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What’s Our Excuse? (Part 5)

By now, you know the point that I’ve been driving at in the previous four posts. Others overcame great obstacles and wrote in spite of them. Why don’t we? Why do we offer excuses ad infinitum rather than just doing what we’ve been called to do–write?

Today we look at one more example, this time an American from the twentieth century and one of my favorite authors: Jesse Stuart.

Stuart’s problem seems to have been who he was and where he was from–and those two things were inseparable. He was a poor country boy born to poor, hard-scrabble farmers in the hills and mountains of a generally forgettable backwater placed called Greenup County in eastern Kentucky. His parents were uneducated, illiterate. But they had aspirations of better things for their children. They insisted that they go to school, even if it was a one-room schoolhouse. Jesse did go to school, and he graduated–the first member of his family to do so.

Whereas many of his classmates did not finish high school or finished but went no farther with their education, Stuart and his teachers would not let poverty and the immediate need for jobs stop him from reaching his potential. They encouraged him to go to college. So with his few earthly belongings and less than $30 in his pocket, Stuart hitchhiked to Berea College and tried to gain acceptance into their program. They were unable to admit him but suggested that he try Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. They enrolled him and gave him jobs so he could pay his way.

Stuart worked hard and carried a full academic load and attended summer school–and graduated in three years. While at LMU, he had a creative writing teacher named Harry Kroll who convinced Stuart that he could write, and he taught him to believe in himself and his God-given abilities.

After graduation, Stuart returned to Greenup to teach in that one-room schoolhouse, but he knew that he needed to learn more. So he enrolled in the master’s program at Vanderbilt University. There, he came under the influence of a group of writers called the Agrarians. He struggled academically, but he could write. Boy, could he write! Dr. Edward Mims assigned in one class an 18-page autobiographical essay, due in 11 days. Stuart wrote feverishly and turned in 322 pages. Mims gave him an F. Stuart left school without his master’s degree, but he took with him some great advice from another professor, Donald Davidson.

“Go back to your country, Jesse,” he said. “Go back there and write of your people. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.”

Stuart took that advice. He returned to eastern Kentucky and wrote. Boy, did he write! In the next 11 months, he wrote 703 sonnets, 42 of them in one day, and they became his first published book–Man With a Bull-Tongue Plow (1934). And he turned that 322-page paper with an F at the top into a book, Beyond Dark Hills (1938).

The titles of his books reveal that he heeded Davidson’s advice in his choice of subject matter: Men of the Mountains (1941), Tales from the Plum Grove Hills (1946), Hie to the Hunters (1950), Kentucky Is My Land (1952), My Land Has a Voice (1966), Strength from the Hills (1968), and others. He also wrote about his teaching experiences in The Thread that Runs So True (1949) and To Teach, To Love (1970). And I could mention many, many others.

But he also wrote for children: The Beatinest Boy (1953), A Penny’s Worth of Character (1954), Red Mule (1955), The Rightful Owner (1960), Andy Finds a Way (1961), and many others.

And he kept on writing throughout the rest of his life, publishing more than 60 volumes, more than 2,000 poems, 460 short stories, and innumerable articles and essays. Many of his writings earned him prestigious awards, including a Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, the Thomas Jefferson Southern Book Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and more.

“Oh,” one might argue, “but he was a full-time writer. I don’t have that much time. I have to work a job!”

No, Stuart wrote while holding down full-time jobs. As a farmer, he wrote while he was plowing behind a mule in the corn fields. He wrote when he wasn’t teaching. He wrote even when he was a school principal and a county school superintendent. And no one could accuse him of short-changing his wife or daughter or any of his employers. He found or made the time to write, and he used that time wisely.

And one final time I ask myself–and you–the perennial question: What’s my excuse? What’s your excuse?

Let’s get busy and do what we say God has called us to do. Let’s write!

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