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by Grammar Warrior Maxine Cushing Grey

By Cynthia MudgePublished 3 years ago Updated 3 years ago 8 min read
MOHAI, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, 2000., Photo by Howard Staples

Maxine Cushing Grey was quite elderly by the time I came to know her. She was a staunch advocate of the arts and artists. She was highly regarded as an arts critic in the Pacific Northwest for more than forty years, reviewing dance and music for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Argus publications. She later founded a widely read and respected publication called Northwest Arts, which she published every two weeks until her death in the late 1980’s. Maxine was tireless in her advocacy, sitting through countless City Council and County Commissioner meetings, arts hearings, and nagging the community to support the arts through her letters to the editor.

It wasn’t until 1986 that I became more closely acquainted with this feisty, energized, and irritating old woman.

The journey that led to her acquaintance began shortly after I accepted work to run the lightboard at Poncho Theatre. Poncho was a little children’s theatre located by the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle and this job ultimately led to a more permanent position in the administrative office where I was the office manager for several years.

In this position I enjoyed a birds-eye view of the inner workings of theatre administration. I savored the opportunity to work with each of the department heads. I was a sponge soaking up new knowledge, information, and skills. It didn’t take long for me to see that marketing and public relations suited my abilities and my need for a creative outlet. So, when the public relations director announced her resignation, I saw this as an opportunity to launch a new career.

If I were to be completely honest with myself, I had no business applying to become the public relations director. My knowledge of PR work came entirely from observing how the departing director did her job. I was fascinated by the work and in my youthful zeal felt it was something I could easily become accomplished at. Through self-edification I learned the pyramid style of writing news stories, the art of directing photo shoots, and the finesse of pitching news stories to the media and managing their queries.

My lack of formal education and having failed grammar in Junior High twice didn’t seem to register alarm bells within me that perhaps this wasn’t a good option for me to consider as a career path. Desire, alone, propelled me to apply for the job.

Incredibly, I had the audacity to apply for this position not just once, but each-and-every-time they re-opened the search.

The hiring process dragged on at a snail’s pace. The theatre wasn’t paying enough to attract seasoned professionals while those who were enticed to accept the position left prematurely for jobs that paid better and had fewer responsibilities. For months I was biting at the ankles of the managing and artistic directors begging for the position until one day – out of exasperation – and perhaps desperation – they finally promoted me into the new position.

We were less than six weeks from the next opening night. A great deal of work needed to be done and I immediately set out to write my first news release and other press materials.

Desktop computers were not yet available – at least, not to struggling non-profits. Press releases were typed on the grand matron of typewriters, the IBM Selectric. Writing one press release was a tedious and time- consuming task that involved numerous drafts and literal cutting and pasting when possible, to avoid retyping. I recall visiting with one of the old guard reporters (the one who often commented on the great gams of my predecessor) who was raving about the switch to computers. “I fought against the change and now I don’t know how we even did this before,” he said, shaking his head in amazement as he leaned back in his swivel chair, the squeak of springs following his movement. I quipped back, “Stop by my office and I’ll re-acquaint you with the old days!”

Back then, media kits were hand delivered to key press, news releases were sent first-class to secondary press, and the rest were sent by bulk-mail. Nearly everything is done electronically now and the days of just strolling into the bullpen to chat with critics are long gone, replaced by layers of security measures to ensure the safety of staff and reporters.

Maxine Cushing Grey was one of the VIP’s (Very Important Press) who received first-class delivery. And so began my brief but richly rewarding relationship with this formidable icon of the arts. For it wasn’t long before I received an envelope addressed to me in big industrious letters. Inside was my very first press release – returned to me and marked in red ink. Every misplaced comma, run-on sentence, and dangling participle was noted. It was a sea of red lines and editor’s marks. Her corrections were written with such passionate flourish that her frustration at my lack of writing skills was palatable. She scrawled across the top of the release, “Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy!” Signed, Maxine Cushing Grey.

Mortified, I quickly called a new colleague who had welcomed me to the tiny enclave of PR arts professionals my first week on the job. “I’m so embarrassed,” I whispered into the phone. He laughed. “That’s just Maxine,” he said. “She sends back my releases on a regular basis. Don’t worry; she’s just an old battle axe.” I wasn’t convinced. He continued his reassurances. “Seriously, I have your release here and it looks fine. Just forget about it,” he counseled.

Yet, there were so many corrections redlining the release that I feared this would jeopardize my newly acquired job. Knowing that she would be at the opening night performance and most likely talking to my bosses, I decided to face the problem head-on. The first thing I did was meet with the managing director, release in hand – red marks and all. To my surprise, he was very understanding and we worked out an arrangement to have my future releases proof-read internally by the education director. He explained that he and the artistic director knew I was still very “green” with the job and didn’t expect perfection my first start out of the gate. He then told me that Maxine is a “has-been,” and not to worry if one grouchy old woman was sending back my release. He read it and said her corrections were not worth bothering with.

I wasn’t so sure.

Now that my job was no longer in jeopardy, I took a closer look at her corrections and realized that she was right. It WAS sloppy writing.

Overwhelmed with nervous anticipation, I called her. Press release held out before me as evidence of her rage. I noticed the paper quivering as my hand shook, so set it down on my desk.

The phone continued to ring until finally I could hear a faint “click” as it was answered. At the end of the other line an ancient voice announced herself. “This is Maxine, what do you want!” she demanded. I introduced myself as the new public relations director for the theatre and explained that I was calling because of the corrections she made on my news release. Maxine proceeded to lecture me with vigor and passion.

“We have a R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-I-L-I-T-Y as writers to be highly critical of our own work,” she explained. “There is nothing I hate more than seeing professional writers sending out such sloppy work. As writers we must set the BEST example! We MUST NEVER submit anything that isn’t well-written, tightly written, and free from grammatical and typing errors!” Each point harshly delivered with the rising timber of her voice. “The news media is the epitome of what is wrong with our profession,” she continued. “It is our job as WRITERS to lead by example and to not let the media or anyone else accept SLOPPY, SLOPPY WORK!” I cringed. But a seed of what she said was now planted in my mind.

“As writers,” she had said.

As writers? She thought of me as a writer? Me? This instilled a new-found sense of pride. And guilt. She didn’t know I had failed grammar in school, had little writing experience, and virtually no college education. Yet she saw me as a writer. I had let her down, but in more ways than she would ever come to realize. At that moment, I felt like a fraud.

I apologized and agreed with what she said. “Frankly, I’m just ashamed of myself,” I finally confided. Maxine barked, “Good! You should be!” Then laughed. I sat trembling and near tears – thankful everyone else was out of the office and not able to witness my personal shame. My cheeks were flushed and damp from her scolding, but I finally sensed a glimmer of humor hidden beneath the last comment and laughed softly in the dim hope this was true. I thanked her for taking the time to correct my work and to talk with me about it. “Good enough!” she replied. Then she admitted that the other PR people in town disliked hearing from her, and she appreciated that I was able to laugh with her. “Keep improving, keep LEARNING, keep striving for excellence,” she implored in that raspy aging voice that quivered with unbrideled energy. “Never be satisfied with ‘good enough’ – because then you will only be ‘good enough,’” she added.

I kept that press release posted on my bulletin board following that conversation as not only a reminder of my responsibility as a writer but as a benchmark to measure my improvement. It was a point of pride to craft a press release that fully passed her inspection.

Maxine and I were only acquainted a short while before her death. I liked the crusty old gal and unlike the other PR folks in town, I appreciated her insistence on making us better writers.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid that over the years I’ve allowed “good enough” to creep back into my writing habits. Anytime I’ve written something that is “good enough,” I feel an apology to her spirit reaching out in her memory. It was this realization that ultimately became the force behind my desire to finally complete the education I should have pursued four decades ago.

While the red ink on that first press release has long ago faded, Maxine’s lessons remain imbedded in my heart and mind with every stroke of my fingers across the keyboard.


Only recently did I learn that Maxine had been diagnosed with liver cancer in 1985. So the precious short time we were corresponding she was in considerable pain, yet continued being active right up to the end. She never slowed down, so I suspect most were not quite aware of how ill she was. Thank you Maxine (1909 - 1987).


About the Creator

Cynthia Mudge

Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Cynthia is an avid reader and explorer of historical fiction, paranormal, and environmental tales that examine the world around us. Her writing explores these themes as she finds her Skookum Spirit.

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