The Evolving Writer, Part III–Speed Your Lead

When I submitted my first article for consideration, I knew next to nothing about writing for publication. But Paul Poirot, the editor of the journal to which I submitted that piece, taught me a valuable lesson about writing that I’ve tried to apply ever since: Speed your lead.

The lead, of course, is what the professionals call the first paragraph (sometimes a little more) of your piece. It is supposed to pull the reader into the body of your article, to make him want to keep reading.

I no longer remember what my lead paragraph for that first article was, but it obviously wasn’t good enough for the editor. He accepted my submission for publication, but the second paragraph of his letter declared, “I’ve suggested a slight rephrasing to speed the opening paragraph, but believe you’d approve. We can check it further when we send galleys.” (Emphasis added.)

He was gently telling me that my original version had rambled, said more than it needed to say, was verbose. He was telling me that I needed to get to the point quickly rather than beating around the bush or delaying it with nonessential information.

One can create a good lead using many different techniques, including these:

  • a thought-provoking question (but not question answerable with a mere yes or no),
  • an interest-capturing quotation,
  • a startling statement or statistic, or
  • an exciting or amusing anecdote (but not long and involved; keep it short).

But whichever method you decide to use, get with it! Don’t dally or delay or pile on the verbosity. Get quickly to the meat of your article and begin introducing your successive points. Your editor, and your readers, will appreciate it. And your writing will be better.

I framed Paul Poirot’s letter accepting my first-ever submission. It hangs on my office wall today, fulfilling two purposes: it encourages me when I am discouraged with my writing progress, but it also is a reminder to speed the lead of everything I write. Maybe Poirot’s advice to me will be a good lesson for you, too.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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The Evolving Writer, Part II–Hallmarks of Good Writing

All good writers want to keep growing in their craft. In the nearly 40 years that I’ve been writing for publication (has it really been that long?), I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. And the pile of rejections attest to that fact. But I’ve tried to learn from those mistakes, thereby improving my writing.

During that time and through all the ups and downs of my writing career, I’ve noticed seven recurring characteristics that editors seek in the writing they’re willing to publish. The more of these hallmarks that exist in a submission, the greater its chances of being accepted. Conversely, the more of them that are lacking, the greater its chances of being rejected.

  1. BREVITY

Write tight. Make every word count. When in doubt, cut it out. Get to your point quickly. I recognize this as one of my greatest problems. I tend to be too wordy, dragging things out and going into more detail than necessary.

2. CLARITY

Don’t repeat unnecessarily; avoid vagueness.

3. PRECISION

Use the best word to say exactly what you mean.

4. HARMONY

Pay attention to how your writing sounds. Read it aloud. (This will also help you identify typos, grammatical errors, and other problems in your writing.)

5. HUMANITY

Don’t merely write about things, ideas, or concepts; write about them in the context of people.

6. HONESTY

Be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else in style or vocabulary.

7. POETRY

Strive to write beautifully, not by forcing it but by permeating your writing with the other six hallmarks of good writing.

Compare your most recent writing efforts against these seven hallmarks. How many of them characterize your work? Strive to ensure that you incorporate as many of them as you can into your writing. You’ll not only see your writing improve but also find that more of your submissions get accepted for publication.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

The Evolving Writer, Part I

If one is making progress in his or her writing, that writing is constantly changing in many ways. It will be changing in content and subject matter, in form or media, and in quality (and perhaps even in quantity).

I was reminded of this fact recently as I thought back to what has happened to my own writing since I submitted my first article in 1981, thirty-seven short years ago. (It seems like only yesterday that I felt the thrill of opening that acceptance letter that is now framed and hanging on my office wall, a spark of encouragement when I’m getting down about my writing.)

I had had minimal formal education in writing–the required college composition courses and the one journalism class offered by the college at the time. And a lot of papers that I had had to write for my other classes. That was a solid starting point, but it was what I later learned in the School of Hard Knocks that most changed my writing. All the “booklearning” in the world will never take the place of experience.

I began writing about economics, taking common economic principles and stating them simply, illustrating them with everyday examples from my experiences as a young social studies teacher. Later, I began writing about the art of writing, sharing with other struggling wannabe writers the lessons I was learning as my teaching career evolved. (By then, I was teaching writing within the English curriculum. After all, I had a minor in English and was a published writer, so the administration assumed I could teach writing, too.) Then, over time, I started writing about educational topics for fellow educators across the nation. Occasionally, I also wrote pieces for religious publications.

All the while, I continued to tackle those other topics about which I’d been writing. The shift that was occurring in my writing was more an adding to, a broadening of, than a series of complete changes in subject matter.

Simultaneously, I found myself changing in the media toward which I directed my writing. Whereas my initial focus had been on journal articles, over time that focus also broadened. Prompted by a temporary job change, I began writing ad copy, including radio ad scripts, as advertising director for a multimillion-dollar, family-run business. Later, as an editor of technical and scientific documents for a large government contractor, I had to help nonwriter scientists communicate their complicated material in understandable terms. Still later, I wrote textbooks and curriculum guides for junior high and high school students before writing my own books.

Through all of these changes, I was learning, and my writing was evolving. By comparing the wording of my original manuscript submissions with the final edited, published results, I saw how magazine and journal editors had improved my pieces. And I tried to do in later writing what they had done. By complying with editors’ requests that I shorten certain pieces (sometimes by as much as half or even two-thirds!), I learned how to make my writing more concise, direct, and precise. By following suggestions that I eliminate direct Scripture quotations and simply paraphrase the principles that those texts contained, I learned how to insert spiritual lessons into secular publications.

Not all change, however, is good. Sometimes we change for the worse. But our writing can still benefit and improve even from bad change if we recognize and learn from our mistakes. The biggest mistake is not in making the mistake but in not doing anything to correct it. If we try something new and it falls flat, we must either learn from it and do better next time or drop it and move on. Don’t keep repeating the same mistake.

If your writing is not changing, you’re not improving or growing as a writer. Only with change comes improvement. I’m still learning, and so should you. There are no know-it-alls in life. Learn something new. Try a different genre. Test a new market. Keep growing and improving.

This fact is true not only in writing but also in every other area of life, including intellectually and spiritually. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying; if you’re not moving forward, you’re sliding backward. Don’t wither and die as a writer. Change and grow!

I hope in future posts to share some of the lessons that have caused me grow. I’m still learning, but maybe some of what I’ve learned will help you in your writing, too.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

 

So Much to Read!

At times, I get frustrated by the amount of reading material that pours in through both my postal mail and my e-mail, every item demanding my attention. There is so much that I can’t keep up with it. And I find myself piling up reams of material in a “To Be Read” file, either as a pile of paper or overflowing electronic files or a crowded computer desktop.

In just one recent week, my mailbox and computer in-box brought more reading material than I could devour in a month of Sundays. The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Southern Writers Magazine, Imprimis, Journal of Southern History. And more. Throw in a dozen or more once-, twice-, or thrice-a-week e-zines I subscribe to and numerous blog posts I follow, to say nothing of article manuscripts and book galleys to proof. And I haven’t touched on the ubiquitous posts on Facebook and LinkedIn. Or keeping up with all the news of the world, nation, state, and local community. Or the voluminous amount of reading I must do in my research for my articles and books and blog posts.

My day is prescheduled for me. If I allow it.

Every so often, I force myself to stop everything else to plow through those accumulated piles, reading a few, skimming others, and merely glancing at still others before deleting them or relegating them to the legendary File 13. I wonder why I bothered to save them in the first place.

I’m convinced that part of my inability to remember things as well as I once did is this innundation with information. (It can’t be purely the rest of aging!) Our minds are overloaded, just like an overloaded electrical circuit. And you know what results when that happens! Zzzzzzt! There’s a short circuit.

So what’s the solution? People have offered several. And I’ve probably tried them all, some more than once, before I again fall off the wagon and begin to see the “to-be-read” pile growing again.

  • Go on a vacation. Media free, computer free, mail free. But the pile is still there, just much bigger than before, when I get back. (No vacation lasts forever.)
  • Prioritize reading material. But that requires taking time to at least skim the material to determine the place it deserves on the priority list.
  • Hit DELETE. Unsubscribe. But then you feel uninformed. Besides, you might accidentally delete something really important. Or the magazine is offering such a great deal to extend your subscription that you just can’t pass it up.

I’ve found (not to say that I’ve perfected this point; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing on this topic, would I?) that the key, as with most things in life, is moderation. I must resist the urge to sign up for every free e-zine, to follow every interesting blog, to subscribe to every magazine, no matter how interesting and helpful they promise to be. To stop all of them cold turkey would be intellectual suicide.

I must prioritize. In e-mail, only items that are directly business related must be answered. All e-zines will have to wait their turn. All appeals from social or political causes must wait even longer. And spam e-mails that are trying to get me to sign up for a book, training class, or “special report” that will revolutionize my writing and make me a millionaire, DELETE!

But there is one bit of reading that must get the No. 1 slot every day, regardless of what other things are pressing: my reading of God’s Word. Watchman Nee’s motto was “No Bible, no breakfast!” And legendary preacher Charles Spurgeon said, “He who rushes from his bed to his business, and waiteth not to worship, is as foolish as though he had not put on his clothes . . . and is as unwise as though he dashed into battle without arms or armor.”

With so many good things to read, how could I fail to read the best thing?

I also must limit the time I spend on social media and resist the urge to watch every hilarious cute cat video that gets posted. I must even limit how much time I spend in writing my own blog posts. Although I try to do my best writing on this to create a good impression and entice more readers, thereby expanding my writer’s platform and showing that I’m a professional, I also realize that it’s only one arrow in the arsenal. And a blog post’s lifespan is about a day (if that). Besides, it’s meant to be casual and conversational, not academic and literary perfection. So what if there are some dangling modifiers or typos? You get what you get, such as it is, in the amount of time I can afford to devote to it. That’s what I’ve done on this post anyway.

Now I have to shift gears and resume reading for the research I’m doing on my current writing project. But first I must check my e-mail and Facebook. Priorities, you know!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

V-E Day, May 8, 1945

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of V-E Day, when World War II ended in Europe with the utter defeat of the Nazi regime.

That military conflict is the one with which I most closely connect, primarily because, as my interest in history developed, most of the books I read tended to be about that war. Although I grew up during the Vietnam War, it was too current for many books to have been written about it when I was developing my love of reading. Besides, I had an uncle who was directly engaged with the earlier war in Europe, and I saw his military souvenirs from that conflict. As an adult, I became interested in tracing his footsteps through that war in an attempt to learn as closely as I could where he had been and what he experienced.

Although the infamous fire in the St. Louis record depository destroyed his (and thousands of other servicemen’s) military records, I have been able to piece together enough through the history of the units he was part of to get a pretty good idea of the path he trod.

Uncle Dillon Summers was inducted into the U.S. Army in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as part of the 391st Armored Field Artillery Battalion (patch shown here), 3rd Armored Division, First Army, under General Omar Bradley. He trained in armored warfare at Camp Polk, Louisiana, and the Desert Training Center in California and then had advanced artillery training at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. On September 3, 1943, he embarked for England with the 3rd Armored Division aboard the S.S. Shawnee. He got further training in Warminster, England, before landing on Omaha Beach on June 25, 1945, D-day + 19. The 391st AFA began firing on the Germans the next day.

 

 

Dillon was a tank driver for artillery forward observers (FOs) of Combat Command B (CCB). FOs moved out in front of the main lines, identified enemy targets, and called in 155 mm artillery strikes against them. As such, he was in constant danger. He was involved in the Battle for St. Lo; Operation Cobra, the breakout from the bocage, or hedgerow country of Normandy; the closing of the Falaise Gap; the drive into Belgium; the breaching of the Siegfried Line; the crossing of the Rhine near Cologne; and the liberation of the concentration camp at Nordhausen/Dora Mittelbau, where the Nazis used slave labor to make their V-2 rockets.

As best I can ascertain, combat for Uncle Dillon’s unit ended on April 24, 1945, when CCB was relieved by the 9th Infantry Division and went into a period of rest and maintenance in the vicinity of Sangershausen. I assume that he was still there on May 8, 1945, when they received word of V-E Day. (On May 12, the unit moved to occupy Neu-Isenburg, a sector south of Frankfurt. They moved again on August 14 to a sector between Stuttgart and Nuremberg.)

 

Although I can trace (with some frustrating gaps in information) his general steps throughout his active combat duty, I have no idea what his reaction was to the end of hostilities. Was it elation? Was it a heavy sigh of relief? Was it an anticlimactic shrug? I’ll never know. I only know that what he witnessed firsthand changed him, and he never (in my hearing anyway) talked about it.

But the United States clearly won that war, unlike the Vietnam War, from which we merely withdrew to allow the enemy to walk into and seize their original objective virtually unopposed. Maybe that is another reason I feel such an affinity for the history of World War II: it was a clear, decisive victory.

Be that as it may, we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to those who fought in World War II, whether in Europe or the Pacific theaters and whether on the front line of battle, as my uncle did, or in the far-off and virtually unknown theaters of relative inactivity, such as the Aleutians (see my article “The Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign” in World at War, June-July 2018, which, I learned this past weekend, is available at Barnes & Noble). That generation is fast passing from us, and we should both learn as much as we can from them and express our gratitude before they are all gone and we lose that opportunity.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

What Niccolo Gave Us

Yesterday was the birthday of a famous politician whom many modern politicians have, knowingly or unconsciously, imitated in their own careers. Yesterday marked the birth of Niccolo.

By the time he was 29, Niccolo was the defense minister. He so distinguished himself in government service that he soon was given diplomatic responsibilities, which put him in company with many powerful heads of state, including powerful religious leaders. (In those days, religious leaders wielded substantial political power.)

But, as often happens among powerful but fickle world leaders, Niccolo fell out of favor with some important movers and shakers. To rescue his flagging political career, he wrote a book on the characteristics of the ideal political leader: that person was amoral, guided in his actions by only the philosophy that the end justifies the means, and that desired end was power, gained by calculated tyranny, self-interest, and political expediency.

Centuries later, tyrants and demagogues continue to practice the political principles that Niccolo set forth in his book.

Niccolo Machiavelli and The Prince.

And actions that one takes for his own gain without regard for right or wrong or who is hurt are described as Machiavellian.

Some people have alleged that Franklin Roosevelt kept a copy of The Prince on his nightstand and read from it regularly. Accurate or apocryphal, that allegation is figurative of many politicians today, and it is what gives government service a bad reputation. And the practice is not the proprietary characteristic of any one part; it’s a bipartisan issue. I’ve lost faith in all political parties.

We see it in practice from the end of one election cycle (which actually is only the beginning of the next cycle), through Election Day, to the implementation of policy after the victors have taken office. We see it in the politicians’ doing whatever it takes to gain and then remain in power.

We see it when politicians do what is calculated to keep their party in power regardless of right or wrong. We see it in their blatant disregard for and disobedience to the very laws they are sworn to uphold. Machiavellians think themselves to be above the law. We see it in their insistence on making the Constitution an ever-changing document, but changing only in ways that support their particular agenda.

We see it in politicians’ unqualified support of an appointee one day and their stabbing him in the back or throwing him under the bus and lying about him the next. We see it in the fabrication of “facts” designed to promote their own agenda regardless of what the truth is.

Machiavellianism is all around us. George Washington was prescient in warning us not to divide into political factions but to work for the mutual good. Although I was once an avid fan of politics and elections, I strongly dislike them today because of the Machiavellian mess that politics has become.

Where are the true statesmen? Where are the candidates who will engage in serious debate about real issues; who, like gentlemen, behave and speak civilly and meaningfully and constructively; who refuse to sling mud and manufacture lies for the sake of power and personal gain?

Sorry to say, it’s been so long since I’ve seen such a person that I might not recognize or believe him or her if I did see one.

Thankfully, I don’t have my confidence in politicians; otherwise, I’d be totally disillusioned. The Bible tells us, in what I’ve heard are the middle verses of the Bible (but I haven’t counted to ensure that this is so; it has to be close, though), “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Psa. 118:8-9). And to solidify that premise, Numbers 23:19 tells us, “God is not a man that He should lie,” implying that man will lie. I think I’ll put my confidence in God, not man.

Sadly, instead of studying, learning, and practicing the moral truths of the Bible, the ultimate guide for politicians, today’s pols have learned too well the lessons that Machiavelli taught. The precepts from The Prince have become their religiously held dogma and practice.

Thanks a lot, Niccolo!

Tell Us a Farm Story, Daddy!

When my siblings and I were just youngsters, our father often told us stories from his Depression-era childhood, when he grew up on a dairy farm. Daddy was a sole son, so he had a lot of responsibility on the farm, but he also collected a lot of experiences that became grist for his story mill.

Although we kids viewed his storytelling as a means of our entertainment (and maybe Daddy also was entertained by telling them), there was a greater purpose behind them. He wanted to preserve our heritage for us, and he hoped that we would remember not only the stories but also the lessons they taught.

We called Daddy’s stories “farm stories,” although the setting for some of them was not the farm. “Tell us a farm story, Daddy!” we’d cry in chorus when we’d see him sit down in his recliner after supper. Sometimes he would be too tired from a long day of work. But often he regaled us with several stories, much to our delight, even if we’d heard the same stories over and over.

Sometimes he told stories other than “farm stories.” Such as Peter Rabbit. But it was his version of that story, because he always added some details that weren’t in the traditional version. For example, he might start out, “One upon a time, there was a family of rabbits: Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, Peter–and Sharp!”

Having heard the story repeatedly, we knew that Sharp was coming, but we always interrupted him at that point to ask, “Who was Sharp?”

He never told us; we just accepted it as an unexplained but essential part of his story. We accepted the added character so readily that whenever he began to tell the story and commenced listing the characters, we all chimed in unison at the appropriate instant, “and Sharp!

Part of our growing up included my parents’ instruction in important life values. The farm stories that Daddy told included, subtly, those values. Our parents sought to instill those values in us with the hope and prayer that they would one day become our values, values that we accepted not as theirs but as our own convictions.

Preservation of such values comes as a result of tales told generation after generation. Failure to tell and retell them and failure to listen to and heed them or to think lightly of them leads to their loss. I hope that doesn’t happen to our family’s stories and values and heritage. That’s why I told Daddy’s “farm stories” to my kids when they were growing up, with a few of my own stories thrown in for good measure. And I hope that my kids repeat those same stories (with a few of their own thrown in) to my grandchildren.

When I’m gone or unable to tell those value-laden stories, I hope that my children and grandchildren will be able to hear them from other sources, including reading them in the articles and books I’ve written. That was the main reason behind my writing of Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee https://www.amazon.com/Look-Unto-Hills-Stories-Tennessee/dp/1975798899 .

What about the stories of your own heritage? What are you doing to preserve and pass on that family history? Make it a point to tell or write down a few of your own stories, “that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” (Psa. 78:6-7).

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

Publishing Wheels: Slow but Sure?

In two weeks, it will have been two years ago (yep, in 2016), since I submitted a particular article for publication. It had been even farther in the distance since I had initially queried the editor. My idea had been accepted and the go-ahead given to write the article, which I did, submitting it in May 2016. I had almost given up hope of it’s ever being published.

And then it happened! Today’s mail brought my contributor’s copy of World at War magazine, the June-July 2018 issue, with my 13-page article and its 11 photos and 4 maps on pages 22-34. Finally!

I’m not sure when this magazine will hit the bookstore shelves (this is the earliest pre-release copy of a magazine I’ve ever gotten), but if any of my readers are into World War II history, they might enjoy reading “Forgotten Theater: The Aleutians Campaign.”

And for all you other writers who are despairing that something you’ve submitted and had accepted will never see print, be patient. Perhaps it will be after all. As the old Candid Camera sign-off slogan said, “Somewhere, someday, someplace when you least expect it, . . . .”

Not One South but Many

For far too long, too many people have held a stereotypical view of the South and the people who are native to it. Outsiders have long tended to view the South and everyone in it as being a homogeneous, monolithic entity. They refer to the problem of the South, the accent of the South, the economy of the South, etc., as though there were only one South.

That view simply shows ignorance relative to the real South. And the error of that view is readily apparent to anyone who lives in and travels about the South for any length of time.

To illustrate, let’s briefly look at several prominent features of the South: the economy, the music, and the accents.

The economy of the South has never been totally dependent on a single product or industry, although outsiders have long thought of cotton when they thought of the Southern economy. From the very beginning, colonists, no matter where they settled, sought eventually to diversify their economy, and the mainstays have changed over time.

It’s true that in some places cotton was king. But even in those places other products played important roles in the economy. For a long time, the primary industries in many areas were the three T’s: timber, tobacco, and textiles.

Timber, especially along the Atlantic Coastal Plain, provided not only lumber (and the sawmills that cut it up) but also turpentine and other naval stores, cross-ties for railroads, and pulpwood for paper, to name only a few products. (That’s how North Carolinians got the nickname “Tarheels.”) In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, harvesting the big trees of the Appalachian highlands were big business.

Tobacco has been a major crop since the days of Sir Walter Raleigh. Even today, despite surgeon generals’ warnings and other bad publicity, tobacco still brings in huge profits. North Carolina ($1 billion a year) and Kentucky (about half that) are the leading tobacco producers, but most of the other Southern states also grow significant amounts of the weed. It was the last cash crop to be mechanized.

Textiles used to be primarily a New England industry that demanded increasing amounts of Southern cotton. It was New England ship builders and ship owners and captains who made the slave trade possible and encouraged the South to expand its cotton production and, by extension, slavery. But cheaper labor was available in the South after the war, and entrepreneurs opened mills in the South, where, after all, the cotton that fed the mills was grown. The mill village built by William Gregg at Graniteville, S.C., suddenly expanded to numerous mill towns built by those entrepreneurs, providing everything the mill workers needed, from homes to schools to churches to medical care and stores. Life for the “lintheads” who worked in the mills revolved around the mill and the mill town. Investment in that industry by entrepreneurs grew from $22.8 million in 1880 to $132.4 million in 1900.

But the three T’s are not the South’s economy. It has many economies. Some areas are transportation hubs. Others developed as wholesale centers. Still others revolved around chemicals. Or mining. Or tomatoes. And dozens of other forms of industry, commerce, and agriculture.

But there’s more to the South than the various economic factors that power its multiple economies. There’s its tunes, its music. Again, there is no single type of “Southern music.” Various areas of the South birthed various kinds of music. New Orleans jazz and Cajun music. Memphis blues. Bluegrass. The country-western music of Nashville. The sounds of the Appalachian highlands. Gospel. Negro spirituals. Honky-tonk. Ragtime. Sacred harp. And the tastes of different Southerners vary not only from region to region in the South but also from person to person within each region.

And then there’s the favorite topic of Northern derision: the “Southern accent.” Perhaps in no other area do outsiders show their ignorance of the South than in the area of accent. And movies and television have probably done more to foster this erroneous view than any other single factor.

Contrary to popular conception, there is no “Southern accent.” There are many different Southern accents. There’s the Low Country accent of South Carolina and Georgia (with some Gullah influence thrown in to further confuse the Yankees). There’s the Spanish influence of Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. And Louisiana also mixes in the French connection and the Cajun. Throughout the Southeast is the Native American influence. You also have the Appalachian highlands accent. And even within any one of those areas just mentioned, one can detect even more, smaller distinctions in that dominant accent.

“Fake news” is a phrase that has a relatively recent origin, but “fake Southern accent” has been around a long time. It’s an oft-heard accusation around my house, especially whenever we’re watching television. We can spot a Northerner who’s trying to sound “Southern” and doing a bad job of it in the first sentence out of his mouth. If the setting is supposed to be the Tennessee mountains, any true Southerner is going to know that the actor shouldn’t use a Low Country accent (“dahling,” “dollahs,” “guttah,” etc.). That’s a dead giveaway that the actor didn’t do his homework in researching the role.

There is no one South; there are many Souths. (And we haven’t even mentioned politics or culinary arts yet!) So don’t show your ignorance of the southeastern part of our great nation by pretending differently. And above all else, don’t base your knowledge of the South on episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Andy Griffith, The Dukes of Hazzard, or In the Heat of the Night!

Growing Up Rich

With all the hoopla about the newest birth in the British royal family, I got to wondering what it would be like to grow up rich. Growing up as a child in rural East Tennessee, I never realized that my family was poor; I thought the way we lived was the way everyone lived.

Oh, I saw that some people had more things than we had, but I never equated that with poverty. Only as I got older and heard talk about government-derived (or -contrived) “poverty level” designations did I realize that my family was “poor.”

About the same time, I noticed that some of my classmates’ families lived in newer, nicer houses than we did. They didn’t live on dirty, smelly dairy farms like ours; they lived on small lots in neatly organized and planned subdivisions, closer to stores and downtown Knoxville.

They always bought their lunches at school, whereas I often brought my home-made lunch in a tin lunchbox. They bought the 50-cents-a-dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts during the band’s fundraisers, whereas Mother and Daddy refused to do so because they said the price was too expensive.

My classmates didn’t have to work, either at home or with one of their parents on their jobs, whereas my brother and I always had chores around the house and garden and were required to go to work with Daddy anytime school was out, especially during the summer.

If those were the standards, then I suppose we were indeed poor. But poverty, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. If my classmates thought that my family was poor, we were wealthy in my eyes, and that conviction only grows as I age.

How so? Here’s how.

First, Mother and Daddy were never in debt. Daddy built our house as he had time and money. He never made a mortgage payment in his life because he never had a mortgage. The only time payment he ever made was $10 a month to Uncle Dillon for the well he had drilled, and that debt he paid off quickly. Many of the people who lived in nicer homes in subdivisions were debtors and would not repay their debts for decades. Neither did Daddy have a car payment despite the fact that he always bought new cars, (I only recall his buying one used car, and that was when he gave me his car to take to college during my senior year.) He always arranged to pay “90 days, same as cash.”

Being debt-free allowed Mother and Daddy to provide other things for us kids, things that would not depreciate or erode or wear out. One of those things was a long, unforgettable trip “out West.” Other trips included Florida; Cape May, New Jersey; and Washington, D.C. We were well traveled as “poor” kids!

Second, we were rich in family. Whereas some of my friends’ parents were divorced, my parents remained happily married until death separated them. The same was true of both sets of my grandparents. And our wealth in family included extended family. We had aunts and uncles and cousins all around us. In fact, I grew up thinking that we were somehow related to just about everyone in Halls.

The people who weren’t related to us were, more likely than not, people who had gone to school at Halls High with our parents. Their annual class reunions in the summer gave us ample time to get to know those people, and we ended up going to school with their kids. The Clarks, Dunsmores, Holberts, Elkinses, and other families who were of no blood relation to us seemed like part of our family.

Similarly, we had good neighbors, people who didn’t butt into business not their own but who were ready and willing to help us if we needed it, just like family. We never had any trouble with any of them. But if we kids did something wrong and the neighbors noticed, our parents soon found out about it, and we were in trouble!

Third, our teachers were another part of our wealth portfolio. A few of them, like Mrs. Garret, had taught when our parents were in school. Others, such as Alberta Loy, had been school classmates or neighbors of our parents. And many of them taught each of us kids. Mrs. Zachary, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, Mrs. Bailey, Mrs. Porter, Mrs. Smelser were all teachers who taught each of us Peterson kids. Even the principal, Mr. Lakin, had been one of the teachers when Daddy attended two-roomed Fort Sumter School.

Fourth, we were wealthy in our religious upbringing. Mother and Daddy were always heavily involved in their church activities. Teaching Sunday school, serving on committees, helping with construction, and other activities. (Daddy learned his profession of brick laying when they were constructing the Beaver Creek church building.) We were in church practically every time the doors were open. But our parents’ religion was something they practiced daily at home, too. We grew up with preachers, missionaries, and evangelists as guests at our Sunday dinner table. We grew up memorizing the Westminster Shorter Catechism and Bible verses and having nightly family devotions. And through it all, we were learning important truths about life as it should be lived, holiness, separation from evil, and the development of biblical convictions.

Finally, we were rich in the benefits of living in a rural environment. We were able to play outside in the fields and forests of my grandfather’s farm, roaming and exploring and learning, using our imagination, and developing our young bodies. Working outside in the family garden and on the job site with Daddy helped us develop not only muscles and a strong work ethic but also the darkest tans in the school when we returned to classes in the fall.

From all of these influences and experiences, we kids learned the meaning of true wealth. It’s not money or material possessions; it’s things of lasting, eternal value. No, we were not wealthy in the world’s distorted valuation of things, but we certainly were rich in the things that really count.

House of Windsor, eat your heart out!

[Adapted from Look Unto the Hills: Stories of Growing Up in Rural East Tennessee, copyright (c) 2017]