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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Grif Stockley: "Are you sure you want me to speak to your group?"

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

I went to a convention recently, the Arkansas Press Association Super Convention, and actually went to most of the sessions, instead of goofing around in Hot Springs.

Well, I admit I did take a couple of Hot Springs detours, but I didn't stiff the company too bad.

While most didn't have much to do with news reporting, I found the speakers sort of inspiring.

It's amazing how much some people can accomplish.

One gentleman, Leonard Woolsey, who works for a Georgia newspaper, saw ads plummet during the recession. Big national advertisers simply disappeared. So, Woolsey devised a simple system to show local advertisers, many who had never advertised before, that they could afford to advertise and find out for themselves that advertising works. His program has been so successful, other newspapers around the country are copying it, with his blessing.

Kevin Slimp is an entertaining Tennessee college professor, who also travels the country speaking to groups about new technology and holds seminars to teach people how to use that new technology I don't understand. Oh yeah, in his spare time, he writes books and a newspaper column.

I felt so unworthy in the shadow of those over-achievers.

That's why I really connected with Grif Stockley, an Arkansas author and lawyer.

Grif (he's not a "Mr. Stockley" kind of guy) was the keynote speaker at the end of a long banquet, where some people talked convention business and we ate and a bunch more people spoke.

By the time they got to him, Griff seemed embarrassed to be taking up more of people's time.

The rumpled little guy walked up to the mike like he was dreading it, pulling some wadded up notes from his pocket and placing his watch on the podium, to make sure he didn't talk too long.

Grif started out telling people he was a real Arkansan, who grew up in Marianna, a small town in the Delta.

He told the audience, he might not look like it now, but he was on his high school football team, the Marianna Porcupines, although there probably wasn't a porcupine within a hundred miles of Marianna.

Griff added the schools favorite cheer was: "Go team! Go team! Quill 'em! Quill 'em."

After high school, Griff got a college degree, spent two years in the Peace Corp, was "invited" to join the Army and, finally, got a law degree at Fayetteville.

While Griff apparently liked lawyering okay, his real passion was writing.

He spent years getting up in the middle of the night trying to write the Great American Novel or Great American Something.

His first novel, "a coming of age story," was anxiously sent off to publishers and agents, but was greeted with either silence or letters informing him, "This is not publishable."

Griff claims he heard that a lot over the years. After five, "not publishable" novels, he switched to writing plays and in 1985 he hit pay dirt, when one was produced at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"I called it A Metaphysical Beast," Griff said. "I'm not sure what that means and it was the worst play title ever."

Griff went on to admit the play was even worse, getting the worst reviews in the history of U of A Birmingham theater.

"I practically had to whip the actors to go back out on stage. It had three performances," Griff remembered in one interview I found online.

But the writer in him could not be stifled and he went back to writing novels.

Grif had a deadpan excuse for mailing off some admittedly bad novels over the years. He was laboring in pre-computer days, when it was just too hard to write a novel, then re-write it on his " Selectric" typewriter.

But he never gave up and, in the late 80s, he sent the first chapter of a book to twelve agents. One, Charlotte Gordon, responded saying, "This is totally unpublishable, but you may have some talent. Have you written anything else?"

Grif assured Gordon he was working on a new project, then quickly went to work trying to come up with something.

He decided maybe he should write about something he actually knew something about, so he started Expert Testimony, a book about a somewhat bumbling lawyer who has a lot of personal problems and shortcomings.

Up on the podium, Grif had that 'yeah, I was writing about someone like me,' look on his face.

Charlotte Gordon actually stuck with Grif after reading the first chapter of Expert Testimony. He credits her with working closely with him as the manuscript unfolded and, in 1991, after 19 years of futility, Grif became a PUBLISHED AUTHOR!

Grif told the convention-goers he was as surprised as anyone when the book sold well; well enough for a second book about attorney Gideon Page to be ordered by Simon and Schuster, and a book series hero was born.

With a 'what did you expect' look, Grif, of course, recounted how the second Gideon Page sold less than the first, and the third, fourth and fifth even less.

Grif's mystery writer phase finally came to an end, but maybe it was time. Grif was running out of fictional characters and events he could pull from the real files and cases he had been involved in or heard about.

That gave him time to concentrate on something he was really interested in: Arkansas history, particularly Arkansas' struggles with race and civil rights over the decades.

After recounting his tale, Grif ended his speech with a big finish.

Well, not a BIG FINISH, he didn't raise his voice or bang on the podium or anything.

He quietly assured people that, if they have a passion, they need to pursue it, whether they are wildly successful or not. For writers, for example, it's not about being published, it's about writing.

When he finished speaking, Grif returned to his chair on the podium, looking relieved. Then he was asked to stand up again to receive a card of thanks. His look changed to, 'Will this nightmare ever end?'

Finally, it was over and he disappeared into the hallway.

For all of his dry, wry 'I'm a total failure and don't expect things to get better' humor, Grif Stockley is actually a very, successful and accomplished guy.

He may not have made a fortune defending poor people who can't afford an attorney, but he did make a difference.

One case successfully challenged the constitutionality of the Arkansas juvenile justice system, giving parents and children more rights in juvenile court.

Then there's that writing thing. If may have taken awhile, but Grif has sold hundreds of thousands of Gideon Page novels, and at least hundreds of his books on events of Arkansas history.

He is a respected race relations historian, a member of the Arkansas Writers Hall of Fame, a winner of awards for literary excellence and has been honored by citizen groups, especially for his service to children.

He's my new hero. An example of how a modest person with a sense of humor can make a difference, by quietly plodding along and never giving up.