Today marks the 17th anniversary of this weekly column. A frequent question I am asked is, “How did all of this column writing and book publishing start?” As with many things in my life, I fell into it in a backwards and unintended way. I got lucky here and there, was helped along the way by many people, and was the beneficiary of providential timing. Nothing more.
I was originally asked by an editor at my hometown newspaper, The Hattiesburg American, if I would be interested in writing a weekly food column. I said, “no,” several times. I was busy opening a new restaurant, my daughter had just been born, and I hadn’t written much more than a postcard to someone (and not many of those) since English Comp I in college and in a few creative writing classes in high school decades earlier.
Actually, at that point in my life, it was a labor for me to sit down and write a brief memo. My marketing director said, “You should do this.” I don’t know if she was encouraging me because she thought it might make her job easier, it might occupy my time in the office and keep me from sticking my nose in everyone else’s duties, or that I might actually have a speck of potential. Either way, after much cajoling, I agreed.
The early columns were truly bad. Some might say the current columns are just as bad. That might be the case, but at least the “bad” flows much easier these days. The early weeks I spent trying to meet a deadline were tough. It usually took me several hours over the course of two days to finally string together a few coherent thoughts that might make sense in a 750-word column. It was hit and miss.
On a scale from 1 – 10 those early columns were a 1.5. I had no clue as to what I was doing. The Chicago Manual of Style on my desk became stained and dog-eared from overuse, and the writing was still awkward and filled with freshman mistakes. My brother-in-law at the time, an excellent newspaper journalist, lent a hand and pre-edited each column for a few years. That was a huge help. Every writer needs an editor armed with a lot of red ink. He was a great one. I began to learn the rules of column writing and the Associated Press style, and things began to flow smoothly.
I also began to develop a passion for writing and more newspapers began carrying the column. Emails began to trickle in and a few of the columns went viral before anyone knew what that meant. As the Internet grew, so did my readership and I started to receive even more email correspondence, some from people in other countries.
A second monumental component in my writing occurred when I re-entered college classes as the oldest, fattest student of the English Department at the University of Southern Mississippi and began enrolling in undergraduate, and then graduate-level, writing classes with the famed and talented Barthelme clan— Rick, Steve, and Melanie— at Southern Miss. That was the best decision I ever made in my quest to become a better writer.
The workshop environment was a primary key to better writing. During those first few classes I was writing in the style I was using at that time, which actually wasn’t my “voice” but the writing voice of other authors I admired and respected. I was nailed against the wall several times by classmates in their early 20s who would skewer anyone in front of the group if a writer opted for the easy metaphor, an obvious comparison, or a cutesy turn of phrase that added nothing to the work.
I developed tough skin and my writing got better, much better. I began to make decisions when I wrote. I developed my own voice. It was self-preservation. While writing I would think of a clever sentence that I thought might sound crafty or author-like, but then I would ask myself, “How would that line play in class with the workshop crew? With the professor?” More times than not I answered the question on my own and removed the “little darling” as it is called. Once I started self-editing, things grew.
After four years of column writing I released several successful self-published books. In the mid 2000s I travelled to New York, and alongside an agent I had recently secured but had never met (again through backwards and unintentional means), I found myself sitting in the offices of Simon and Schuster pitching a book deal based on books I hadn’t even written yet. After several more visits to several more publishers on the Upper West Side, a bidding war ensued for the three forthcoming books from this previously unpublished (save for self publishing) author. I ended up with a three-book six-figure deal with Hyperion just a few years after I started writing. Luck, luck, luck. Nothing more. Pure luck, and a little gift from the gods of timing.
There is no other explanation. I, more than anyone, know how important it is to be in the right place at the right time with a little luck in your pocket. Now, 10 books later, I have wound up with a second career that I never planned. Actually one that I said “no” to several times initially.
For 17 years I have written at least 750 words every week, never missing a week. This column has been written in locales as far away as Istanbul and as close as Eastabuchie and I have loved every minute of it. What I truly love are the readers of this column who will approach me at a book signing and remind me of a story I had written years ago, or talk about aspects of my life or members of my family that I have even forgotten. That is a gift.
So what lesson did we learn today? Say “yes” to new opportunities. If something worthwhile starts out bad, work as hard as you can to make it a little bit better each time. When you develop a passion, do everything you can to improve on it. Be open and available for luck and opportunity to fall into your lap. When that time comes, enjoy it, once you start doing something successful, don’t stop, just try to do your best to improve. And always remove the little darlings.