Everything You Need to Learn to Be a Writer—Even in a Small Town in Mississippi

By Ken DeCell

The truth is, I can’t say how I learned to write. Writing was sort of taken for granted in our house. My parents were newspaper people, and in addition to most of the news stories in the paper, both wrote weekly columns and editorials. (For many years, my mother was the most-quoted woman in Reader’s Digest’s “Quotable Quotes” column–she was overtaken in 1976 by Erma Bombeck.)

When I was nine and my brother was ten, our father told us that each of us was to have a one-page, hand-written column on the dining-room sideboard by the time he left for the office every Monday morning—or we couldn’t go to school! I can’t imagine that would have worked with most children, but it did for us. So each of us wrote a column every week until we graduated from high school. Our columns ran as written. It only took one misspelling that our small world could see to make clear to us the need to pay attention to what and how we wrote.

Even so, I don’t think either of us—or our younger sister, who began her column four years after we did—ever gave much thought to the craft of writing. Our goal was always to say what we wanted to say in one handwritten page.

I doubt I’d want to go back and look at those columns today, but there’s no question that the exercise of writing week after week for eight years had to help. (For that matter, the fellow who talked me into starting the newspaper that led to Memphis magazine once startled me by recalling that in my childhood column I had once rhymed “impossible” with “crack a skull.” He had subscribed to my folks’ paper—and watched me grow up by reading my column—even though he lived 200 miles away.)

A major contributor to my education also was the presence of countless books and magazines in our home. My parents read incessantly, so we kids assumed that was the way life was supposed to be. The magazines that shaped me included Time, Newsweek, Harper’s, Atlantic, Esquire, Saturday Review, Life, Saturday Evening Post, and more. (I’ll never forget my teenaged shock—and delight—at seeing Brigitte Bardot’s lips described as “fellatial” in Time magazine in the mid-’60s; I still can’t believe an editor let that through.)

The books I would pick up after my parents had read them were by the likes of Thomas B. Costain, Theodore White, William Manchester, Leon Uris, and Joseph Heller, among many others.

My father never made much money, but he always wrote off his whiskey and his books as business expenses—”entertainment and education,” he would explain. Whose entertainment and education? “Mine,” he declared.

Like most Southerners, the people I grew up with liked to talk. And that influenced my writing. My grandmother was what today would be called a charismatic evangelical preacher—the most spell-binding preacher I ever heard. So the cadences of scripture and hymnody were imprinted on my mind early on. Music of all kinds had a major effect. My father was a musician before he was a newspaperman, and our entire family was musical, so I grew up singing and playing and writing songs. The result of all the story-telling and music-making is that I write as much for sound as for meaning—to me they are all but inseparable.

Any mention of learning, whether about writing or anything else, in my life has to acknowledge the greatest resource that people of my community (and my generation) had: the extraordinarily bright and gifted women who today would be leaders in medicine, business, or law, but who in those years largely had to find career satisfaction in teaching school. From diagramming sentences to memorizing the prologue to the Canterbury Tales to learning why ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny but does approximate it, my hometown teachers taught me invaluable lessons.

I’ve rambled on—you’d think I’d know better by now. But as I say, I’m still learning.

Freelance editor and writer Ken DeCell grew up writing for his parents’ weekly newspaper, the Deer Creek Pilot, in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. He was the founding editor of Memphis magazine, worked on Capitol Hill for several years, and was a senior editor at The Washingtonian for three decades.
From Jack Limpert: I’ve asked about a dozen journalists the “How Did You Learn to Write?” question and will post their answers in the coming weeks. If you have a story to tell about how you learned to write, send it to [email protected] along with a line or two about your writing background.

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