I have been drawn to writing as a creative activity since childhood.
It started by inventing stories in my head. It grew into imitation when in the 7th grade I read William Faulkner’s 1942 short story “The Bear,” and I wrote my own story of a bear hunt gone awry. In the 8th grade, my classmates and I started a school newspaper to satisfy my itch to try journalism and to make a little money for a class field trip to St. Augustine.
By the time I reached high school, I was involved in a writing circle with friends. We called it “The Story War.” We took turns writing stories about a common set of characters whose adventures intersected and intertwined in ways that tested our creativity and problem solving. Each of us had a main character, and in the pre-internet days, we circulated our stories to each other by reproducing them on dot matrix printers and sending them through the U.S. mail. There were four of us in the group — two in Florida, Dwayne and me, and two in Texas, Fred and Cliff. It occupied hours of my imaginings and fed my love of storytelling and creative expression.
In high school, I gravitated toward newspaper journalism as a way to earn a living as a writer. In the unsophisticated way a teenager thinks about careers, I knew I loved to write but thought writing books could be an undependable source of income. According to my logic, writing for newspapers would be a steady gig, and I could write books on the side.
After my introduction to journalism in 8th grade, I joined the high school yearbook staff in 10th grade and took journalism as an independent study in the 11th. The summer after my junior year, I applied and was selected for an internship at our local newspaper, the now defunct Lake Wales Daily Highlander. Each year The Highlander hired a rising senior to write a weekly column and help out around the newsroom as the intern’s schedule and skill allowed.
I loved writing the column and took it very seriously. I loved trying out the SAT words I was learning. Some of my early columns required readers to have a dictionary at their elbow in order to make sense of what I was trying to say. The high school administration was also not particularly fond of my more aggressive attempts at satire.
I was called to meet with the principal after one column in which I deployed hyperbole to describe the construction projects going on in the buildings during the school day. I posited that projects of such scale would cause much less disruption during the summer. When I sat down across from Mr. Windham, the principal, I saw my column on the desk in front of him, marked up in red. He took me through each of my factual errors. I don’t remember printing a retraction, but I do remember learning that a weekly column came with power and responsibility.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I worked at The Highlander full time. I mostly did clerical writing such as obituaries, but when the news reporters were on vacation, I covered the police beat, county court and city budget hearings. Because I enjoyed sports, I latched onto opportunities in that genre, covering Lake Wales Little League as closely as if it were Major League Baseball, and endured the editing supervision of sports editor Bob Perkins. He once told me while editing a particularly egregious story in which I erroneously substituted “aloud” for “allowed” throughout to describe how many runs a pitcher “allowed,” that “This isn’t writing, it’s typing!”
My time at The Highlander gave me an unmatched experience for someone my age, and by the time I arrived at college to officially earn a degree in journalism, I had already tackled a number of challenges many of my peers wouldn’t experience until their senior internship or even after they started their careers. I began writing for the student newspaper, The Tropolitan, immediately, and found myself in a Reporting 1 class my freshman year.
In addition to the writing I did for The Trop, as it was affectionately known, I also served as a peer tutor at the university’s Writing Center. All students who tested into the remedial English classes were required to attend a writing lab one hour a week at the Writing Center, and the tutors led the labs. It was more than a little awkward when I, as an 18-year-old freshman, handed out and graded assignments from 21-year-old upperclassmen. Working at the Writing Center solidified my knowledge of the rules of grammar and gave me an even stronger foundation for writing clean copy and editing others’ work.
During my time at Troy I also developed the habit of journaling. I incorporated it as a part of my daily Bible reading and prayer time. I have never gone back to read those early attempts to process my understanding of scripture or work through crises of faith, but the practice is still part of my daily routine to this day.
My journalism career progressed from The Daily Highlander and Tropolitan to The Destin Log and The Macon Telegraph before I moved into higher education and nonprofit communications. During those years, I had largely abandoned the dream of creative writing, but in the summer of 2004 after completing an MBA, I felt the creative itch return.
I had been ignoring the whole reason I had chosen newspapers and communications as a career in the first place. So during our vacation that summer at Santa Rosa Beach, I spent an hour or so each day working on a novel. I wrote the first five chapters of my work, tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and reconnected with my love of writing.
I finished the first draft in 2009, and at more than 140,000 words was too intimidated to do the work necessary to edit it down to the more appropriate 100,000 words or less most first-time authors get when they publish. I was also reading about the publishing industry trying to implement the advice of launching my own platform. The conventional wisdom of the publishing industry was that you would be more desirable to agents and publishers if you had a built-in following who would buy your books.
So in March of 2011 I launched this web log, or blog as it is more commonly known. I called it “New South Essays” and tried to brand myself as a commentator on life in the modern South. Because I felt that my novel was a work of contemporary Southern fiction, I thought this would give me access to the readers who might be susceptible to buying my book when the time came.
For three years I published a New South Essay each week. In August 2012 when I went to work for Georgia Tech, learning to communicate in a technical field and managing a large staff sapped all of my energy for writing. Plus, the demands of a growing family caused me to lose touch with my zeal for expression again. I put the blog on hiatus in the fall of 2014, and once again strayed from my love of writing.
During my time at Georgia Tech I satisfied my itch to write by taking on freelance writing assignments for Baptist publisher, Smyth & Helwys. I wrote several units of Sunday School lessons for its Formations line, devotions for its annual Reflections guide and started a blog called “A View from the Pew” which provided a lay person’s perspective on church life. With such a demanding day job, my writing dwindled to once a month, and my creativity shriveled.
I finally figured out my pattern in the spring of 2020 when the outbreak of COVID-19 rearranged our lives. No longer commuting two hours a day to downtown and back for my job with the University System of Georgia, I found I had more time in the mornings to write again. I was inspired to re-launch New South Essays on a monthly schedule, alternating writing weeks among A View from the Pew, New South Essays and the re-write on my novel. And when Carla gave me the unique anniversary gift in May of weekly memoir prompt Storyworth, I found myself once filled with excitement and energy for the written word.
What started as a spark of creativity has grown into quite a collection: two blogs, hundreds of newspaper articles, thousands of news releases and promotional pieces, speeches, media statements and an unpublished novel. Writing is a passion that draws me back whenever I wander away from it.
Here’s hoping I don’t lose sight of that truth again.