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Rewriting Your Own Story



In the mid-1950s, American television celebrity didn't get much bigger than clean-cut cowboy Roy Rogers and his trusty Palomino, Trigger. At least not for the seven-year-old female demographic. Indianapolis-native Jeannine Andy Murphy probably held the title of "Trigger's Biggest Fan" when The Roy Rogers Show reached its zenith.

Young Murphy's unfaltering viewership remained unchallenged when an advertisement flashed across the screen at the close of one episode inviting fans to write a letter to Roy Rogers in exchange for a photo of Trigger. Murphy's passion forced her to muster the fledgling writing skills at her disposal as well as tap into all available resources - specifically her own sidekick, Aunt Myrtle - in order to complete the mission as any good fan would.

The effort required a personal sacrifice that Murphy says served as the foundation and inspiration for her work as a writer ever since. "I paid two cents out of my 10-cent weekly allowance for a stamp, put it on the letter and mailed it," Murphy explains, adding Aunt Myrtle's provision of a swift reality-check to equalize her niece's tender hopes: "She told me to have no expectations of hearing back; the important thing was I did it."

A few short weeks later, Murphy did hear back. The return notice was to inform the family that Roy Rogers was due in town for a rodeo. Roy and Trigger. And they were, as long as it was OK, going to stop by Murphy's home for dinner Sunday evening.

"Whoa. I can't even explain it. I get really emotional," Murphy says, now a 70-year-old mother of two sons and grandmother of five. In addition to her family hosting the Roy Rogers cast for dinner, Murphy received a special invitation to visit the crew following the rodeo - and a ride atop Trigger, which trumped her request for a mere photo of the horse with flair.

"I think I was in tears the whole time I was riding that horse. I won't ever forget it," Murphy says. "That's how it started. A letter to Roy Rogers."

Though Murphy's career as a writer/artist includes the publication of four books - and a host of letters exchanged with world leaders and small-town heroes alike - it's a passion for passing on a love of the written word that drives her work and fuels the journey.

Writers Converge

Murphy serves as Executive Director of the WriteStuff Writers, an online resource and conference planning organization providing tutorials to guide writers of all ages over and through the inevitable stumbling blocks inherent to the writing process. Another critical resource housed within the WriteStuff portal is a listing of professional editors, writers, filmmakers, publishers, literary agents and others who know what it takes to make a living by the pen - or computer. The WriteStuff Conferences and Events, organized across the country since 1998 by Murphy and colleague Marcia Ellett, bring what support is available online to live audiences in the form of the professionals themselves. This year's event will take place in Carmel, but with a focus like no WriteStuff event before.  

Across the Arts: A Gleeful Literary Celebration is the forum for aspiring writers, writing professionals and others of all ages interested in the written word to attend Saturday, July 20 from noon to 6 p.m. Murphy and her colleagues have partnered with the Center for the Performing Arts to host this unique conference in the 1,600-seat Palladium, its first event of a non-music nature.

What designates this conference experience as truly one-of-a-kind is that every participating panelist is a Hoosier native: New York Times best-selling authors, award-winning filmmakers, publishers, magazine writers, celebrated newspaper journalists, editors and more. Murphy explains the panels at the event will operate with plenty of one-on-one time through question and answer sessions, and she expressed high hopes that high school and college students, especially, will bring their enthusiasm, questions and energy to the conference. "You never know what will happen when you attend one of these conferences," Murphy says.

Having orchestrated writing seminars over a large portion of her career, Murphy believes the upcoming event at the Palladium particularly carries weight in that she's become more aware of the lack of credibility surrounding the Midwest in general - Indiana in particular - when it comes to recognizing writing talent.

"I was looking at the different events in the arts world that pertain to the literary aspects of that world, and talking to a publishing friend who said it doesn't seem as if the community supports the arts very well. And you know what? She was right." Continuing on the importance of the July 20conference Murphy emphasizes, "Don't take us Midwesterners for granted at all. We have wonderful, rich talent. Listen to their stories. You'll laugh with them, get emotional with them, be encouraged."

The Journey

In addition to her work in public relations, marketing and publishing, Murphy has four books to her writing credit including a writing guide, a nonfiction piece, a children's book and a novel based on a true story. She considers herself lucky to have found success in a world she, even in early adulthood, never knew she loved, having learned the business without a college degree, just "ground floor college." Success, however, had to be redefined one step at a time for Murphy.

The unusual journey into life as a published writer began when Murphy, at the age of 38, suffered what her doctors believed, at the time, was a stroke. The incident left Murphy, who went by her birth name Jeannine, with a severe memory loss that robbed her of the brain functions needed to read and write, recognize family members and even manage simple tasks such as tying shoes. It was fear that struck Murphy to the core, and fear that propelled her out of the darkness of her mind.

"I woke up in a hospital bed," she recalls, "and looked at the end of my bed, and there sat this very handsome man. And I had no idea who he was." It was Murphy's husband, Jim, to whom she was married 48 years before his death a few years ago. After the incident, nearly every memory Murphy had from her eighth-grade year until that moment was erased. "You don't know what you don't know," she continues, summoning the emotions of her struggle with the grace of a poet, "so you're constantly struggling. I was lucky. I had good friends who told me who I was - the good and the bad. And that helped."

A large part of Murphy's recovery came through simple learning she experienced as a child, such as picking up the alphabet. As letters and sounds came, so followed words, then sentences, paragraphs and meaning - in about three months' time language was again at her disposal. But this time around, Murphy thrived on a sense of identity and empowerment through writing small stories with her newfound skills.

"I fell in love with it. Turns out, what I didn't know is that I was a writer. I had nothing to lose." In the wake of her literary success, those life-giving revelations during recovery proved to have formed the foundation for Murphy's desire to support other writers on their respective journeys. "I tell them, 'Don't worry. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose on this journey.'"

That's not to say there wasn't a fair amount of anxiety battling in Murphy's heart and mind as she pushed forward out of the darkness. "I was very fearful. What motivated me was pure fear," she explains honestly. "The fear is always there." One aspect of facing down the demons of memory loss was learning to love the life she was reconstructing out of the past, the memories others had of Murphy and the future she felt drawn toward.  

Moving from fear to love involved an about-face for one of the most identifying pieces of information a person knows. 'Jeannine' no longer resonated with Murphy. Her father noticed the identify crisis she was experiencing, and for himself favored the name 'Andy' over the given 'Olaf' - a name linked to the family's Danish heritage. "[The name] Andy morphed into me," Murphy recalls of the strength she drew in discussing the matter with her father. A new name was just the foundation Murphy needed to kick-start the life she was determined to carve for herself.

Fear wasn't the only factor Murphy conquered. Each day became a gift, one swirling with a mixture of encouragement from family and friends, and the blank canvas of thoughts and emotions Murphy alone had the power to harness. "The two connecting things were always there," she explains. "Fear and realizing that today is the first day of the rest of my life. I know we take that little saying for granted, but for me it really is. I hope that my fears keep me going, to not be afraid to try."

Over time, Murphy learned the stroke she suffered was actually more of a disease-launched attack on her central nervous system; it's continued to threaten Murphy's heart and lungs in more recent years, but something in her body continues to fight. Perhaps that something is fueled by a powerful inner energy determined to grow and transform every area of Murphy's world.

"Life is about listening - learning at every level - every day. I don't ever want to waste a moment of my life journey," she says. The link between passion and what Murphy describes as God-given gifts comes through everything she does to help writers shape and publish their stories. As part of her work, Murphy serves as a regional literary agent. The joy she finds in guiding writers to publication weaves a seamless thread into the reshaping of her own life as it continues to emerge from the past.

Murphy says, "I want to support others who live and breathe the creative life. Their passion and commitment to give back, to help others realize their dream of creating is what drives me to become a better writer."

Let the Story Lead You

Beyond staging conferences, managing WriteStuff's online presence and working as a literary agent, the author has two new books in the works - one a personal memoir and the other a work of fiction, serving as a narrative juror for the Heartland Film Festival, taking her first steps into the world of documentary filmmaking and looking to expand classroom workshops into six-week sessions in the areas of writing, film, publishing, illustrating and social media.

For Murphy, being able to aid a fellow artist in the writing journey is first about the story, before the first step into the world of publishing is contemplated. Murphy helps writers with that side of the business, too. But at the heart of it all is story. Murphy draws on her life experience when she says to writers, "If you love to write, write it for yourself first. Don't be afraid of the white space on your computer screen. Let your story lead you."

Most stories Murphy pursues find their origins in the struggle for justice or understanding, for tenderness and truth to emerge against the odds. Perhaps that's why she chooses to tackle projects deemed "difficult" by those around her. For example, Murphy's younger son Darren lost his wife to a battle with cancer several years ago, and her young grandson was vocal about his distrust of the situation, his pain. These moments formed the storyline for If You Believe, a tale for children about Santa Claus and celebrating the people we love who die.

Stepping out to tell stories that will help others is the core of Murphy's journey. Her oldest son Ryan, creator of hit television shows including Glee and American Horror, directly inspires Murphy to explore how her work might have the same impacts as the work Ryan does on Glee especially. Murphy recalls the time she was contacted by the director of a national crisis hotline following an episode of Glee addressing the seriousness of teen suicide; the director shared with Murphy a record number of calls came in thanks to Glee putting forth a call to action, and hope.

It's a life-giving passion to learn, connect and triumph over obstacles that makes Murphy fearless. "I consider myself lucky that I'm still in a learning mode," she says, clearly not ready to call it quits any time soon. Despite hardships and hurdles in life and in writing, courage for the journey was always there for Murphy. "Life is about learning and, sometimes, starting over."

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