Written by Randy Wayne White, author of Mangrove Lightning: A Doc Ford Novel
Greetings from the front porch on a flawless March morning. Bay calm through the coconut palms, sky is a winter blue, with temperatures already in the 60s. Today, the subject is writing. Any person who has endured their teens has a book in them. The longer you’ve lived, the more books you have inside of you, ready to be written. Most readers are also writers. No need to travel to exotic places, to participate in revolutions, to meet famous people.
I have been so lucky in my writing life, and my life in general, that it is a rare morning I don’t wake up psyched, ready to work, or also reflect on the fact that, by all that’s fair, I should be back running a fishing boat, or climbing telephone poles.
Among the great strokes of good fortune — and there were many junctures where I could have gone awry — was the decision to write about, via fiction, my small marina family at Tarpon Bay, Sanibel Island, Florida, where I was a fishing guide from 1974 to 1987. This marina family embraced a wider tribe of watermen from along the Gulf Coast, fascinating characters, and also decent, caring people, who now populate my novels.
When my marina closed, I was out of a job — a tough period financially, but a powerful motivator to write a good book that would sell. I did exactly that, but it didn’t happen as easily as it might sound. During my years as a guide, I’d also worked hard in my spare time at writing. I sold some stories to Outdoor Life (not about fishing) but my big break came when Rolling Stone founded Outside Magazine. They had a stable of brilliant writers — Hunter S. Thompson, Edward Abby, Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison — so I was ecstatic (and surprised) when they published a major feature by me during the magazine’s first year. My editor there kept after me to write more. This led to calls from other magazines, and a New York editor who asked me to write a series of thriller novels under pennames; jobs of work that paid $5k each. I wrote 18 of those tawdry bastards; called them D&F books (Duck and F—). I didn’t complain. They helped fund college accounts for my two young sons, and also provided a bruising trial-by-fire during which I learned the rudiments of how to structure a novel.
I was not unprepared, then, when I set out to write not only a book I would be proud to carry my name, but also one that sold.
Fun stuff…except for the numbing hard work that good writing requires. A year later, Sanibel Flats was eagerly accepted by the first publisher it was sent to (not Neil Nyren, not Putnam’s). I signed a terrible contract for next to no money, and despite limited, albeit rave reviews, the book sold very few of the very, very copies that were printed. (On Ebay, a pristine copy of Sanibel Flats recently sold for $2,700 – more than half of what I was paid to write it.) That was 24 Doc Ford novels ago.
As a writer, I still enjoy advantages gained by growing up in rural areas where isolation and boredom were relentless motivators and keys to the limitless worlds that lie between covers, not coasts. Better yet, my isolation was split between bipolar geographies: farms in the Midwest and my maternal home of Richmond County, North Carolina, a solid place of cotton mills, tobacco, truck farming (of the vegetable variety) and some of the finest people I’ve known. The fact that many of these fine people were also my aunts, uncles and cousins only added to the richness of a Midwestern and Deep South childhood that practically guaranteed that, even if I had failed as a writer, I was bound to succeed at something. My iron-willed mother, Georgia Wilson White, would not have tolerated anything less, nor would my sweet-natured aunts or bullheaded uncles, most of whom quit school to work in the mills or the fields. And my Grandmother Rilla Nay Wilson? The woman did not brook fools, nor the slow-witted, and she carried a pistol for a reason. Tough as he is, Doc Ford would have loved Grandma Rilla Nay — she also would have scared him a little. Lord knows, she put some starch in me.
If you’ve spent your entire life in a small town, working a nine-to-five job, your experiences and insights — as filtered through your eyes — are extraordinary because they are unique. If you have the calling to write do yourselves a favor and write.
© Randy Wayne White, author of Mangrove Lightning: A Doc Ford Novel
Randy Wayne White‘s latest release is Mangrove Lightning: A Doc Ford Novel. He is the author of the Doc Ford novels and the Hannah Smith novels, and four collections of nonfiction. He lives on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he was a light-tackle fishing guide for many years, and spends much of his free time windsurfing, playing baseball, and hanging out at Doc Ford’s Rum Bar & Grille. For more information, please visit http://www.randywaynewhite.com/ and follow the author on Facebook.
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