The accidents that create a writer: Q&A with Keith Cartwright

Keith Cartwright has written over ten thousand stories, which include work for Country Music Television, Professional Bull Riders, and the Tennessean.

How has your day been?

I did two out of the three interviews scheduled.

Were the interviews for your graduate journalism classes?

No; for the Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville. One was with an author. Then I did an interview with a songwriter that I’ll profile, but it’s not really about songwriting. He took a song that he wrote about ten years ago, which inspired him to write a book.

How did you get your start as a journalist?

Totally by accident. I was riding my bike and saw a stack of papers with a rubber band around them. I don’t know why, I stopped my bike.

It was a weekly entertainment paper that wrote about bands that played throughout northeast Wisconsin. I thought: I want to be someone who writes about these people, but I wasn’t qualified to write. When I called the weekly paper, I made up a name. The girl I was talking to said: “Great, we are really short of writers. Can you send a resume and three clips?”

I was so naive and ignorant that I wasn’t ever sure what she meant by “clip.”

Uh-oh. How did you learn what a clip was?

I dialed the daily newspaper in my hometown. Some lady at the news desk answered – and again, I made up a story about working on a school project defining media terms, and needed to define “clip”.

But you didn’t have clips to give the entertainment paper, because you hadn’t written anything. How did you get her the clips?

I really wanted to write about these bands. There was a community college two cities away, and they had a student newspaper. They had an arts and entertainment section. I typed up a short little story, drove to the school and handed them the paper.

Did they catch you writing for their paper without studying there?

One day, the phone rang, and it was the editor. He realized that I didn’t go to the school. I played totally stupid, because I really didn’t care. I had my three clips that I sent to the other deal. The entertainment paper hired me to write about music in the Fox Valley area in Wisconsin.

When did you know you wanted to write?

By freshman year in high school, I knew that I could write, but I wasn’t sure what I could do with it publicly. Where I grew up, it really wasn’t about that creative part. My buddies would talk about the football and the basketball. I missed out on the creative.

Did anyone specific inspire you to step on the creative path?

My freshman-year English teacher told me that I should be a journalist. But, later, it turned out that every year, she would pick a student and develop an inappropriate relationship with that student. She ended up getting convicted and sent to prison.

That must be a difficult thing to learn about a person who made a big impact on your life.

I was very surprised that she would have done that.It would be embarrassing to say: “Well, this freshman English teacher inspired me to be a writer. Now, she’s at the Taycheedah Women’s Correctional Facility.”

You drew the lucky card.

It’s a conflicting thought that this person positively influenced the rest of my life. I became a storyteller. There’s dozens of other boys – she messed with their head in a negative way, having sexually abused them. I was the only one that drew the full stick.

Do you think you would have discovered your talent another way?

I would hope.  But if I’m ever becoming a teacher, I’m not becoming an English teacher.

This interview has been edited and condensed.