Savior of Rural America?
Deborah Huso, Contributing Columnist
It is a normal thing when you first meet someone to be
asked what you do for a living, at least it is for most people. Not for me.
Every time I am approached with the question, I’m overcome with a sense of
dread. It all started a couple of months after I first took the leap into
full-time self-employment. A teacher approached me at a Ruritan Club meeting
and asked innocently, “So what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a writer,” I replied.
She smiled, “Yes, but what do you do for a living?”
For me, this simple question never ends with a simple
answer. It is always followed by an exhausting explanation on my part of how
one earns a living as a freelance writer. You see — people have one of two
perceptions of what it is to be a writer. The first is that one cannot
seriously be a writer. Perhaps you are a starving artist with some misguided
illusion that one day you will publish something and then sell movie rights
for millions or you just dabble in the craft for fun, writing poetry and
then stuffing it into a box under the bed.
Then there are those like the friend of a friend who
last weekend said to me, “So I hear you’re a writer. Wow, that’s so
exciting! What do you write? I’m always reading on the book jackets of
romance novels that so-and-so is a freelance writer, and that sounds so
romantic! What a wonderful life you must have!”
“My job is so boring,” she added. “All I do is
sit behind a desk all day.”
Well, so do I, when I’m not on assignment, but it’s
no use explaining this to anyone. Lawyers write for a living, and I bet no
one bombards them with questions about what they write or how they can
possibly earn a living wage by the written word. At times, I feel that my
life is not my own, so endlessly curious are people about what I do, so
baffled are they by the idea that one could pay bills and even get ahead in
life by writing.
But it’s not just writing. It’s the frightening
idea of being one’s own boss. That is what drives the romance and the
curiosity. A director of communications at a college said to me a couple of
years ago, “I tried the freelance writing thing once. I had visions of
getting out of bed at 10 a.m., working in my bedroom slippers with a cup of
coffee. It just didn’t work.”
Of course it didn’t. I don’t personally know any
entrepreneurs who rise at 10 a.m. and work in their bedroom slippers.
But you see, this is the thing that people in cubicles
and on production lines dream about — eliminating the routine of their
lives, doing something meaningful, being in charge of their own destinies.
For many, it never occurs to them that being in charge of one’s own
destiny is a lot of work. And others have a tremendous fear of not being
able to make ends meet. “I’d love to start my own business,” a friend
of mine tells me with regularity, “but I just can’t give up the money
I’m earning.” Some of us get a false sense of security from that weekly
paycheck, never realizing how easily a pink slip could take its place. I
feel much more secure being self-employed. The chances that the dozens of
different editors and clients for whom I work will all decide they don’t
need me at the same time are slim to none.
But we perpetuate a culture predicated on the myth that
the path to success requires a college degree, moving to the city, and
getting a job with a big company. Rural communities, in particular, take
great pride, it seems, in the number of young people they can send away to
school and the cities and “rescue” from a life of poverty and hard work
on the farm or in a small town. Every local rural civic organization
sponsors college scholarships that more often than not send the
community’s most promising students far away, never to return and enrich
their hometowns with their passion and intelligence.
I wanted to be a writer since I was six years old, but
I was led to believe that working for someone else was a more secure and
faster path to success. It took me nine jobs and six relocations in eight
years to realize that working for someone else was not for me. But I was
lucky. Some people spend their whole lives being afraid to do what they want
with them. And parents, teachers, and professors, unfortunately, out of fear
for young people’s financial security, send them down a path of thankless
toil in a company that will not remember them the day after they retire.
As a resident of Virginia’s most isolated county with
a population of only 2,500, I know there are only two ways to survive here
— work two or three jobs or start your own business. And small rural
communities like mine often have more independently owned businesses per
capita than large cities. If you want to be a carpenter, there aren’t a
ton of big construction companies to work for. You go into business for
yourself. If you want to be an attorney, you’re not going to find a big
law firm to join. You become a small country lawyer with a one-room office.
So many of us are entrepreneurs by necessity, at least in so far as our
desire to live in a rural place dictates that we must earn a living somehow.
Yet even those who own their own businesses and
maintain their own farms will happily support handing several thousand
dollars to a graduating senior to get an education with no requirement that
he or she come back and invest that education in our rural communities.
These same folks will often complain that the family farm or the small main
street town is dying.
But we are committing our own suicide.
If we teach young people from childhood to be cynics,
to believe that rural America has sounded its death knell, and don’t teach
them how to not just survive in their hometowns but how to, in fact, be
wildly successful, we cannot expect our communities to remain vibrant, our
farms to remain in production, or our main streets to continue to support
small businesses. Land-use taxation, tax credits, industrialization, or
suburbanizing the countryside will not save our rural landscapes and small
towns. But young and growing families of brave entrepreneurs just might.
My husband often chides me for my frustration with the
persistent line of questions from neighbors as well as strangers about my
life as a writer. “What they’re really asking,” he tells me, “is not
how do you earn a living as a writer, but how can I earn a living doing what
I want to do, being my own boss?”
Perhaps he is right.
If he is, my answer is this: Set your alarm for an
early hour, follow your passion and work at it every day, even when you
don’t feel like it, and never ever wear bedroom slippers to the office.
And while you’re at it, teach a young person to do the same.