Someone once told me that writers are people who have failed at other careers. That’s not always true, but it is for me.
I went straight from college to work as a union organizer in Mississippi. This was perhaps the worst career choice you could make in 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office and promptly busted the air traffic controllers union. White Mississippians were even more hostile to unions — and to snot-nosed Yankees coming South to “stir things up” among the mostly black workforce I’d been sent to organize.
Most of my fellow organizers were hardened veterans of Cesar Chavez’s campaign on behalf of farmworkers. Their zeal was matched with military discipline. After a few weeks of boot camp, I was sent off to scout new territory, recruit workers who felled and hauled trees for the paper industry, and form them into fighting units for the union. I wasn’t cut out for this job. Chain saws scared me, and so did the headlights in my rear view mirror at night as I drove through Neshoba County (home to Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil right workers were murdered in 1964). I couldn’t tell slash pine from loblolly, Husqvarna from Stihl, or anything else that might somehow convince brawny, impoverished loggers that I had any clue about their world, or why it was in their best interest to join the union. I quickly developed a stomach ulcer, which a backwoods doctor told me to treat with Pepsi and aspirin.
Wretched, lonely and in culture shock, I began writing. First as therapy and as something to do when I returned to my ramshackle quarters after another long, hot day of failure. I’d never written much before, except in an adolescent journal, or for class assignments. Now, for the first time, I had something real to observe and write. Trolling back roads, knocking on strangers’ doors and chatting on their porches drew me into to a world few Americans knew anything about. In the notebook I’d been given to collect information on pay stubs and logging weigh stations, I began taking notes on the people I met and what they said: about their lives, about sharecropping and civil rights, about their vision of the world beyond rural hamlets with names like Scooba, Hot Coffee and Basic City. The more I did this, the more people welcomed me into their homes, churches and honky-tonks, which gave me fresh material. I still drew my weekly paycheck as a union organizer, but I’d effectively become a roving if unpublished journalist.
After a year of this, I organized the stories I’d collected into a long feature article. To my delight and surprise, a weekly in Jackson printed the piece and paid me $50. I still remember the lead sentence: “Booker Price is a one-armed, one-toothed preacher from Its, Mississippi.” The weekly went out of business shortly after, but I had my first clip, and on the strength of that I applied to journalism school. To the relief of the United Woodcutters Association, I was accepted.
Thirty years later, I still don’t know my way around a chain saw, and all trees look pretty much alike. But I’m grateful for my brief career as a union organizer, because it taught me that everyone has a story. All I had to do was listen, ask questions and write it down, which is what I’ve been doing ever since.
Tony Horwitz will speak at 11 a.m. on Saturday, August 3, at the Harbor View Hotel and at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, August 4, on the grounds of the Chilmark Community Center.