Before he even realized he had the talent, two perceptive educators nurtured this writer’s budding career as an author.
by Jim Dodson | illustration by Gerry O’Neill
Not long ago, following a speech to a historical organization in Georgia, a woman in the audience asked me how I became a “successful author.” For years, my response would be to quip: “Because I couldn’t make a living out of mowing lawns in the neighborhood forever,” or, “The Baltimore Orioles already had a decent shortstop.” The truth is that writing books is a lonely enterprise, and the vast majority of folks who are good at it find their way to the craft via some other pathway.
Before literary success arrived, Charles Dickens worked in a factory putting labels on tins of boot polish. Harper Lee was an airline ticket clerk. William Faulkner served as a postmaster. Nicholas Sparks, a dental equipment salesman.
They were all, in other words, something else before they became writers. Why we choose to become writers and storytellers is perhaps the more interesting question — an age-old one, and a highly personal mystery. In a famous essay titled “Why I Write,” George Orwell, of Animal Farm and 1984 fame, said writers put pen to paper out of “sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose.”
Joan Didion claimed she wrote simply to discover what she was thinking — and feared — at the moment. That said: “Everyone has a book in them,” the late Christopher Hitchens sniffed, “and that, in most cases, is where it should stay.”
Writing anything is work that takes time, discipline, imagination, constant revision, false starts, new beginnings and plenty of patience. Hemingway called it the “loneliest, hardest art.”
One of my favorite writers, novelist Graham Greene, actually published a book called Why I Write, in which he explained that good storytelling takes place in the unconscious before the first word is written on the page. “We remember the details of our story, we do not invent them,” he said, noting that ideas often come unbidden during unexpected moments of ordinary life: while dropping off your laundry, running errands or (as in my case) mowing the lawn or working in the garden. This is why, regardless of how grubby I get in the flowerbeds, a pen and small notebook are always on my person.
As the youngest son of a newspaper man who hauled his family all over the South of the 1950s, I learned to read chapter books around age 4, in part because I never had time to make real playmates. I was drawn early to adventure storytelling, particularly the short stories of Rudyard Kipling, Greek myths and any tale that involved animals and magical places.
Fables and folktales ranked high. Absent a flying carpet, I often read books sitting in a large cardboard moving box on the porches of our old houses. Inevitably, I grew up imagining someday becoming a journalist like my father, traveling all over the world to find such magical places. When he eventually introduced me to the essays of E.B. White — this was after reading Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web — I even pictured myself living on a farm on the coast of Maine.
When I look back, I see a clear path to how I became a writer. And it includes an unlikely pair of school teachers. In October of 1969, I was a junior underclassman in Greensboro who landed in the American literature class of an aging educator named Elizabeth Smith and, to my dismay, a math class with a newbie teacher named Larry Saunders.
English lit and I were natural companions. But I detested algebra and was probably the slowest student in “Coach” Saunders’ class, a nickname we teenage geniuses were inspired to give him due his geeky, nonathletic orientation.
I rarely took my algebra book home and only occasionally did my homework.
I don’t know what Miss Smith saw in me. Her unflattering moniker was “Bull” Smith. This was her final year of a teaching career that stretched back to the mid-1930s.
I eventually learned that my father had been her student the year she graduated UNCG — then called Woman’s College — and began teaching. Out of the blue, Miss Smith pulled me aside one day to urge me to enter the Gate City’s annual O.Henry short story contest. So, on a lark, I did. My simple tale was about visiting my quiet grandfather on his farm for several weeks one summer, not long before he passed away.
The story won first place, deeply shocking my sports pals. I dropped by Miss Smith’s classroom at the end of the term just to say thanks and wish her happy retirement. She gave me a copy of Robert Frost’s Complete Poems, and wished me a long and happy career writing books. I think I laughed. I was mowing lawns and playing pony league baseball that summer.
Larry Saunders was an even bigger surprise. Early on he realized that I would never a mathematician be — and proposed a remarkable compromise. If I never missed class, agreed to pay attention and try my best, he would agree to giving me a C-minus or better. I made the deal. Saunders was famous for writing daily inspirational quotes on the chalkboard. Once, the jokester in me managed to alter one of his quotes.
“Familiarity breeds contempt” became “Familiarity breeds.” Even Coach had a chuckle. “Mr. Dodson is our budding literary genius,” he told the class, shaking his head. He was true to his word, however, when he could easily have submarined my GPA.
During my senior year, fortune found me in Saunders’ class again for geometry — which, shockingly, I found to my liking. Geometry became very useful when, decades later, I became an amateur carpenter like my father and grandfather, and I built my post-and-beam house on the coast of Maine with my own hands. About the same time, I published my first book, which turned out to be an international bestseller. I always meant to write Coach and thank him.
In 1983, on my way to a job interview at the Washington Post from Atlanta, where I was writing at the oldest Sunday magazine in the nation, I stopped by the Greensboro Public Library to do some research and spotted — of all people — Miss Smith paging through a dusty travel atlas in the reference room.
“Miss Smith,” I said quietly, “I don’t know if you remember me . . .”
She looked up and chortled. “Of course I do, Mr. Dodson. I have followed your career with great interest. I am very pleased that you are writing. I imagine fine things are ahead of you.”
I was at a loss for words, but thanked her and wondered what she was up to these days. “I’m off to the dusts of ancient Egypt!” she trilled. “One of those faraway places I always wished to see!” Before we parted, I also thanked her for seeing something in me — and for the volume of Robert Frost. Within weeks, I would withdraw from the Post offer in favor of a senior writer position at Yankee Magazine, a job that shaped my career and life.
Sadly, I never got to say thank you to Saunders, who passed away in January 2021. He spent almost four decades teaching math, rose to head of the department and would inspire the creation of the annual Larry Saunders Excellence in Teaching Award in his honor.
A good coach — like a great teacher — recognizes a young person’s strengths and weaknesses, and strives to help them find the right path in life. Saunders and Smith were both. Thanks to their wisdom, I found my way to writing books, built a beautiful house and even fell in love with inspiring quotes. Which is why I think of “Bull” and “Coach” every October
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.