Origins of a passion for writing

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.

A blue, three-ring binder with dot matrix printed pages is overlaid by a hand-drawn map in pencil, a stack of story pages and a table of contents.
Can’t you hear the crackling spew of ink from a dot matrix printer while the rotating wheels pulled the continuous form paper through? The seriousness of the genre is also clearly communicated by the choice of font.

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.

My semi-annual appraisal

There are two times a year I evaluate the direction of my life: New Year’s and my birthday.

New Year’s resolutions are somewhat cliché, but the start of a new calendar year is a natural time to take stock of your life, look at your goals and determine course corrections. My birthday falls nearly eight months later on July 30. That’s plenty of time to see how things are working.

This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I'm another year older and it's time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe at third thing: They think I'm great.
This sign on the back door from my boys means two things: I’m another year older and it’s time to evaluate my life. Oh, and maybe a third thing: They think I’m great.

This week, as I turn 43 and look at my life, there are four words that stand out: writing, running, family and rest. Let’s take them in order:

Writing

Friends and regular readers of New South Essays know this has been a year of transition for me. Taking a new job and moving things around in my schedule to accommodate a new commute has caused me to tinker with things a little. It cost me a few weeks of inconsistent posting back in the spring before I finally determined that I needed to dedicate two mornings a week to New South Essays.

It was impossible to do anything of quality by getting up on Saturday morning, opening up a vein and bleeding into WordPress. I now take Wednesday mornings to work up the first draft of the week’s post, allowing time for my editor, Carla, to take a whack at it. I have three days to get my photo or art arranged and Saturday morning to edit, rewrite, post and share.

This seems to be working well. I am maintaining my creative outlet and fulfilling my compulsion to write while traffic to New South Essays has never been higher. Thanks for your response and your continued reading.

What I’d like to figure out now is how to get back to the re-write on my novel, which has been lying dormant for more than a year now. That goal may just have to wait.

Running

I had the delusional goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon when I turned 40 three years ago. Somehow I thought I could get 10 years older AND 13 minutes faster. It didn’t happen. I finished the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachicola, Fla., in October 2010 in 4:04, well off the qualifying pace.

After evaluating what went wrong, I decided I needed to train harder. I registered for the Nashville Marathon in April of 2011 and began a more rigorous training regimen. The result? A bad case of plantar fasciitis which caused me to miss the race. I now have a $100 T-shirt to show for it.

I’m back to running three days a week, working out with weights two and resting two. I’m no closer to Boston, but I’m also not injured. Sometimes, you just have to set your goals a little lower. I may make another attempt at a marathon in the future, but I’m letting go of that dream for now.

Family

Perhaps the most important life lesson I’ve learned in recent years is that being in my family’s presence doesn’t necessarily mean I’m with them. I was naïve to think my children didn’t notice when my mind was elsewhere. I used to believe that as long as I was physically involved in our family activity my frame of mind didn’t matter.

I was wrong. In order for me to be the husband and father my family needs me to be, I have to lay aside the unfinished work of the day, build time into my schedule for just hanging out and engage in each outing with gusto. Only then can I strengthen the bonds with my wife and children and create lasting memories.

And that’s just the people who live in my house. I still have a need to stay connected with my parents in Florida and my brothers in Alabama and Texas. These are challenges I never dreamed would be so difficult when we all lived under the same roof.

My goal is depth. I don’t want to just go through the motions. I want to connect with members of my family in deep and meaningful ways. Life is too short for pleasantries or issue avoidance.

Rest

Simply put, I need more sleep. This is the steady refrain I hear from Carla on a weekly basis. I aim for 7 hours a night, but generally get somewhere around six or less, even on the weekends. I used to brag about this schedule, laughing it off when people said I was crazy.

I’m beginning to think people are right.

If I nod off in an afternoon meeting at work, it undermines my effectiveness. If I get behind the wheel of my car on my afternoon commute feeling drowsy, I could end up on the sky copter traffic report. Caffeine can only take me so far. I need to find a way to get more sleep.

But the early morning is when I do the things I enjoy: running, writing, praying. I am fed by these activities. This is one of my constant and biggest challenges. Plus, guess when I do all the work for my volunteer commitments? That’s right, before sunrise.

Going forward I’m altering my schedule. We’ll see how I do putting a priority on sleep.

Despite these challenges, I conclude this summer evaluation with a sense of optimism. My life isn’t quite up to par in all areas, but it is good. The love and affection showered on me on my birthday was heart-warming. It reminded me that I am richly blessed with all the good gifts of life that matter.

I can’t help but try to make things just a little better. We’ll see how I’m doing come New Year’s.

When do you evaluate your life? Do you follow a structure or do you think about life when prompted by your circumstances? Maybe you take stock once a week or once a month. What are the words that come to mind when you evaluate your current state? Share how, when and what your measure yourself by in a comment below. In fact, make it a goal to make more comments on New South Essays!

Flip flops and running shoes

What you pack for vacation says a lot about you.

Vacation is that time of year when you are released from the bonds of work long enough for your true personality to emerge. Maybe it’s the only time all year you have real choices about how to spend your time. Maybe it’s when you discover there is such a thing as leisure time.

What you choose to take with you is a portrait of what makes you tick.

My wife always stocks up on reading material. She brings a stack of magazines that have piled up over the last few months, including New South essentials Southern Living and Garden & Gun. And she scrolls through the bestseller list to pull the most intriguing in “chick lit” and anything by Atlantan Emily Giffin.

The boys bring their bicycles and a giant tub of beach and pool toys. They usually load an entire suitcase with nothing but board and card games. Having recently taught the boys to play chess, I think I’m in for a lot of that classic game this year, with a few marathon sessions of Skip-Bo thrown in.

For me, it’s my flip flops and running shoes. I don’t wear flip flops nearly enough. I think my last pair lasted longer than our van’s tires. I’ve got a new pair for Father’s Day, and they need some breaking in.

OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.
OK, the suitcase will eventually have more than just these, but I start with these and pack around them.

As my wife frequently reminds me, I’m terrible at unwinding. At least for this week, I will try not to wear regular shoes or socks, unless it’s my running shoes, of course.

I have written about my passion for running in this space before, so I’ll spare you another ode to my running shoes. I will say that when I run on vacation, it’s a totally different experience. My mind isn’t processing what’s on tap for the day, major decisions or problems to be solved. My mind wanders in all kinds of directions.

I notice things during my vacation runs that I don’t seem to pick up very often: the different bird calls, sea breezes, turtles perched on a log in a lake. Knowing that when I finish my run I don’t have anything to do but sit by the pool, go to the beach and build sand castles or ride the waves with the boys or play board games is incredibly freeing.

Here’s one probably not-so-surprising confession: I bring a laptop, but it’s not for the reason you might guess. OK, yes, I do check work emails while I’m away. I limit it to once a day, but it’s just a necessity these days. My real use for the laptop is writing. You may remember that I both started and completed my still-being-edited-and-rewritten novel while at the beach.

I’m planning this trip to spend some time working on New South Essays, you’ll be happy to know, to prevent any more lapses in quality content or consistent publishing. I’ve got to flesh out all the ideas you have been so gracious to send me.

So watch Facebook or Twitter for the now-cliché photo of my feet from the beach. I’ll be wearing either flip flops or running shoes … maybe one of each.

What are your must-haves for vacation? Share your packing list in a comment below and join the spirit of vacation season. See you at the beach!

A new page

Did you miss me?

For the first time since I started New South Essays in March 2011 I have hit a wall. Failing to post an essay three out of the last four weeks, I’ve succumbed to inertia, and it threatens my blogging endeavor.

Blogging with brooding intensity at sunrise
Blogging with brooding intensity at sunrise

In addition to my absence from the blogosphere, I also have to admit that the quality of recent posts is suffering. The greater percentage of posts have been “misses” rather than “hits.” Like all bloggers, I track my statistics compulsively, and unsurprisingly, my readership has waned at about the same time as the quality of my content began to decline. Changing my posting day after 18 months from Friday to Saturday probably didn’t help either.

A little more than two years into New South Essays, I am failing to fulfill the two basic requirements of blogging: quality content and consistent posting. The culprit? Time and energy.

The time I previously spent writing on Saturday mornings is now split between weekly planning for the Cub Scout den I lead and getting in a long run as I vainly attempt to defy aging and fool myself into thinking I can still someday qualify for the Boston Marathon. Something has to give, and lately it’s been the blog.

My energy level is still high, but it is focused in another direction. I started a new job at Georgia Tech back in the fall, and this new challenge has turned my creative energies toward learning a large and complex organization, managing a different staff and strategizing about a unique set of audiences and messages. It has been a fascinating and invigorating journey of discovery.

But when it comes to my blog, I am bereft of what I need in order to produce good content. I am a creature of habit, craving routine to channel my creativity. When my routine breaks down or shifts, it takes me a little time to come up with a new approach to compensate.

I hope you’ll stick with me as I find new footing and a new routine. I also ask that you contribute by letting me know what you are interested in, what you are seeing in the New South or what topics you would like  for me to address.

Remember, this isn’t just one-way communication. Enter the dialogue. You can e-mail me at lanceelliottwallace@gmail.com or just leave a comment below.

You’ve been great to stick with me so far, and I aim to make it worth the trouble.

Method to my madness

Today marks the 52nd weekly post of New South Essays, and it’s high time I let you in on a little secret: I started this blog a year ago to capture your attention, entice you to engage with my writing and whet your appetite for my book.

chapter 1
I'm five and a half years into my first book. Hopefully the others will take less time.

This journey began in 2006. Two years after completing an MBA, I was in need of a new intellectual pursuit, a challenge that provided a creative outlet. I needed a mental exercise that matched the physical exercise of my foolhardy marathon hobby. So I returned to my first love – writing.

My day job in public relations had progressed to the stage in which I spent more time managing budgets than crafting sentences. My need for written expression was going unmet. During our family vacation to Santa Rosa Beach in July 2006, I wrote a chapter a day on the novel I had been kicking around in my head for a few years.

For the next four years I got up early each Saturday and wrote a chapter. My only reader was Carla, who found the book captivating enough to anticipate the next week’s installment with her Saturday morning coffee. A loving but unhesitating editor, she offered instant feedback, telling me when a character was inconsistent, a plot line implausible or dialogue hollow.

By the time I finished the first draft, while on vacation in Santa Rosa Beach exactly four years later, I had generated 146,912 words in 76 chapters. Disjointed and choppy, amateurish and unwieldy, the as-yet-unnamed project was a long way from being finished. I put it aside for six months, dreading the hard work of paring it down to a more reasonable length and a more comprehensible story.

The Saturday after the 2011 blizzard had kept all of Atlanta homebound for a week, I met a friend’s dad for coffee. He is a published author, and I had arranged to talk with him ostensibly about what was involved in the publishing process. Sam gave me all that and more. I came away from our conversation with a renewed commitment to seeing the task through, and picked back up on the rewrite.

I’m now 54 chapters into the first rewrite, splitting my early morning writing time between editing and writing New South Essays. I’ve loved the weekly discipline of writing the blog, and your response and feedback has only encouraged me to continue. For an old newspaper hack like myself, a weekly column is a familiar medium and the consistency of it appeals to my regimented and disciplined side.

My free-spirited side is fed by working on the book. If I’m honest, I’d have to guess that I’m still a year or more away from having a polished manuscript to show prospective agents and publishers. An editor friend and former roommate has the first five chapters, working to help me improve it, one installment at a time.

Macon post card
Before you can leave Macon, you have to go there first.

What I’d describe as contemporary Southern fiction, the book is tentatively titled “Leaving Macon,” and it chronicles the life of a young junior leaguer who in one tumultuous year discovers her husband is unfaithful, her three-year-old is unruly, her acquired wealth is unfulfilling and her identity unsettled. Through a series of new relationships, including her son’s redneck Tae Kwon Do instructor and an African-American woman restaurateur, she uncovers her true self and finds courage to move forward with her dreams.

Thank you for coming along with me and giving me courage to move forward with my dreams. There’s plenty more to discover and report on in the New South, and I welcome your ideas and participation. Who knows where this will lead.