An overdue visit to Gratitude Road

This piece from The New York Times had some interesting ideas to help us express gratitude. It inspired this letter, which I unfortunately can’t deliver to its addressee. I hope it encourages some readers to write — and actually deliver — one of their own while they have the opportunity.

Dear Ernie,

I came to visit today to share this letter with you. I could have mailed it, but I wanted to tell you in person how grateful I am that you are my mentor and friend.

You were one of my first bosses and will always be my best. When I started working at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s business desk, I called you Mr. Beazley, even though I knew it was old fashioned, because I already respected you so much.  You asked me to call you Ernie because Mr. Beazley made you feel old. Funny to think I’m almost as old as you were then and I, too, despise it when 23 year olds call me Ms. Oldham.

I’d like to think we have a lot in common because you were always there for your young staff, both personally and professionally.

I’ll never forget the time you asked me to make sure “in a sisterly way” that Theo’s dress shirt fit him before he came in for his second day of interviews in Little Rock. It was then that I knew both you and he were too good for the pedestrian world of the workplace and I was truly fortunate to share office space with you.  I’d like you to know so many of the things you did and said stuck. Every time I write a weak lead, I still think about the time you said your dog Blackie could do better. If he was your dog, I have no doubt that he really could have.

I don’t know why we never got together for coffee after I left the paper. And I don’t know why I didn’t do a better job of keeping in touch, which makes it tragic that I can’t, in fact, deliver this letter of gratitude in person.  But I hope that you somehow know what it says anyway — and that it doesn’t have any misspellings or AP style mistakes.



photo credit: <a href=””>bartmaguire</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;


Failed Queries: A Repurposing Success Story

I was too in love with this lead to let it go. So, even though this particular query failed more than once, I was eventually able to use its subject — and a variation of its first sentence — in a story on balancing a full-time job with a start-up business.

Dear Ms. Editor:

Not very many grandmas would be willing – or able – to compete in a physique competition clad only in a bikini, body oil and a pair of killer heels.

But no one who meets XX today would ever guess she was a new mother at 17 and just became a grandmother at 36.  In between those milestones, she battled the challenges of single motherhood and many more obstacles. Since 2001, exercise – specifically distance running – has been instrumental in winning those wars, she said. XX started her fitness journey after years of battling body image issues while working as a paralegal and holding additional part-time jobs to support her daughter. Today, she often competes in events to raise money for causes including the American Lung Society and has finally followed her dream to become a full-time fitness professional as owner of XX.

In between visits to her new granddaughter and training sessions with clients, the AFAA and IFA certified personal trainer acts as race director for the XX and founding member of XX. Given all the fitness events on her calendar, it’s no surprise she decided to leave a career in commercial real estate to pursue personal training full time. She specializes in weight loss and functional training and also has a few clients preparing for physique competitions. While she’s had some challenges with start-up costs, billing and collections, she’s on track to break even or possibly turn a small profit in her first year.

Although it was a tough decision to leave a stable job in an uncertain economy, XX said it was time to explore her own strengths if she was going to encourage clients to do the same. Through her work and volunteer efforts, XX, who is also working on certification as a life coach, hopes to convince others that being fit and happy is possible for everyone, no matter what life brings.

“You only have this one life to live. You have the power to choose how you want to live – use your power and talent to do what you want and do it well,” she wrote in a recent email. “Take that power to control your own life because no one else can.”

Given her own inspirational story and her recent efforts to share that story with others, I think  XX would make an excellent subject for a profile. Depending on your needs, the story could focus on her use of exercise to overcome the obstacles in her life, the journey she has taken to become a certified personal trainer and full-time fitness devotee in today’s tough economy, her challenges and successes in her first year as a business owner or all those angles.

Please let me know if you are interested in a profile or if I could provide information on another angle of this story.


Charlene Oldham

Free photo from MorgueFile

Free photo from MorgueFile

If You Love Your Mission, Celebrate and Share It

I was honored to be selected as Umission’s Person of the Week this week. Umission is a local nonprofit dedicated to celebrating people who love their mission, activating people who want a mission to love, and investigating how to keep that mission vibrant and successful.”

I am truly grateful to have found a mission I love and am able to share through writing and teaching. Lately, that mission has become even more vibrant because of my experience leading adult continuing education classes as St. Louis Community College. It was one of my students there, Suzy Shepard, who wrote this Person of the Week Q and A featuring me that I am sure cuts out quite a few “ahhs” and “ums” while allowing me to give long-overdue recognition to a 5th grade teacher I still happen to be friends with through Facebook. When I  posted the story, she wrote, “Thanks, it does make me smile. You never know as a teacher what you say or do that helps a child. I loved teaching.”

Well said. So, if you have a mission you love, become a mentor. And if you need a mission, find someone who loves what they do because spreading that love is what helps keep it alive.

When should freelancers turn down assignments?

When I started freelancing a few years ago, I hadn’t had a published clip in more than a decade. Eager to rebuild my portfolio, I spent the days I wasn’t teaching writing queries and letters of introduction and searching for new markets at my local library and bookstore. I have to admit I also watched a few episodes of “Ellen” during the day.

The occasional assignment provided a welcome break from that routine, not to mention an even-more-welcome check in the mail. In time, my portfolio grew, as did my list of clients. I also started seeking jobs through the online clearinghouse Elance. The site offers thousands of ads from people looking to hire freelancers for everything from writing to web design projects. And, though many jobs offer shockingly low rates, I’ve been lucky enough to find a few regular clients who’ve made signing up for the site worth it.

Today, I am in the enviable position of having as much work as I want, at least while trying to enjoy the summer schedule of a teacher who works during the academic year as both a freelancer and adjunct professor. After all, part-time professoring and doesn’t offer many bankable benefits, so summers off should be embraced and enjoyed.

In fact, I have been considering turning a few assignments down in recent weeks. With the beginning of the semester less than a month away, I have a couple of major deadlines and due dates for a few smaller assignments looming as well as a planned vacation to visit family.

So here are a few things I’ve been considering while weighing assignments and opportunities lately. Some questions are culled from my own experience while others come from freelancers who’ve proven it sometimes pays to say no.

1. What is the hourly rate? Freelancer Kelly James-Enger recommends looking at assignments with this question in mind rather than getting fixated on the rate per word an editor offers. Sure national magazines that pay $1 or more a word are attractive, but writers should consider the total time it takes to pitch, research, write and revise a piece that might not see print for months.

2. Is it interesting? Don’t get me wrong. I was a business reporter for a wire service at one point in my career, so I have penned many dry stories in my time. But now that I am a freelancer, I have more latitude to focus on stories and projects about health, wellness, education and other topics that make no mention of analysts’ estimates or earnings per share and take longer than 30 minutes to turn out.

3. Is it my area of expertise? I recently came across a couple of opportunities that, at first blush, seemed interesting. One was an ad for a freelance proofreader for the local alternative weekly. Although I am an experienced writer, I must say I am not the fastest or most-effective copy editor. The job also seemed better suited to a recent college graduate with an deeper inherent interest in reading about and attending concerts at dingy clubs that offer neither convenient seating nor an extensive selection of craft beers. The other was for a full-time magazine editorial position that required some television appearances. While my appetite said yes to this, my Arkansas accent logged a firm “Naaaw.”

What questions do you consider when weighing assignments? And how have you eventually learned to say no to new work?


Failed Queries: Take it from turtles and keep truckin’

Here is yet another entry in the Failed Queries category. Good thing I take the same approach as turtles. We may be turned away at times, but slow and steady really can win the race.

Dear Ms. Editor:

Turtles haven’t changed much in the last 210 million years, and their genes prove slow and steady sometimes wins the race when it comes to evolution.

“They may be slowly evolving, but turtles have developed an array of enviable features,” said Richard Wilson, director of Washington University’s Genome Institute and senior author of a recent study that analyzed the genome of the western painted turtle. “They resist growing old, can reproduce even at advanced ages, and their bodies can freeze solid, thaw and survive without damaging delicate organs and tissues. We can learn a lot from them.”

Turns out turtles are experts at activating genes many vertebrates – including humans — share, but don’t use, allowing them to survive for long periods of time without oxygen while hibernating in ice-covered ponds. Scientists are also studying the turtles’ genes for clues about why they live so much longer than most animals their size.

Would you be interested in a story that explains what the western painted turtle’s genes tell us about its unique abilities and addresses the question Can Turtles Someday Help Humans Live Longer or Survive Without Air?

As a former middle and high school teacher and experienced journalist, I feel I could do this in a way that would be both entertaining and interesting to your young readers. I have a decade of experience as a writing teacher as well as years of reporting experience as a freelancer and staff writer at publications around the country, including The Dallas Morning News. Most recently, I have been working on stories for publication by magazines, books, newspapers and blogs including SUCCESS, Eating Well, Organic Gardening, Poets & Writers, DRAFT Magazine, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2014 Songwriter’s Market, Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers, The FruitGuys Almanac and WOW! Women On Writing.

Please let me know if this idea is of interest and what angle you might like to take with a story so I can provide more details. Meanwhile I have included a link to my resume and some writing samples in case you would like to take a look.

Charlene Oldham

Free Photo from MorgueFile

Free Photo from MorgueFile