Accept praise for something great in your story – even if you didn’t mean it

We writers say we want more praise for our work, but, when it comes, we are often not ready to accept it. We are better at absorbing the blows of negative criticism, perhaps because we suffer from the impostor syndrome, that fear that this is the day that we will be found out, exposed as frauds, banished to law school.

If you are one of those writers who fend off criticism, this essay is for you. As I learned years ago, praise can come at some surprising moments, and for surprising reasons. When it arrives, let it wash over you like a waterfall.

My career in journalism was launched by a short essay I wrote for the New York Times in 1974. It was called “Infectious Cronkitis,” and an editor at the Times by the name of Howard Goldberg told me later that while he liked the essay, he really liked that title.

I was raised in New York, but in 1974 I taught at a small college in Alabama. As I watched local news programs in the South, I was puzzled that all the anchors sounded like they were from the Midwest. I later discovered that most of these news men and women grew up in the South but had been trained or coaxed to abandoned Southern dialects for the “cracked twig” standard. It was as if they all wanted to sound like Cronkite.

This seemed to me like an illness, a form of self-loathing, a prejudice against even educated forms of Southern speech. I remember so clearly writing my essay in a makeshift office in a rented apartment, sitting on a metal chair, banging on a Remington portable typewriter, my baby daughter Alison toddling nearby.

I paused for some inspiration. I needed a name for this conceptual scoop. I was using words like “disease,” “illness,” and “syndrome.” My hands rested on the keyboard, and I looked toward the ceiling, as if in prayer. I needed a name. Suddenly, I thought of a college teacher whose nickname was “The Disease,” not because of the state of his health or his teaching style, but because of his last name: Jurgalitis.

Then came the list of associations: Jurgalitis…Appendicitis…Bronchitis…

I fell back in my chair and hit my head on the floor, a blow cushioned by a pea-green shag carpet.

Cronkitis!

That word changed everything. The column was reprinted in papers across the nation. I got miffed mail from Dan Rather and Uncle Walter himself. I was invited by Edwin Newman to appear on the Today show to talk about language prejudice. Word got to Gene Patterson, then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who hired me to lead a writing improvement effort for newspapers. I became a writing coach at the St. Petersburg Times and then the first faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a school that now influences the work of journalists across the globe. I’ve taught there 35 years and have my name as editor or author on 17 books.

Credit Cronkitis, or the Muse who gave that word to me.

I wrote more op-ed columns for the Times about the emerging culture of the New South. During a visit to New York City I was invited to the Times to meet the editors who had been promoting my work, especially Charlotte Curtis and her deputy Howard Goldberg. They were generous in their praise, and I was flattered and grateful.

Then came that comment from Goldberg about “Infectious Cronkitis.” He liked the content of that column, but he loved the title.  “Cronkitis, a great pun in TWO languages,” is the way I remember it.

Two languages? Goldberg explained to someone else in the room: “You know, the German word for disease is krankheit – pronounced Cronkite. In vaudeville, the crazy doctor was always called Dr. Krankheit — Dr. Disease.”

I knew not a single word of German, and my only brush with vaudeville was through sketches by Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. But I sat in that room like the young genius I was not — aglow with misdirected praise.

Who among you – especially you writers — get praised too much? I didn’t think so.

I learned a lesson as a writer that day that I pass on to all of you: Never fend off praise. Just accept it. By all means, take credit for things you did not mean. Why? Because you will be blamed for lots and lots of stuff you also didn’t intend.

So repeat after me, scribes: “Yes. I meant it all along. Cronkitis. A pun in TWO languages. Actually THREE if you add krankhayt from the Yiddish.”

Read the letter Walter Cronkite wrote to Roy Peter Clark after the Infectious Cronkitis article came out.

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