Friday, July 30, 2010

Kentucky minute, 15 to 20 of them

I'm speaking to the Madisonville Kiwanis Club at lunch today. Here's what I'll be saying.


Thanks, Margaret. Thanks, all of you, for lunch.

I think my mom, who is here, suspects that the phrase “freelance writer who works from home” is code for “unemployed.”

There have been months when she was right. Business gets scarce from time to time. But, for the most part, I’m lucky. And thankful. I love what I do, even on the days I don’t like it very much.

I write mostly for high-tech companies and professional organizations. I’m not a technical writer—one of the folks who writes manuals of how to use technology, for example. I do marketing and public relations—I write documents such as press releases, web-site copy, brochures.

I do a lot of ghostwriting for engineers. What happens is, engineers get the opportunity to write for a trade magazine in their field, and I get hired to get on the phone with them, listen to what it is they want to say in their story, write a first draft in their words and then revise it until we have something that they are happy with. It is at this point that people often say that I get hired because engineers can’t write. This is not my experience. Almost all of the engineers I’ve worked with can write just fine; I get jobs because, ultimately, it’s more affordable for their companies to have me go through the drudgery of preparing a first draft—the engineer’s hours are more cost-effectively devoted to engineering. Comparatively, for them, I’m cheap.

So, anyway, that’s what I do. Now my wife, who is also here, says that I do a lackluster job of explaining what I do for a living and this is why no one can ever quite remember even after I’ve told them more than once. Rachel says I should focus my explanation more on the other things that I write, and it is true that I do other things.

I started out in newspapers, mostly sports writing. That was fun. I grew up in Paducah and worked on the newspaper at Heath High School, and then I went to Western Kentucky University, studied journalism and worked on the College Heights Herald there. After school, I worked for the old Evansville Press, the Park City Daily News in Bowling Green, The Gleaner in Henderson and The Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro. The most fun I had in those jobs was being around newsrooms, which are lively and interesting, and getting to cover Paul Sanderford’s great women’s basketball teams at Western in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.

I quit working full-time for newspapers because I was going to write a book, about Kentucky. I spent two straight years of vacation time driving to each of our 120 counties, talking to people about what they do and why they live where they live and taking notes about what I saw. And, so in 1994, I set out on my own as a freelancer, to concentrate on working on my book. I did a little part-time writing and editing for newspapers on the side to keep a little money coming in, and I cut my expenses by moving into a no-air-conditioning apartment in Owensboro with two old college friends. Another who lived in town had gone to work in marketing for a meat-packing company, and, sometimes, he’d bring me the leftover samples that the staff would have picked over at the office. I’ve been a vegetarian for about 15 years now, and I’d never thought about it until writing this speech, but maybe it was the hand-me-down ham that turned me.

In any event, it turns out that writing a book is really, really hard. It is for me, anyway. So hard that I’ve failed in every attempt so far.

So then I moved to Washington, D.C., to chase a girlfriend at the time, and I needed to go back to making a regular full-time living because it was significantly more expensive having a girlfriend in Washington, D.C., than it had been splitting rent with two other guys in Owensboro. I started temping. Now, not too many companies are on the market for temporary sportswriters, but almost all of them need people who can type pretty fast and accurately, which one learns to do working at a newspaper. I got a job typing commercial proposal responses for a company called Newbridge Networks in one of Washington’s suburbs, Herndon, Virginia.

This was fortunate. Initially, I had no idea about the telecommunications equipment and concepts that I was typing about, but I learned a little. And I gradually moved from typing technical proposals to editing parts of them and then into writing marketing and public-relations documents. In the meantime, a lot of the people in the office cubes around mine started to leave to launch their own companies. And then they needed writing for PR and marketing, and—voila—my freelance career was reborn.

The technology writing comprised the bulk of my work, but I always wrote about other things, too: basketball, air conditioning, philanthropy, music, alternative disease therapy, hiking, churches. I considered the technology stuff just a bridge to whatever it was that I would one day base my true writing career around.

For a little while, I fancied myself a creative writer. Early on, I even got one poem published—in a magazine called Alive Now. Forty-five bucks, they paid me, and it went straight to my head. I started entering a slew of contests and fanning poetry and essays to a bunch of literary journals and magazines. To this day, that creative-writing business unit within my little one-person-shop incorporation has achieved zero subsequent revenues. Zero.

I once entered a writing contest sponsored by the little weekly newspaper in Cary, the North Carolina town where Rachel and I lived before moving home to Madisonville. They wanted essays about being a kid, so I came up with what I thought was a pretty cute little thing after having watched two boys outside our front window one morning as they waited for the school bus and tossed football back and forth. I submitted the essay—and then completely forgot about it.

About two years later, I was sitting at my computer, procrastinating on some technology piece, and the essay crossed my mind. I Googled my name, the essay title and the newspaper’s name, and, sure enough, up came a link to an archived story about the winners. Alas, the contest hadn’t been intended so much for adults writing about being a kid; it was a kids’ writing contest. Apparently, I had misunderstood. The story listed the names of some 12- and 14-year-old kids who won gift certificates to the skating rink or what-not, and then it praised two other kid entrants who hadn’t quite made the top three. Finally, it mentioned that I had entered, too. It literally read, “Eric Woehler of Cary also submitted an entry.” I got a mention. Not an honorable mention—a mention. I still put it on my resume.

All the while, technology PR continued to pay the bills, and something gradually changed in the way that I feel about it. Maybe it’s just that the baby came, and so I don’t get enough sleep to afford myself the luxury of worrying about whether I’m writing about the right stuff for me. Maybe it’s just that times have been so hard for so many folks that I feel thankful to just have a job. But whatever the case, I’ve started to feel awfully lucky that I get to write about some really, really neat and transformative things. Telework, collaborative research, the Smart Grid, telemedicine and distance education … I am excited about the positive changes that these things hold for society. Hurrah!

That said, I completely understand why people’s eyes glaze over when I tell them about the stories I write. Here are some of the titles of articles that I’ve ghostwritten in the last three months: (TITLES DELETED) … It’s just brutal, isn’t it?

What people do almost always find interesting about my job is that I do it from home—or wherever, really. Since I became a full-time freelancer for good in 1998, doing my job has required only an Internet connection, a cell phone and some sort of work space (spare bedroom, kitchen table, pickup tailgate, etc.)

When we learned that our baby was on the way two years ago, Rachel and I hustled together a big life shift before Virginia arrived. Rachel is a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). She left her position with our church in Raleigh to work at home with the baby, and we moved to Madisonville to be near family. My work simply moved with us. Rachel’s a Madisonville home girl through and through—a former Marching Maroon flutist … a veteran of the Halloween downtown-window-painting contests … and someone who gives directions by saying things like, “It’s down there on South Main, near where Chicken Video used to be.” Her folks, sister and aunt are all here in town. I’m not a native local, but my dad was from here, and Mom lives in Evansville. My brothers and sister all live within a comfortable driving-distance radius.

We loved Cary. It’s a great town—frequently showing up on those lists of best cities under so-and-so population on the East Coast or whatever. But we are so happy to be here. We love Madisonville already, and it feels like something remarkable is happening here. Did you know that the U.S. Department of Labor shows Kentucky as recording the nation’s largest percentage increase in employment from June 2009 to June 2010? Kentucky—No. 1. I read that just yesterday.

Here’s the other thing. I think Rachel and I might be on the front end of a trend. As recently as 15 years ago, a couple would’ve faced much harder choices in executing the same plan that Rachel and I did. But expansion of high-speed communications to more of the country has allowed individual workers or entire companies to locate in areas other than traditional corporate centers. And “teleworkers” like me have become more common, fostering trust among companies that we actually will do the work we are paid to do.

These are not insignificant trends—for towns like ours, for folks like me.

I’m not about to suggest that teleworking one-person-shop contractors like myself could one day be the driving force of Madisonville’s economy. But I would contend that the limits on any town’s job opportunities are softening; it’s getting easier for individuals or companies to go or stay anywhere they want. That’s empowering stuff for a town who wants to grow. And it’s a wonderful, freeing thing for people who not long ago felt they must move far away to make a living.

My grandfather didn’t feel that freedom. He moved his wife and children away from family in Madisonville to chase work, to Henderson and then to Evansville at a time when those places felt much farther away than they do today. My dad didn’t feel that freedom. He moved us away from family in Evansville to chase work, to Chicago and then to Paducah. The logistics of work were more rigid, and, consequently, my grandfather’s and dad’s choices were more limited.

That my job travels with me enabled me to be home in Kentucky a lot 10 years ago when Dad was sick with lung cancer, in the year before he died. And it allowed Rachel and me to move here in 2008. Maybe this is why I’m grown gradually more thankful and passionate about my work over time.

Our daughter, Virginia, has been born into a life in which “over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house” we actually walked for her first Thanksgiving dinner last November. I’m talking about the other grandmother now, Rachel’s mom. And you have to allow me to count a ditch behind the community college as a “river” for that sentence to be accurate.

I know I’m preaching to the choir, but Madisonville’s a fine place to live. Changes in the ways and tools with which we work are making it easier for anyone to choose to live here. We should all invite someone who’d love it, too.

Thanks, Margaret. Thanks, all of you.


  1. Very well done. Quite moving. The Washington Post has a story today in which they are concerned about the fact that people are not moving around the country for work as much as they used to. But you offer a more hopeful interpretation of that trend.

    Also, I was going to ding you for referring to Rachel as a "flutist" instead of a "flautist." But Byron Garner's Modern American Usage (which is my Bible for stuff like this) says that flutist "is generally preferred by professional flute players in the United States." So you were right and I was wrong.

  2. thank you. i actually was going to pronounce "flutist" as "flautist," not realizing they were separate words. but now i'll try to remember to go with "FLOOTist."

    mostly, i hope i don't mess up and cuss.

  3. According to Garner, there's an old joke that only second-rate flutists like to be called flautists.

  4. Why was Margaret there?

  5. I absolutely loved reading your speech- what a fantastic read! Can you post your poem that was published- love to read that- and also the story about the boys tossing the football.