Monday, May 3, 2010

Best Writers? It Ain't the Dans, Babies

My mail today contained an envelope from The Roanoker magazine announcing that I had won a Gold Award as the area's "Best Writer." Yesterday my pal Dan Casey of the local daily was crowing that he had won the Gold Award in the same category, giving us a tie (for second behind Joe Kennedy with his Platinum Award).

At the risk of sounding like an ingrate, neither of us belongs on this list*. I have said in the past and will continue to hammer home: when you're looking at writers who create art, you start by ignoring journalists who toil as craftsmen at the very bottom level of the craft.

We have some outstanding writers locally and they aren't journalists--with one exception and he's part of the group in spite of his journalism. Newspaper writers, especially, are often the victims of ham-handed copy editors whose primary focus in life is making everything read the same. It's about uniformity, not talent or creativity.

Dan Casey is the best columnist for the local daily since the 1970s when Mike Ives strolled the halls of the local pool parlors and wrote about it. (Kennedy preceded Dan in the spot and was a long-time writer for the local daily, who got too old to be employed by that organization and was tossed out in a buyout. He had a stroke last year.) Dan is involved, outspoken and an old-school local columnist who is most comfortable outside the office talking to people. He provokes and argues and creates a stir. I like that and I like him. He once told me he was a hack. He's not a hack. He's a fine journalist and an superior columnist. But he's not the area's best writer and my guess is he'd agree with that.

Fact is that this Best Writer competition has most often come down to who holds the local columnist spot at the daily paper, hardly sufficient credential for the designation. But it's hard to argue with high profile. That spot in the newspaper affixes a name and a photo to the word "writer." The Roanoker's readers vote familiarity (if you doubt that, look at the other categories).

Me? Oh, hell. That's just absurd. I appreciate the attention, but I'm not even the best writer in my office when Rachael Garrity and Keith Ferrell, who write for FRONT, are visiting me.

The list of the best? I'll give you some outstanding candidates:

1. Cathy Hankla, Richard Dillard and Jeanne Larsen of Hollins University can all write well in a variety of genres--and have. Cathy, I think, should be No. 1 on a list of best writers in this region.

2. Roland Lazenby, Sharyn McCrumb and Keith Ferrell each has well over a dozen books published and sold. Roland's a non-fiction guy; Sharyn writes fiction; Keith writes both. Roland's newest, Jerry West, is a best-seller in some markets and Sharyn has been there. Keith should have been. Sharyn has a new "ballad novel" coming out any day and it'll sell 85,000 copies if it sells one. Good storyteller, she is and Roland is the best sports writer in the state.

3. Melanie Almeder and Mary Hill of Roanoke College are a couple of outstanding poets who just happen to be great storytellers on the side. They can write in any form.

4. Kurt Rheinheimer, editor of The Roanoker, is a guy who would not put himself on the list because he doesn't think it fitting. He's here, not because of his journalism, but because he's one of the nation's finest short story writers.

I'll stick hard by that list and let you pick at it, if you dare. But it's a good one and it has nothing to do with high profiles, and everything to do with good writing skills.

(*Roanoker Editor Kurt Rheinheimer tells me I get a gold for Best Blog, too, behind somebody named Blair Peyton, whom I do not know. I won't disavow this designation because there are so few readable blogs out there and, frankly, I suspect mine's as good as anybody's. It ain't literature, but it's talky, informative and has some decent artwork. I visited Mr. Peyton's and it has a nice look, a lot of cussing, videos and he's a young guy.)

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