NOTE: On Oct. 20, in a packed ballroom at the Crown Plaza hotel in Knoxville, I had the honor, along with writers Jim Dykes, Linda Parsons Marion, Michael Knight and Katie Granju, of being inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame, by the Friends of Literacy. I was told to limit my comments to two minutes, but I took four, as I had something on my mind. (Visit http://www.mach2.com/williams/index.php?t=1&c=20070223084230 for background). The evening turned into a love fest. All the inductees were eloquent, especially Jim, who was deathly ill, but rose to the occasion with humor and grit. He's referenced in the third paragraph, below, among columnists who influenced me. Candance Reaves, the poet, provided a brave and generous introduction to my remarks, which follow, complete with original underlines and ad-libs in parentheses.--DW.
(Wow! Thanks, Candance. Is my head swelling? Laughter")
When I was a child, I had the moon and stars in my eyes. They were put there by a mother (she's right there) and father who taught me to love nature and books and everything that made music or told a story.
One Epic story that seized me by the throat, growing up, was the Apollo trips to the moon--which, for the first time ever--showed us pictures of the Whole Earth and human beings walking on another world. And for about a year there the first thing I'd do after I got off our big yellow school bus, was to run out to the mailbox and open my broadsheet News-Sentinel to seek out stories about moon travelers.
Who knew I'd end up in a career that allowed me to interview 10 of the 12 moonwalkers, or to swim with manatees and write about it, or kayak with dolphins, or yes, sing back-up to Dolly Parton, a capella , to her biggest fan in a Sevierville convalescent home.
Who Knew? Not Me. Not Then. But a curious thing happened. I found myself getting distracted--as I searched the papers for stories about moonwalkers--by little gray photographs about the size of a thumbprint. And when I read the words surrounding them, I found myself Strolling with Bert Vincent--and Wilma Dykeman and Carson Brewer and later on, of course, Sam Venable and David Hunter, but especially Jim Dykes. Reading him aloud around a water cooler with friends, taught me a lot about seizing my freedom of the press (Jim could push the envelope couldn't he Sam?). Maybe it's a lesson I learned a little too well, especially when I became one of those postage-sized faces in the papers.
I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a dream come true. But newspaper fame is fleeting. Only your most affecting work survives, and often it's in the form of a clipping mailed to a child away at college, or a soldier, or a fading slip of gray pressed between pages of a book. Still, there's the immediacy of the medium, daily feedback, the emails and phone calls. Believe me I've had my share.
I hail from a loving and cantankerous family that gathered around the dinner table and encouraged one another to speak our minds (don't let their polite demeanor here fool you--laughter).
The writer, humanitarian and spiritual leader Ram Dass once told me in an interview that we owe each other our truth. Not self-serving dogma. Not what the public wants to hear, not what sells books or papers, but what we can sense, with our most penetrating insights and available evidence, to be the truth.
And so I tell my students, when faced with writers block, do what Hemingway did, write down the truest thing you know. (Pause). It's gotten me in a lot of trouble. I've mostly been blessed with editors willing to publish my truths--whether an unauthorized profile of Cormac McCarthy, or a chronicle of Sojourners on our streets, a tribute to novelist Ken Kesey or my late lamented friends Libba Moore Gray and Leslie Garrett (who needs to be honored by this organization one way or another. He's dead but his books live on).
And they published it when I urged my readers, please, let's not rush off waving flags for a war whose true causes and outcomes we can't see.
And let's not buy into those who deny global warming for selfish gain, and let's not join spurious attacks against immigrants or blacks or gays or other scapegoats. And I urged them to utter their prayers not only for our fighting men and women, but also--Maybe Especially--for those who work for peace and understanding.
To me, nearly every piece of writing worth reading is about understanding some Other--even if the other is a Muslim or what we call Street People or Illegal Aliens or 99 Percenters.
Four and a half years ago, I had to make a decision about whether to pull back from expressing so many truths about the world, or else walk away from my column. I don't regret the decision I made (I sleep very well at night), and tonight I applaud Friends of Literacy for allowing me this moment to express my thanks to those who stood by me--or at least tolerated me--all the way to this amazing moment. Believe me when I tell you, there's more to come.