Teri Carter, who resides in rural Kentucky, between Lexington and Louisville, is the June 2020 Writer in Residence at the Daisy Pettles House for Women Writers.
In this piece, Teri, who came to writing late in life, not publishing her first story until the age of 38, then unexpectedly becoming a journalist and political columnist at the age of 51, serves as a reminder that it’s never too late to take up the quill and begin to record life as you see it. The Daisy Pettles House, an Indiana writing retreat dedicated to recognizing and rewarding older women writers of exceptional talent, is honored to sponsor Teri, and her rescue dog, Hazel Belle, as they create new stories as our June Writer in Residence, 2020.
Q: You write political opinion in Kentucky, and you’ve published some pieces nationally at sites such as the Washington Post. What challenges have you faced as a woman columnist chronicling history in the current divisive political climate?
I never dreamed I’d write about politics, and I certainly never imagined I would publish my personal, very liberal, feminist opinions weekly in a conservative state like Kentucky. To say mine is a minority view – my county voted 72% for Donald Trump, and Sen. Mitch McConnell has been in office here for 35 years – is laughable. And yet being a controversial columnist, especially in such a polarized and terrifying time, has made me an infinitely better writer, a much braver writer, and opened so many other doors. Central Kentucky has a very active and supportive literary community, and local writers of all genres have generously welcomed me into the fold.
We (my retired husband and I) moved here from northern California in 2016 and, other than our 20-something son who had gone to college at UK and stayed, I knew no one. Add that we live way out in the country, halfway between Lexington and Louisville, and it felt a bit like I’d ceased to exist. Then the Access Hollywood tape came out.
I was so enraged that week. It was incomprehensible to me that a presidential candidate could get away with saying he could grab women by the p**** or kiss them whenever he felt like it and suffer little to no electoral consequences. So I sat down at my dining room table, wrote an OpEd in less than 2 hours, looked up the newspaper editor’s email online, and pressed send. “The Tic Tac Man,” which chronicled my own experience working with and for abusive men like Donald Trump, men who routinely get away with sexual harassment and assault, was in the paper the next day.
That piece led to another and then another, and the next thing I knew I had a regular column. I’m a freelancer, so I was never guaranteed newspaper space (I’m still not) which means I have to earn my way into print with every essay, every OpEd. I credit this constant challenge – to write something original, personal, timely, and likely divisive, and then to edit my own pieces to make as little work as possible for the newspaper’s editors – with instilling the discipline I use in all of my work now.
Do I get hate mail and vile comments? Sure. All journalists and columnists do these days. We’re the “enemy of the people” right? (insert eye roll here) But I believe it is worse for women. I’ve been threatened with violence. I’ve been accosted in public too many times to count. Older gentlemen often ask my husband if he “helps me” write my columns. A well-meaning neighbor used to suggest I write about cooking instead because “people would like you better!” All of which, of course, just fuels me to write another column.
I also get a ton of positive email and community feedback, and my readers, because I openly share my own intensely personal stories in the newspaper, are fiercely supportive and loyal. It’s a pleasure to write for them.
Q: Do you have favorite pieces of your own writing accessible on online that you’d like to share with our readers? If so, why do you like these pieces?
I’ve spent the last 4 years writing almost exclusively about politics, something like a hundred pieces at this point, so it might be surprising that my personal favorites are not at all political. A long piece I wrote about my relationship with rescue dog Lucy remains a favorite. It was very challenging structurally, so it took a long time to write, and it also remains my most-rejected piece (27 times!) before it found a home at the Tahoma Literary Journal. I think it took a year and a half to publish it, but I simply refused to give up. It is also the one piece I still cannot read aloud without my voice breaking.
In 2015, I wrote a column for my hometown Missouri newspaper after I’d heard about plans to tear down an old hotel. The news broke my heart. I sat right down at my laptop with absolutely no forethought and wrote about all the ways the Drury Lodge had served as a home to me throughout my life. Everything just poured out. After the story ran in the paper, I heard from so many people back home, people I had not heard from in decades, sharing what the hotel meant to them, as well. Drury Hotels included the piece in their training materials for new employees. When I went back to stay there for the last time before the demolition, every employee I saw hugged me and thanked me for writing what they felt. It was all wonderful and surreal.
Q: You took a non-traditional educational path, delaying your bachelor’s degree until you were 39, then earning a MFA at 45. What challenges/motivations led you to delay and then seek and extended education?
I was a terrible teenage student. In high school my family life was in constant turmoil, which meant I spent most of my time trying not to be at home and rarely bothering with homework. I don’t remember anyone ever even asking to see my report cards.
I went to work straight out of high school, though I did try the local college and earned a 1.7 GPA my first semester. It was a disaster. Or, rather, I was. Plus I needed grants and loans to pay for it, so what was the point?
In my 20s, I had a job that paid 100% tuition for night school if I got As, so I took classes at University of Missouri – St. Louis and Washington University. I took business courses to help me with work, because I felt I owed them that for paying my tuition, but what I really wanted was to take literature and history classes and read books all day.
When I was in my early 30s, I married a man who had sole custody of his two kids. Eventually I quit work to stay home with them, and that’s when I went back to school at the University of Minnesota. To say I loved it there, that I adored my professors and my fellow students, doesn’t come close to how I felt about my experience. That’s also when I fell in love with writing. Unlike so many writers I know who started as kids, I wrote my first personal essays and short stories when I was about 35. They were awful! But I loved the work – writing a story felt like trying to put together a really complicated puzzle that I had to figure out – and a couple of my professors were encouraging. I kept trying.
My goal was to graduate before I turned 40, and I barely made it. A year later, with both kids grown and gone, we moved to San Jose, California and I applied to the creative writing program at San Jose State, never dreaming I’d get in. I got my masters there in 2010.
Q: You are currently working on a memoir about step-parenting. Why have your chosen that topic and how is that project coming along?
I’ve been thinking about writing this book for at least a decade, but I needed some distance from my subject-matter, meaning I needed to have the kids out of the house for some years to consider what I had to say.
I was a stepchild 3 times over. I’ve been a stepmother 24 years now. I got serious about writing a memoir about my experiences a couple of years ago, but it’s taken getting a good 60,000 words on the page to figure out the structure and the underlying questions: What is it like to want to be part of a family when you’re the outsider, when no one needs you there? How do we find where we belong in the world?
This residency could not have come at a more perfect time. I’m excited to spend my month at the Daisy Pettles House working on the first major re-write with no distractions.
Q: Your writing companion during the Daisy Pettles house residency will be a dog. Tell us about her, and why she’s your chosen muse and literary confident.
Hazel is our latest rescue. She’s about 2 years old, 40 lbs, and she’s got to be a combination at least five different breeds. She was found starving, with Parvo, covered in ticks, and nursing a litter of puppies. Back in December I’d gone to the shelter to meet a senior dog, but unfortunately realized the dog would not get along with my other 2 dogs. I was about to leave when I passed by Hazel’s kennel. She walked quietly up to the fence, and I swear she tilted her head, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Hey lady, what about me?” When I knelt down to pet her through the chain-link, she leaned her whole body into me and moaned.
Hazel has been my constant companion ever since, happy to go with me everywhere, whether it’s a drive, a walk in the park, or to sleep in my office doorway while I work. I’m thrilled I get to bring her with me for the residency.
Q: You currently teach writing at the Carnegie Center in Lexington. Who are your students? What do you like and/or loathe about that job?
I teach personal essay and memoir writing, and my students are mostly over 50 and new to writing. I often come home from a class and tell my husband I don’t know which I love more, writing or teaching writing. There is nothing more satisfying than helping someone who’s been thinking about writing for decades learn, for the first time, how to be vulnerable and brave on the page. Teaching is such an honor. I love it.
Q: You’re 54. Any advice for older women who may have delayed their writing careers while raising children and families or facing other of life’s many challenges?
You often hear the cliché “it’s never too late,” but it’s a cliché because it is so often true. When I went back to college in my 30s and then graduate school in my 40s, I felt awkward at first but soon felt right at home. Like I was right where I was supposed to be. I feel fortunate that I went to school so much later, when I actually wanted to be there and knew what I was interested in learning.
I often wonder if our kids go to college/grad school too early, before they’ve lived a little and had time to consider their interests – what they love, what they’re passionate about – apart from their parents’ expectations and the influence of childhood friends.
I didn’t publish my first story until I was 38.
I didn’t become a political columnist until I was 51.
I’ll be 55 this summer, and I’m just now working on my first book, a book I could have never written, for lack of both skill and courage, before this minute. All to say, it’s never too late to begin.
Q: Where can our readers find you online?