writing wednesdays: ‘spotlight’ series: introducing renee schafer horton!

Writing Wednesdays

Spotlight’s on…

Renee Schafer Horton!

I‘ve known Renee, our January "Spotlight’s on…" guest, for quite a few years now through a lively listserv connecting Catholic freelance writers. But here, I have the privilege of digging even deeper than what our list will allow. I’m pleased to introduce to you now: Renee Schafer Horton. I think you’ll find her wisdom in many different areas quite insightful, as I have. Though my questions lent themselves to a long interview, Renee’s answers are compelling enough to make it worth your while.

First off, Renee, I’ve known you mainly as a columnist and newspaper reporter, and being a former newspaper reporter myself, and one who occasionally still writes pieces for both secular and Catholic press, I’m curious to know more about that particular journey. What attracted you to journalism in the first place?

Here goes: My first byline was at 16 and the rush I got from seeing my name in print left me hungry for more. Of course, the work involved in any kind of journalism is pretty time-intensive, so other things kept me in the field, but they did seem to center around that adrenaline high that comes from knowing things first and then going out and telling the world. Sort of like Paul Revere crying, “The British are coming!” And the fact that it gives you license – and the honor/privilege – of walking up to complete strangers and saying, “Hey, tell me about …” is also very cool.

I know there was a “before” and “after” of your journalism career; meaning, your career before kids, as well as after you had mainly raised your young brood of four. What were some of the major differences between the industry in the earlier years and now?

What hasn’t changed? When I first started, I was typing in my stories on a typewriter or – big time! – a word processor, and if you made mistakes you used White Out or went back into the press room and cut out misspelled words off the galleys and replaced them by hand. There was also, IMHO, a lot more privacy for public officials. Journalists went after the mayor if he was misappropriating public funds, but left his private life alone. Nowadays, it seems like sex and immigration is all that sells – and newspapers are primarily concerned (it seems) with selling papers, not telling the news.

As a Catholic, I often feel like it is horrific what journalists do to spread the “sins” of public officials or celebrities. For example, Tiger Woods. The guy obviously has a problem, but leave him and his family alone. It certainly can’t help his wife and kids to see his sins paraded in public.

Another big change is the blogosphere and the concept of a “citizen journalist.” Blogs are great … but do they really provide reporting? Not many. Is that good for the country? I’m not so sure. But it has helped the world connect. For instance, the protests in Iran over the elections were covered by Iranians and Twitter because the government had shut down the Internet, but people still had their smart phones. Very cool.

Your newspaper career took a drastic turn not long ago when the newspaper for which you were working, the Tucson Citizen, closed down, pretty much overnight if I remember correctly. What was it like to receive that news, after you’d worked so hard to re-position yourself within the world of journalism?

I had been working overtime that week, so I was sent home early that Friday. I went to the B-Line café, about 15 minutes from the office, to work on my novel. I had just sat down with a cup of good coffee and a slice of pie – the whole reason one goes to the B-line – and my cell started getting text after text after text. I refused to look because I thought, “Dang it, if the copy desk has a question on my story, let them figure it out themselves.” Another text came in, and it was from one of the young reporters I had befriended (she had lost her mother the prior year) and I thought, “OK, just look at it.” And that’s how I found out. It was like being punched in the gut.
So I went back to the office and it was like a death camp. I went to my direct editor and asked for details and when he told me that Gannett was going to sell the paper but NOT its share in the joint operating agreement with the morning paper, I did what any journalist would do: I thought, “Is that legal?” And that’s when Mark (the editor) and I began reporting on the sale/closure as an investigation into JOAs across the country. This was – and still is – the only case where a newspaper company closed one paper in a JOA and kept its profit/loss interest in the remaining paper that is owned by another company. The morning paper, the Arizona Daily Star is owned by Lee. Your readers can read the whole complicated tale at www.reneeschaferhorton.com under the Clips tab, “sustained reporting.”

But you did have quite a distinguished career, having interviewed many phenomenal people through the years. What were a couple of your most memorable interviews through those years?

Probably my two most memorable interviews in the Catholic press were interviewing Fr. Charles Curran, who is the Elizabeth Scurlock Professor of Human Values at Southern Methodist University, and Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former Latin Patriarch (archbishop) of Jerusalem. When I was asked to interview Charlie, I was thrilled and intimidated. I spent parts of two days with him in interviews, covering so many things I can’t even remember. What struck me about him was his humility and his generosity. It is too long to go into the whole thing, but after the interview, my then 5th grade daughter wrote him a letter. He wrote her back, and for six years they were pen pals. It cracked me up: Here’s this world-renowned theologian taking time to talk to my kid about her daily life with soccer games and kids being mean in middle school. It was really quite remarkable.

I got the interview with Sabbah by talking my way into his limo when he was visiting the Catholic Arab community in San Francisco. He was the first Palestinian to lead the Catholic Church in the Holy Land. His story was fascinating, but what stayed with me for years after was the suffering I saw in his eyes. It was like he had been talking to a brick wall for years trying to get the Israelis and the Palestinians to go for peace. It was heart-breaking. And later that night, I reported on a speech he gave and the most amazing thing happened. When he walked into the room, I actually felt God. I don’t know how to describe it, but it was a palpable feeling. You actually sensed the Holy. Very cool.

By default, you’ve taken up the challenge to, at age 50, re-enter the university atmosphere in order to become an instructor of high-school English students. How did you discern that direction? And now that you’re in the thick of studying for this future career, what are your thoughts? Are you feeling optimistic about what the future holds, or daunted by what you’re seeing?

I had tried, after the paper’s closure, to go back into freelancing. But it was so overwhelming, and frankly, the money isn’t there and I don’t have the same 24-7 hustle I used to have. So I considered a number of options and finally decided to do what I’m always telling everyone else to do – but what I rarely do myself – pray at length. I set aside three hours and just let myself go into the quiet and asked God to give me some clarity. And at the end of that time, teaching was what made sense. It was a very peaceful decision.

Now that I’m in the middle of it, of course, it is scary. When I’m in the classroom around kids, I absolutely love it. When I’m doing the classwork though, sometimes it seems, honestly, kind of redundant and stupid. Those times, I get discouraged. And when you look at the reality of teaching – so much work, very little pay, so many problems, so much responsibility – it can be overwhelming. Add to that my age and I could dissolve into worry. Instead, I chose to trust that it will all work out. I graduate, God willing and the creek don’t rise, next November. I’ll probably substitute until May, when contracts get cut, and hopefully I’ll get a job offer.

I’d like to talk about your vocation as a mother. The most intense years of mothering young children are behind you now. Sitting from your new post, does the world at this point look differently than you’d imagined, especially regarding your family? What are your favorite memories regarding rearing a family? What are you looking forward to as you look into the future?

Boy, you sure ask tough questions! I have to say, the most intense years of mothering are not when they are young. Those may be intense physically, but emotionally, a well-placed kiss solves just about every problem. What is hard is when they are teens or young adults and there’s not a heck of a lot you can do to make them feel good about themselves when something hurtful has happened. When you send them to college, you worry, worry, worry that they won’t remember to do the right thing, that they’ll be confused and hurt and lonely, that they won’t be strong enough to combat all the bad in the world out there. Navigating the whole “adult-child” relationship is hard, too! When do you advise, when do you let go?

I consider myself lucky in so many ways. For the most part, my kids talk to me honestly, even when it is things I would prefer not to hear. There is a lot of love, it seems. I lost my mother when I was 20 – she committed suicide on Easter Sunday, after telling me to go back to church and apologize to a priest she thought I’d offended by telling him he wasn’t joyful enough in the liturgy. (Proof of God’s grace: I just got a Christmas card from that priest – we’ve stayed in touch all these years). Anyway, point is, she died when she was 50 and I have no real example of how a mother would relate to an adult daughter or son. So I feel like I’ve kind of stumbled through this part of my mothering, yet my children appear forgiving. My eldest is always joking that she’s our “trial child” and she cuts us a lot of slack.

My favorite memories are when they were little because there was so much holding. We read books every day, just cuddled up on the bed or on the couch, me and four little ones (I had four children in six years). We made homemade bread and they loved to cook with me. I also thrilled at all their school performances and I liked the fact that we all did church choir/music together for many years. Now, they don’t want to be cuddled so much – and it has to come from them, not me.

What am I most looking forward to? Well, to be honest — weddings!!! I live in this fantasy that if they marry well they will be happy and I will no longer worry about them! But none of them seem to be anywhere close to the altar, so I may be waiting a long time.

Regarding your faith life in particular, how has it strengthened your journey, both regarding helping to raise a family as well as in guiding your career path?

I’ve known God in a physical I-can-feel-you sense since I was 4-years-old. I believe this has to do with being raised in an alcoholic family where there was violence and danger. I believe you develop a sixth sense, and God is in that. So there were moments from the time I was 4 on that I knew God was with me. My belief was fairly black and white then, and it didn’t have much to do with the Church at first, even though I’m a cradle Catholic.
But when my mother died, I could have easily fallen off a cliff, as some of my siblings did, if not for the community of believers around me in college. That has been where my faith has saved me – through the hands of other believers – over and over and over again, amen. Church has been central to our family life; I frankly don’t know how people raise children without it!

My husband is Catholic, but doesn’t have the same kind of belief I have and our two sons, as adults, seem to be in a searching phase. The two girls are very involved in their parishes and my youngest seems to “connect” to the spiritual in a very similar manner as I do. I think God is like a rock thrown in a pond and all the ripples are the different levels of closeness. Sometimes you’re right near the rock’s impact, sometimes, not so much. We have to trust God that he’s working with everyone and not judge each other’s spiritual journey – which can be hard!

We moved five times in our first 17 years of marriage and the first thing I did in each new town was find a parish with 1. good music and 2. good youth groups/sacramental prep. And I got involved in lay ministry in every parish and that brought the family in. They learned to see the Church as their extended family and that belief has grown over the years. A good parish can help you raise your kids because they have good catechesis that backs up the family and they have lots of family activities so the kids see other young Catholics and connect with them.

You obviously have a desire to educate and inspire the next generation. What do you think you can most offer young people, and how do you plan to go about doing this?

I want to work in a poor school district or possibly on the reservation. I think the best thing I can offer students is hope. I want them to see that someone like them, someone who came from poverty and abuse, can get a college degree and go on to do things. I also really want to help students to know that God is there, that there is love, but I’m not sure how that can happen in a public school. I’m trying to figure that out right now.

Who are your children (names if you’re willing), how old are they, and what are they doing now? Are any of them or do any of them aspire to be writers?

Lauren will be 27 on Jan. 8 (when I turn 51) and she is the graphic designer for the Texas Catholic in Dallas. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a media arts major, but doesn’t want to be a writer. I think she’s got a knack for it, but you know what they say – you can’t tell your kids anything! She would really like to work at a magazine; that is her dream – to do design at a magazine. She also is really into murder mysteries and I think she’d be a great crime-scene investigator!

Noah is 25, and he graduated from the University of Arizona with a philosophy degree (religious studies minor) but has spent the past five years touring with his rock band, Holy Rolling Empire, and, to make ends meet, lays tile and laminate flooring here in Tucson.

Evan is 23 and just graduated with a mechanical engineering degree. He’ll be working at Raytheon Inc., here in Tucson. My husband also works there, but as a business-side guy, not an engineer. Evan has zero desire to be a writer but he is the one kid whom, if someone attacks me on my blog, he’ll jump on and defend me in the comments section and his writing is very well-thought-out.

Clare is 20, and a junior at the University of Arizona. After a spring break trip to Chiapas to work with a priest who is a cultural anthropologist, she decided to major in (surprise!) cultural anthropology. She is in a Christian worship band called Emmaus that serves at the Newman Center here, and her dream is to spend a few years on the Catholic church/Christian band circuit before doing whatever it is cultural anthropologists do.

What do you most want to tell the faithful, young people and other writers about what you’ve learned in your life thus far?

Geez, another hard question. Let me give it a shot – four on marriage/relationships, five on faith and one on writing, in that order:

1. Keeping score in human relationships is a waste of time and it is downright disastrous in a marriage or love relationship. People can die at a moment’s notice and trust me, you don’t want the last thing you said to someone to be hurtful.

2. Kids need time with you as a parent. They need to be physically cuddled. They need those two things more than they need to be playing sports every night and hustling to get good grades. BE THERE.

3. Try to be nicer first. This means, when you are really angry at the person (people) you love, instead of lashing out, try to be nicer, first. Think of something they do that is praise-worthy and focus on that. It will calm your anger. What you focus on grows, so if you keep focusing on the positive and rewarding the positive, it will grow. Yes, express your needs and concerns, but do it with kindness. Every single problem in every single relationship (excepting physical or emotional abuse) can be traced to poor communication.

4. In the end, life is very, very short and religious people need to work harder at being kind and accepting of each other – even the people you think aren’t “Catholic enough.”

5. And speaking of thinking, God is way bigger than we humans think. We have spent all our time – centuries as humans – trying to create God in our image instead of trying to walk through life in Jesus’ loving image.

6. Evil exists and we really should be paying attention to that.

7. Confession is a good thing for you. Get over yourself, and just do it.

8. When you hold onto your past sins, not forgiving yourself, the devil is driving your life. Make him let go of your life by refusing to dwell in the past.

9. Sometimes God seems absent. Show up anyway – for prayer, for Mass, for a sunrise. You’ll reconnect.

10. Writers write – every day. If you want to be a writer, set up a writing schedule, stick to it and accept that it is work. Then accept the grace from that work: Sometimes, your words can change someone’s life. Sometimes, they actually save that life. Write them.

Renee, thanks again for your time, and for sharing your insights with Peace Garden Mama. I wish you the very best as you continue with your studies and embark on this new adventure!

Thanks for having me!

Alright readers, here’s your chance. Renee likely will be stopping by later to see if there were any comments that require a response. Here’s your chance to ask her something I didn’t.