Monday, May 11, 2015

My First Time: Martha Woodroof

Photo by Charles Woodroof
My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Martha Woodroof, author of Small Blessings (now out in paperback). Martha was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR,, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows. Click here to visit her website.

My First Brick Wall

Around 1970, I auditioned for and got a job as a small-market TV talk show host. I did this in spite of (because of?) my second-ex husband’s expressed opinion that I couldn’t pull it off because I had no experience in either television or talk show hosting. After this, for a decade or so, I firmly believed I could do anything professionally that I wanted to. All I had to do was suit up, show up, and let the games begin.

Sometime in the late 80s, I accidentally backed into radio – how is another story – but what’s important in this story is that I immediately fell in love with radio feature reporting. It had everything I’d loved about television – permission to talk to people I’d otherwise never meet – without any of the drawbacks. Television is such a production, so burdened with lurking cameras and other people standing around and very bright lights and me sitting there all dolled up with perfect hair and makeup. All of which tended to make ordinary people (as opposed to politicians and movie stars) nervous and careful, and so not nearly as relaxed and forthcoming as they might have been in a more low-key situation. Whereas in radio, there’s just me in jeans and a T-shirt, one tiny recorder, and a microphone that is forgotten as soon as the conversation rolls.

So, anyway, off I shot into the magical world of radio feature reporting. I went up in an ultralight, hung out at a migrant labor camp with a part-time prostitute who dreamed of working in an office, shocked fish, hunted coons at night, enjoyed the music of a dozen-membered elementary school marching band that featured (as I remember it) five triangles. No one edited me. I did what I did and on the air it went.

After a year or so, I won a regional AP award. This, I thought, meant I had this radio feature reporting stuff down. I mean, you can’t win a regional AP award without being really, really good, right?


I met NPR’s Wendy Kaufman at a summer party at someone’s house in Charlottesville, Virginia. Somehow, the two of us found ourselves out on the back porch, engaged in a high kick contest being judged by novelist John Casey. I don’t remember who won, but I do remember talking to Wendy about NPR, which was only just emerging as a true power in broadcasting.

Confession time: Back then, I had only the foggiest notion of what NPR was. But this didn't stop me from listening to everything Ms. Kaufman had to say about the power of storytelling in reporting. Yes! I thought, the relevance of news is not so much what happens as much as it is how what happens plays out in people’s lives. I agree! I agree! I should be doing features for NPR!

It didn’t occur to me to start anywhere other than the top, so I phoned up Jay Kernis, now a producer with CBS Sunday Morning, then NPR’s producer of news programming.

If there’s one thing I really do have a natural talent for it’s for phoning people up. I seem to have been born knowing that the secret of telephone success is to: 1) be cheerful and confident, rather than timid and beseeching; 2) if you’re asking for something really big, ask for it in stages; and 3) get on and off the phone before the person to whom you’re talking has time to wish you’d get off the phone.

As what I wanted was to freelance nationally for NPR, what I planned to ask Jay Kernis for was a meeting to talk about doing this.

On the phone, Jay asked questions about my resume, which was realistically about as thick as a Kleenex. I realized quickly that asking for a meeting was too much, so I switched to asking if I could call him back. We’d had, as I remember it, a nice jolly, short chat. Why not, he kindly said.

So I did call back, several times; always getting on and off the phone before we’d talked long enough to gum up his schedule. Finally, Jay Kernis and I discovered we both liked to rock climb, and I got my meeting.

Confession time again: Just because I’m happy to charge into situations where shyer people fear to tread, doesn’t make me completely immune to nervousness. So as was my custom in those days, I medicated my nervousness with all new clothes... down to my underwear. Not that these new clothes were anything special, mind you, but they were bought just for this occasion, and this turned them into emotional armor.

So, the day came when I and my new clothes braved the Washington beltway and motored into NPR to meet with Jay Kernis. I brought with me way too much tape, all one long, rambling conversation with an old bluesman. It was hardly edited and of wavering sound quality. Jay listened, shook his head and said something like (again, as I remember): You are a brilliant interviewer, but you don’t know anything technically. Go away and learn something and then come back.

I could have been crushed by the first sentence of Jay’s assessment – the you-don’t-know-anything part. I could have concluded that, like Icarus, I had reached too high and gotten myself melted back down to my appropriate size. And indeed, in spite of my new underwear, I did think about being crushed and humiliated while driving back home.

But then it occurred to me that the realty was that I didn’t know anything technically. And that what Jay Kernis was saying to me was that I had talent, but no chops. And if I wanted to play in the big leagues, I had to have chops. Absolutely, categorically, no exceptions. In other words, I couldn’t charm, or schmooze or bluff or even talent my way into the big leagues. I had to work in order to get there.

VoilĂ , my first professional brick wall.

Now, as to how this all relates to writing my first publishable novel...

I taught myself how to write novels by writing novels. Small Blessings is actually my fourth.

Characters and setting and dialogue have always come easily to me; plot and pace – i.e. novel-writing chops – not so much. The first three novels were me doing the Jay Kernis-inspired hard work of getting yet another set of chops; getting good enough at something I really wanted to do to be able to do it in the big leagues.

By the way, in case you’re interested about what happened to me and radio after my meeting with Jay Kernis...

I went to work and got much better technically and then came back to NPR for two different freelancing stints. The first one, in the late eighties, was short, as I still wasn’t quite there yet with the chops. I went away again, had my mid-life train wreck (with alcohol and pills), got myself straightened out, and came back to public radio at the beginning of this century. At that point, I had sufficient chops to garner regular freelancing assignments on books and publishing from NPR, working as a direct-report to the Arts Desk.

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