kind of work it around like Houdini and do all this stuff until it gets in this other

thing, so you can then pull that thing out.

And, I mean, it goes on and on and on from there. You take the paper and expose it to a certain

light and put it in a bath of some kind of chemical.

All of it has to be precisely timed. That’s another thing. Time. I pretty much don’t understand that concept. I mean, I know how to be on time and all that stuff. But when you’re counting in your head, and you do this for 30 seconds, and then you do that for ten seconds, and then you need to shake it for five, and then you need to take it out and on and on and on, and you can’t turn the light on to see your watch. It’s just like math. 

Let’s get to the point.

My pictures were horrible, I hated the class, and if I hadn’t just been the first female editor at the

newspaper, he probably would have given me an F. But he gave me a D. Which sucked, because I’ve never had anything but As.

Unless I choose to, of course. One semester, I was just going to work on the paper all the time, go drink a couple of pitchers of beer at night, and just be a newspaperwoman, cigarettes and all.

Instead, I would be really good at it and put out great papers, and just get Fs.

Then I would go to class and study and get all As. Then I could party and write articles and be

creative and dress like a hippie, and have fun and drink beer for another semester. Then I would get all Fs. 

As far as I was concerned, I made all Cs.

That worked for a while, but there came a day when I took it too far. I had a D average, and

I ended up on probation. I knew my daddy would kill me because he paid for it. He never ever

asked me for my grades because I always made As.

After a few grade cards, I could barely get him to look at them. He knew what they

would be so, of course, he had no idea what I was doing.

Suddenly, I started feeling guilty and thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done? What have I done to my family?’

So, rather than get kicked out of school, I went home. I told Daddy I was bored with school and was going into the music business. And I did. And I was good at that, too. I worked, of course. But it didn’t matter if I was a secretary, assistant, or behind the camera in the newsroom; that’s what I did for a living, and I loved it.

Then, I thought to myself, ‘I think I want to be a songwriter.’ So I was. I wrote what I would say

about ten good songs. I took one lesson on the guitar, and I didn’t like it, so I bought a book. I figured it out, studied it, and taught myself. Yes, I could always sing. I did that as a kid in

plays and in front of my family for entertainment. So that was okay.

Then I started trying different kinds of guitars. I tried an electric guitar, and I could play it. I

Then I tried the bass, and I could play it. 

I could probably play anything that has strings on it, except that doggone piano. My granddaddy played, my grandmother played, and my mama played. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the hang of it.

I wanted to play well, particularly for my mom and grandmother. But I could not get it to work.

I mean, I knew the piano inside out. I looked inside of it, so I knew what it was like and figured it

out, including how you press the pedal and hold a note and whatnot. I also learned how, when you press the key, it strikes the string and vibrates, causing a specific sound.

One thing I did learn when I was young was that learning to play the piano meant learning how to read music. My mama taught me. I’ve been in glee club and all kinds of things. I hated the recorder, but my brother was pretty good. I couldn’t do it, so he must’ve been great at it.

So when I started in the music business, I already knew how to read music. I’d learn how to play

my instruments, got together with a few folks who knew how to play, and put together a little band. Sometimes I’d play electric guitar, and sometimes I’d play bass.

Singing and playing bass at the same time is a little more challenging, so I did it all the more.

I started pulling out my little acoustic guitar, sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth, and writing many songs. And they were good. They were so good that I actually did a

writer’s night somewhere famous in Nashville.

It might have been the Bluebird Cafe, but don’t hold me to it. My family and friends

came. I don’t remember much more about it. Mostly, I remember how I felt, why I wrote the song, and who I wrote the song about. I just played and got into it and didn’t think about anything else or who was in the room.

When I looked up at my mama, she had tears in her eyes, and I didn’t know why. I thought she

didn’t like it. As it turned out, she cried because my song was so sad. I guess it was. I usually

write precisely the way I’m feeling. I was up there like Joni Mitchell or some sort of brooding, sad female singer. It was my favorite song. 

I then got bored with that and moved on to something else.

I finished my journalism degree on my dime, and even though I was second in my class, I

couldn’t get a job for anything. I mean, I could have gotten something in some podunk old town, but I couldn’t have taken $30,000 to run a newspaper. I mean, dang, I got student loans to pay. I don’t want to live in some hick town.

So I decided to be a lawyer or, my second choice, to get my masters in political science. Well, I became a lawyer. Now that was a hard one. 

Usually, I’m the smartest person in the room (except when daddy was around). But when I got there, everybody was smart. I mean, every single person in that place was brilliant. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. But I did it, and I did a good job, and I got a good job, and I was writing again.

Daddy was so proud that he paid off my student loans for law school. They don’t have grants, scholarships, or financial aid for graduate school. 

Legal writing. It could be fun and exhilarating, but it could also be long, drawn out, and boring.

It was only fun when you were creating something new, or coming up with something that

would change something else for the better. I used my writing as a weapon against my competitors. I was a woman, so I was already fighting just because of that, because of the way the world is and was. But by God, me and my big brain, and my writing, we’re not going anywhere, and we would not expect anything but to win. Not winning, you know, losing, was not an option for me. Or rather, it was not going to be an option for my clients.

And that’s how I won. I never went up against a woman; there weren’t many female

trial lawyers. I wouldn’t kick a woman’s rear unless I had to, cause it didn’t feel good.

But when I fought for women’s rights and human rights and children’s rights and everybody’s

rights, everybody that has or had been wronged, I would kick male butt from here to China (if I had to).

I did that for a really long time, and I did many good things. 

But I fell down a flight of concrete stairs and hit my head on every single one. After that, I couldn’t practice law anymore. It was a very frustrating recovery; I had a lot of difficulty writing because the injury affected my right hand. That’s when I wished I was ambidextrous. I always thought the guys that could hit the ball right or left were super cool. I wished I could do that, but it didn’t work.

I’ve improved a lot since 2016, but I would not be able to write what I’m doing right now if

there wasn’t such a thing called talk-to-text. Because of my brain injury, I cannot use a laptop or desktop. The light flies into my eyes and fires up my brain in such a way that I could have an epileptic seizure.

I learned that really fast at a laser light show in Mexico. It sent me into orbit and caused me to puke all the way down the hall. Now, it’s all outdoor concerts for me.

When I got better, I started volunteering for people, and simply just helping people. I liked to hang out with elderly people at the YMCA, and started volunteering more and more for a certain political party.

I didn’t write for a long time. I wrote and made comments on Facebook and stuff like that, but I didn’t write. I started writing again a few months ago, and I decided to just write a novel. And I’m doing that too. And it’s pretty good. And it’s about me and my entire family.

And in the end, by reading it, I hope it helps somebody somehow. Whether it’s just a laugh,

a smile, a tear, or maybe just helps someone think about something deeper. That’s what I’m writing for.

Come to think of it; I’ve always been a writer. I was born a writer. 

When I was little, we moved a lot, and I was the shy one sitting in the back row. But by golly, if that teacher asked who wants to diagram a sentence or do a conjugation or anything like that, I ran up there like it was Thanksgiving dinner, and I was drawing it out for everybody. 

I don’t think anybody even taught me how to do it. I just knew how.

It was like that with spelling, too. Mom taught me how to prepare for a spelling bee, and I

did fine. And after she taught me how to study for one, I did it myself. I love spelling tests, spelling bees, and, I guess, just words in general. As soon as the teacher would say, “y’all lineup for the spelling bee,” I’d go running up there like my hair was on fire. 

I’m a writer, alright. I can’t stop being one, even after all this time.

Christopher Stern

Christopher Stern is a Washington-based reporter. Chris spent many years covering tech policy as a business reporter for renowned publications. He has extensive experience covering Congress, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Federal Trade Commissions. He is a graduate of Middlebury College. Email:[email protected]

Related Articles

Back to top button