THE WRITE STUFF ... FROM PORCH SWINGS ... TO BOOKS
I’m neither a scholar nor a journalist. And I’m definitely not a professional writer. I am a father, husband and lawyer who likes to tell stories … stories that make us smile or laugh or sometimes cry. Above all, stories that inspire us to live our lives fully and gracefully.
My love for sharing stories dates back to my childhood, to my pre-school days before I could even read, much less write. The venues for such stories were porches … a screened porch at my family’s home in Cherokee Village, Arkansas, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains … and the front porch of my grandparents’ home in Bemis, Tennessee. I spent many summer nights of my childhood on these porches, shelling butter beans with my parents or grandparents and their neighbors and friends, and hearing them tell stories. They were mostly stories about our family history and all the interesting characters named “Haltom” or “Barron” (my mother’s family) who lived in rural Tennessee or Arkansas or Georgia. They did some absolutely crazy things. The stories range from embarrassing to hilarious to inspiring. They were stories about soldiers, preachers, in-laws and outlaws.
While I loved the stories, I unfortunately took them for granted. I thought every southern boy grew up hearing his parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts and cousins tell stories, and I did not realize what a gift I had received.
When I was a senior in high school my father gave me a typewriter. It was a Sears and Roebuck Electric Typewriter! It was as loud as a fire engine, but it sure was easy to type on, and soon I was playing it like the mighty Wurlitzer! I started writing columns for my high school newspaper, The Rampage. Our school nickname was “The Rams”. Get it?
But I was no John Boy Walton. I didn’t share the stories I had grown up hearing. Instead, I wrote on topics I knew absolutely nothing about, but pretended I was an expert. The faculty advisor for The Rampage was a wonderful English teacher, Mr. Hester. His first name was “John”, but as far as I knew, high school teachers did not have first names. They were the opposite of Old Testament figures who did not have last names.
Mr. Hester was not a big fan of my columns. Mr. Hester had to approve each and every column for The Rampage, and when I protested that this was censorship, Mr. Hester responded, “That’s exactly what it is. Now let me see that column!”
More often than not Mr. Hester would reject one of my columns, making the observation, “I don’t know who wrote this. It doesn’t sound at all like you. Are you sure you didn’t plagiarize this?”
Well, I wasn’t plagiarizing. I was doing something almost as bad. I was pretending . . . pretending to be somebody else.
I was pretending to be somebody interesting who led an interesting life.
And then one day Mr. Hester gave me the best advice I ever received about writing. He said, “Bill, I watch you and hear you in my classroom or in the hallway or in the school cafeteria interacting with your friends. You tell them stories, and they respond. They smile or laugh or nod in approval. Your stories are wonderful, and you tell them well. And then when I read your columns, I don’t read those stories. So here’s an idea. When you sit down at that typewriter your father gave you for Christmas, start typing those stories that you share with your classmates.”
And so I did, starting in 1969, and 45 years later, I’m still doing it. I share the stories of my life on this blog, a monthly column for the Tennessee Bar Journal, occasional columns in my hometown newspaper, and every few years, a book.
It’s pretty much like it was when I was sitting on a porch swing over 50 years ago with my mother and father and grandparents, hearing them tell wonderful stories. While my parents and grandparents are all in Heaven now, they are in a real sense still with me. They are with me as I share their stories and my own stories with my family, friends, and yes, readers.